Nate Rosenberg, Jr.

Why More Executives are Getting Coaches

Everywhere performance counts, you find coaches: the best ballerinas, race car teams, professional tennis players, musicians, SEAL teams and surgeons have coaches. And while it is not yet the norm in the gaming industry, highly-successful executives in many industries have coaches. Jack Welch had a coach, and now he is a coach. Coaching gives human beings an edge in competitive fields where performance counts. In fact, the best players/performers attract the best coaches and vice-versa.

Coaching Opens New Possibilities

Coaching adds a perspective that the player/performer cannot see, allowing the player/performer to see previously hidden insights and new openings for action.

In 2004, Tiger Woods had already won a career grand slam and had the record for lowest scoring average in tour history, but then he failed to place well in any major in 2003 and in 2004 and lost the world number one spot after holding it for five straight years. Tiger began looking for an edge and found it with professional golf coach Hank Haney, who provided simple yet powerful coaching. In his book The Big Miss, Hank Haney talks about the key moment:

Grip changes are huge decisions for pros, because in the short term they’re uncomfortable and greatly affect feel. So I told Tiger, “Look, I just want to show you something. Just keep an open mind and try it for me, OK?” He looked at me skeptically. I demonstrated the grip I wanted him to try, then put his left hand on his 5-iron and showed him how I wanted him to hold the club more in his palm. He immediately said, “I can’t do this.” I quickly said, “Yeah, I know it feels weird, but just try it.” He took the new grip, placing his right hand also with more of his palm, and waggled the club. “There is no way,” he said. I repeated my urging, putting a ball in front of him to hit. He got over the ball and complained, “I can’t even cock my wrists.” I said, “Just hit one.”

He stood over the ball for a longer time than usual, then swung. The sound of the impact was distinctive. Tiger’s shots always made a great sound, but this was even more “flush.” The ball flight was ideal as well. Tiger was visibly astounded that he’d hit such a perfect shot with such an uncomfortable feeling. He looked at me and said, “Show me that grip again.” I put his hands on the club, and he once again said, “I can’t hit the ball with this grip.” I answered, “You just did.” He hit two more shots solidly and went, “Wow.” After about a dozen more balls, he looked at me and said, “I’m going with it.”

This is what being coachable looks like: being willing to try something that sounds silly or foolish before passing judgment. By the way, Woods rebounded in 2005 and once again became world #1 after winning six PGA tour events, including two majors, in one year. He went on to dominate and break the record for most wins in 2006, including two more majors.

Coaching is Not Teaching, Advice or Mentoring

Although we use the words interchangeably in everyday speech, coaching is a discipline distinct from teaching, managing, training or mentoring. A teacher is someone who is an expert and has played for a long time and learned a method for sharing that knowledge with others. A business mentor is someone who is further along in their career who has already taken a path similar to the one that you have, like a Sherpa who has climbed the mountain before you. Teachers and mentors mostly tell you what to do and what not to do, and having a teacher or mentor can be very valuable and necessary at certain stages of one’s career.

However, nobody needs a coach. One has a coach because one is committed to being successful and is looking for anything that can contribute. In 2012, professional tennis player Serena Williams hired a new coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, after her first-ever opening round loss in a major tournament. Williams was already one of the best tennis players of all time and unquestionably a far better tennis player than her coach. Patrick Mouratoglou, in fact, never even played professional tennis, yet Serena credits him with taking her from “great to history.” What can Mouratoglou possibly teach Serena about tennis? Nothing. But he can coach her.

The Coach Does Not Have to Have the Answer

While sometimes the coach clearly sees something that will make a difference, that is not always the case. It is possible to coach simply by listening and observing keenly and asking questions, rather than providing answers. One of the things that gives me confidence as an executive coach, even when I am speaking with Fortune 100 executives, is that I know how to facilitate a conversation in which that executive will have an insight or see an opening that they have not seen before. Actually, if I find myself giving advice, I know that I am in trouble: the person I am coaching knows WAY more about their industry and management in general than I do.

Coaches listen keenly, observe and ask questions that allow the player/executive to have new insights for herself/himself. In his book Extraordinary Golf, professional golf coach Fred Shoemaker gives a fantastic example: In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Dr. John Watson was never as brilliant as Holmes. Nonetheless, Sherlock inevitably had his most brilliant discoveries and insights when he was in conversation with Dr. Watson.

What an Executive Coach Can Provide

  • Support an executive in staying focused on what is critical
  • Explore or open up new vistas for creativity, productivity and action
  • Provide a support structure to realize bold and exciting initiatives that would not happen without the executive’s leadership
  • Develop new ways of collaborating, engaging and working to elevate leadership, performance and effectiveness

The Measure of Success for a Coach is Adding Business Value

The reason an executive would have a coach is to provide additional business value (better results, faster results, results at a lower cost, results with higher quality, results that the customer values more) that could not have been created without the coach. The measure of success for coaching is elevating performance. If the executive’s performance goes up after the coaching, that was good coaching. If performance stays the same or goes down, that was bad coaching. So why have a coach? In his article “Personal Best: Top Athletes and Singers Have Coaches. Should you?” from the Oct. 3, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, Harvard surgeon and writer Dr. Atul Gawande put it simply, “No matter how well-trained people are, few can sustain their best performance on their own. That’s where coaching comes in.”

Nate Rosenberg, Jr. is a consultant with Insigniam, a management consulting firm with offices in Asia, North America, and Europe. He recently worked with a hospitality REIT to increase operating profit at its properties by $17 million using strategy innovation. For over 30 years, executives around the world have used Insigniam consultants to generate and execute new growth opportunities, install powerful corporate cultures, develop transformational leaders and produce breakthrough results.