I have had so many conversations with people who are in a multi-dimensional funk right now, for many good reasons, ranging from the hell we’re going through in this country to terrible life events that come out of nowhere and hit you broadside. Some troubles, I can only listen and offer support, but other things, like work-related funks, I often end up asking: can you access a resource to help you explore this more thoughtfully? (Maybe I AM the resource, and I’m happy to oblige, but I don’t do it for a living.) So this is really a post about coaching, even though my title’s about love, because I have come to think of coaching as a form of love, sometimes from the person who will be your coach, but also as a form of self-love. A good coach is a gift to you and your work success, and therefore often a gift to your organization as well. Perhaps some of you are doing just fine without a coach, but I can’t imagine many situations where a coach wouldn’t be helpful, in some form or another. Especially now.
Okay, let me back up a little. There are people with the title of “coach” who are more widely understood than others with the same title. Like, Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors – he is their coach, which is different than being the owner of the franchise, or even the general manager. I’m not the hugest sports fan (understatement), but I do recognize the role that Steve Kerr, and others like him, play: he directs the style and play and strategy of the Warriors, he plays a hugely supportive role for both the team as a whole and probably for most of the individual players, too, and he is both hugely invested in the minute-to-minute happenings of the team, and invested in maintaining enough of a wide-angle perspective so as to let them know what’s going on during a particular game or series of moments. Like, if the team is losing momentum, Steve Kerr, I assure you, is not calling a time-out and saying flatly, “You’re losing momentum,” as if that’s all he does. There’s a whole bunch of psychological support going on in any coach’s role, and some of it is real-time, and some of it is for the long-term (like how Phil Jackson apparently gave players on his team books to read, which I find hilarious and touching).
In the workplace, coaching takes place in both official and unofficial ways. In the official manifestation, a person will be allowed to work with a coach and the company will pay for it. This is fairly common in the for-profit sphere, less common in the nonprofit sector, which is really sad, in my opinion. Because nonprofit work is just as complex and as challenging and stressful as for-profit work, and I hate that workplace supports like coaching are viewed as “luxuries,” even though I understand that things like “staying financially solvent” will always come first for any nonprofit.
As to the “why” someone gets a coach, that’s an interesting question. I had a coach first offered to me when I was in my early thirties, at an organization where I was doing well and starting to take on more management responsibilities. My boss recommended the prospect most tactfully, saying, “You are doing very well and we think you are someone with lots of leadership and management potential, so we’d like you to be able to learn more about what it takes to actually BE a manager.” His spiel put my mind at ease, because, being Korean, I always worry about whether I’m in trouble for something. (If I hear a car honk on the road, I think it’s meant for me, even if I know perfectly well I’ve done nothing wrong.) Later on in my career, I became friends with an executive coach in an exercise class, and she told me, when I asked about it, “Yes, there are many different prompts for getting someone a coach. Sometimes it’s because the organization wants to invest in a rising star. Sometimes it’s because the C-Suite wants to up their management skills as a group. And sometimes, it’s because someone is really capable in some ways, but needs a serious intervention in other ways, like communications and leadership style and interpersonal relations.”
Sometimes, maybe it’s all of the above.
Anyway, no matter what the exact impetus was, I ended up learning a hella lot from that first management coach. He was warm and friendly, but also no-nonsense and brisk, which everyone felt was the right approach for me at that time. My first coach taught me the basic principles of performance-based management, and I learned how to manage someone’s performance based on mutual understanding and sympathy and respect, not just based on my terms of what constituted good performance. The most valuable thing I learned from those sessions is that as a manager, you are responsible to help someone else succeed and grow. Someone else’s success and development is now your job. When you are not a manager, you are mostly responsible for your own success, and if you’re a good egg, for being a good peer and colleague to others. It’s a big difference.
The next coach I had was at another organization, when the entire management team decided to go through a period of leadership development and training together, as a cohort. It was unclear to me whether this particular coaching approach was about becoming a better leader or becoming a better manager, which to me are related yet distinct endeavors, but once again, I had a wonderful coach, someone who taught me that mindset shifts are the hardest thing to achieve yet the most essential when it comes to dealing with workplace challenges. For example, if you think: “this person is driving me crazy by constantly being late to meetings,” you are simply trapping yourself in a cycle of anger and frustration, whereas if you shift to, “How can I better understand what’s going on here? How can I ensure that this person is fully contributing to this work effort and that being on time to meetings is a part of her/his success?” Yeah, I know. There’s some serious potential for eye-rolling here, because some days, I do NOT have what it takes to shift the mindset. OTOH, I don’t see the point of just being pissed at someone who may simply be unaware of the impact of his or her behaviors. So there you go.
Now, I have a coach who I started working with before I left my last job, who I chose to continue with during the first several months of this sabbatical/flirting with a consulting career/whatever period I’m in the middle of. I feel like this coaching assignment happened more out of a leadership development/support type of impetus than a management training need, and I chose to continue with this coach post-resignation because it’s been a marvelously rich and warm learning experience for me and I have never felt the need for this type of support as much as I do now. My last job, I was the executive overseeing a quite large department of people, during what turned out to be tumultuous times for the organization (these are tumultuous times for many organizations, and the toll is heavy). I felt as if every day, I was putting out fires AND I was required to be the best human being possible AND I was being faced with complicated questions having to do with diversity, equity, and inclusion, including a starker awareness of my own identity as a woman and a person of color than I had ever experienced before. Processing what was happening then, and processing those events now, has felt much richer and more fulfilling and productive in partnership with my coach. Whereas my first coach was warm and congenial and no-nonsense and brisk, and my second coach was calm, soothing, and clear-sighted, this coach is incredibly gifted with words and articulating thoughts or concepts and also, he is one of the gentlest, kindest people I have ever met. (And I’ve met MANY good people.) I often repeat bits of things he’s said to me, like personal mantras: “I give myself permission to be vulnerable in this situation. And I forgive myself if I go too far.” It’s been utterly nourishing and transformative, during a time when I have never struggled more for sure footing and well, just feeling okay about everything.
So what is the point of all this cheering for the coaches I’ve known? It is to tell you: if you are struggling in your work life right now, think about getting one. If you can make a case for it, get your organization to pay for it. If your organization won’t, then see if you can find a way to afford one on your own dime. The coaching certification process is rigorous and extensive, so many coaches often take on clients at reduced rates as a part of getting certified, and trust me, it’s a highly worthwhile investment. Even one coaching session, with the right person, can make a huge difference.
Steph Curry, as talented as he is, really needs Steve Kerr to succeed. Most of us do not play at the level of a Steph Curry in our work lives (I know I sure the hell do NOT). And I can tell you that all the coaches I’ve known, and hope to continue to know, have been fundamental to whatever success I’ve had or strength in the workplace.
I want you all to experience strength, too. Especially now.
[…] What do you do, then, if you’re a human being and you’re in a management position and you need to talk through your issues to get advice and support? Gifted managers and leaders I’ve known have told me that they have at least one confidante to rely on in the organization, and that this function is built into the confidante’s job description. (The job title, “Chief of Staff,” or “Special Assistant,” always struck me as likely candidates to perform this function.) And, just like there are professionals for imbalance in one’s personal life (therapists) and one’s marriage (couples counselors), there are also professionals for employees (coaches), and if your organization supports this as a leadership development (which they should), and my experience with them has been hugely positive and valuable. […]