While my very stylish wife and I were cleaning out our closet the other day, she lovingly (yet firmly) reminded me that people have a tendency to get stuck in the fashion era when they look their best. This makes a lot of sense based on how the brain works – we tend to stick with whatever gives us the most positive feedback because neurological reinforcement turns pleasurable behaviors into unconscious drives.
While this mental process may have had past evolutionary advantages (“Grog think meat taste good, Grog want more meat!”), there is also a downside. A few well-meaning but misplaced compliments such as “Hey Jenny, those tiger-striped slacks look great with your saber tooth earrings,” and before you know it, Jenny is doomed to never pass along her jeans or genes for that matter.
So after waving goodbye to a perfectly good pair of brown pleated pants (that still fit, mind you), I started wondering, “Where else does this mental mechanism occur?”
It didn’t take long to discover that evolution’s darker side has frowned upon both politicians (“I got elected because I pummeled the other party, why on earth would I work with them now?”) and corporate executives (“Well I must be doing something right – I got to this level, didn’t I?”). In laymen’s terms, both read: “I really don’t know how I got to be this successful, but I’m just going to keep doing ALL the same things I did during my rise – no matter what the situation.”
My next find turned out to be both ironic and downright frightening. Business improvement coaches are often some of the worst offenders. Not to suggest that everything has changed in the last five, ten, or even twenty years, but there are an awful lot of “experts” that have stuck with the same assumptions, tools, and coaching styles that made them successful quite a while ago – regardless of any data that proves there might be a better way. Any of you lean senseis still berating your clients for discipline? You really need to stop, that’s soooo Shogun Era.
So after several decades of coaching, being coached, and observing other coaches (both good and bad), I have come up with some questions to try to drive some useful reflection and improvement – whether you are a coach yourself or are looking for a good one:
For coaches and consultants:
- When things go badly, is your first instinct to blame your students for “not doing it right?” Just a thought, if your clients already knew what to do and how to get there, why would they need you?
- Are you setting a good example of humble, servant leadership by being, oh, I don’t know , humble and trying to serve your client’s needs over your own? Down at the consultants’ bar, I hear a lot of trash talk about everyone’s wacky clients and it’s more than a little disconcerting.
- How do you control your biases? How do you keep yourself from only seeing the world (and your customers) from the same old perspectives? The next time you hear yourself saying “Yep, seen that before – you just need to…”), stop and try to restart as if you know nothing about the actual situation.
- Are you adding value to the science of coaching and continuous improvement or just repackaging/regurgitating the same old things and calling them something new and catchy? Do you ever run experiments to try new methods?
- Have you extended your domain knowledge and experience to the point where you are endangering your clients’ success? Maybe I shouldn’t complain, but a fair amount of my Lean consulting business comes from organizations where their original coach tried to extend Lean Manufacturing techniques too far into Sales, Marketing, Product Development, and Strategy and completely missed some critical differences.
- Are you avoiding confirmation bias or are you only hearing the good feedback about yourself?
- Do you ever learn outside your discipline / methodology or do you just outright dismiss different perspectives (not to mention data and others’ success)?
- Do you have your own continuous improvement strategy? Do you ever seek observation, feedback, and new approaches from other coaches?
And for those of you choosing or evaluating a coach:
- Is your coach truly interested in understanding and helping you with your specific problems, or is s/he more interested in deploying his or her specific solutions? I’ve heard a number of organizations complain that their coach “wouldn’t let us try XYZ.” Way to go, coach – just squash their experimental initiative outright.
- Is your coach learning and evolving over time? Does s/he use both short- and long-term PDCA cycles?
- Does your coach ask for and really do something with your feedback?
- How has your coach failed in the past? They all have at some point, so what did s/he learn and how has s/he changed as a result? And maybe more importantly, how willing is your coach to openly discuss his or her failures? Hint, hint, isn’t reflection a behavior we are trying to instill into all organizations?
- Does your coach take at least partial responsibility when things don’t go well? How good is your coach at solving problems that might include her or him?Has your coach actually done, first-hand, what s/he is teaching, or is s/he just describing what others have done? Not that you cannot ever teach something that you haven’t practiced, but sometimes that first-hand experience gives a Socratic coach more insightful questions.
- Is your coach adding value to the science of coaching or just regurgitating and repackaging the same old thing? Sometimes you need to turn your “fluff-o-meter” up to 11 before selecting a coach, and don’t be afraid to get a second opinion if you are unsure.
What’s at stake in all of this? Whether you are a coaching client or a coach yourself, it really is the future of your business. You both have decided to pursue the world of continuous improvement, so why wouldn’t continuous improvement apply to continuous improvement itself? Just like everyone else, coaches need improvement too.
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