A dear colleague and I were talking at lunch about the usual subjects – our work, our families, the miserable state of the world. We commiserated about our aging parents growing more frail. I said, “It is what it is,” and my friend replied, “No it isn’t.” I repeated, “Yes, it is what it is,” and she repeated, “No it isn’t.” After a few more rounds of this craziness, I said that though it may be cliché, the phrase indicates acceptance of a particular situation. She countered that this might be true in some cases, but that I should listen more carefully.
Glenn had no problem asking for support. As CEO of a financial services firm, he was accustomed to asking people to do things for him. So I wasn’t surprised when he asked me to provide him with executive leadership coaching. But I was surprised at how challenging our relationship would become. There’s a saying among coaches that ‘you are only as good as your clients.’ This is overly simplistic. In reality, a coach is only as good as their client is coachable. ‘Receiving coaching,’ like ‘providing coaching’ is a skill, and both require disciplined practice. A good coach ensures that this skill is developed in their coachee. It is the same for leaders coaching direct reports: A good coachee is as essential as a good coach.
The football coach stood frustrated on the sideline as his quarterback threw incomplete passes. He suddenly rushed onto the field, grabbed the ball from the quarterback’s hands, and started passing to the startled wide receivers. After the coach completed a pass he returned the ball to the quarterback, and said, “my boy, that is how its done,” as he walked off the field. This never really happened. But countless times managers behave the same way by grabbing a ‘problem’ out of their employees’ hands, ‘solving’ it by taking over, and then thinking they are good coaches. They are wrong.
I was recently exploring a new coaching relationship with a high achieving, successful executive. Paul insisted that he wanted to ‘bring his game to another level’ and thought I might be a catalyst for his professional development. As I listened to his background and his amazing career trajectory a funny thought occurred to me: I wished I was him! He was outgoing, unpretentious, self-aware, and possibly the least neurotic person I’ve met in a long time. I wondered how I could possibly support him. Then he told me a story about one of the vice presidents who reported to him.
Recently, some friends in Asheville, NC introduced me to the River Arts District where I discovered an unexpected nugget of wisdom. Here, amid a collection of art studios down by the French Broad River, I had an encounter with a prolific, internationally known painter at his studio / gallery. He was preparing to take the stage to demonstrate his craft. He chatted with a few members of the audience as he set up. “What are you going to paint today?” asked one. Without batting an eye, the artist confidently replied “I don’t know.” I don’t know. Too often, this thought stops me in my tracks. Like many of my clients, it is easy for me to convince myself that I’m being paid as an expert; or, if they are bosses, to always have the answer. Admitting I don’t know is something we’ve learned should be avoided because it brings up feelings of inadequacy and incompetence. Yet for this artist, I don’t know had unusual meaning and power. It expressed his openness to creativity and to collaborating with his brushes, paints, and canvas. He was constrained neither by self-criticism nor by expectations of pre-ordained results. He was not made weak by