Recruiting Coaches

Leadership Excellence

November 11, 2013

by Marshall Goldsmith

How can successful people get even better? Successful people are much more likely to accept coaching from those whom they respect and whom they see as successful.

When Beverly Kaye and I asked great thought leaders and teachers to describe a key event when they learned something that made a significant difference in their lives, more than half described a situation in which they had received coaching from someone that they deeply respected. In many cases, this coaching did not come in a formal coaching relationship (like a consultant, manager, or teacher). Most said that the same message would not have had much impact if a different person had delivered it. So, the source of coaching can be as important as the content of the coaching.

Positive behavioral change is much more likely to last if the individual who is trying to change has a “support group” (or at least “support person”) who is assisting in the change process. For supportive coaches to be helpful, there needs to be a “two-way” respect relationship: They need to respect us and we need to respect them.

In helping you achieve a positive, measurable change in behavior. Your best coaches will not necessarily be outside experts who have credentials or training in your field. They may be people who impact your life daily.

A helpful behavioral coach can be anyone whom you respect. Your coach can be someone who observes your behavior from day to day. Your coach may be a person who is part of any valuable relationship. Your spouse, friends, or partners may not be experts on interpersonal behavior, but they understand how your behavior impacts them! They can describe the behavior that you need to demonstrate so that you can become more effective at work or happier at home.

Who should your coaches be? In selecting coaches, you may wish to consider the key people who are impacted by your behavior. This list might include your manager, direct reports, colleagues, customers, friends, and family members. Don’t ask for their advice if you don’t want to hear it! Involve the people who can help you get better.

After determining who you want your coaches to be, gain their commitment to the coaching process. Have a one-on-one dialogue with each person whom you recruit as a coach. Ask them if they will spend a few minutes each month during the next year to help you achieve a positive change in your behavior. When they respond, look closely at their faces; don’t just listen to their words. Only involve people who are sincerely willing to help you.

Be honest and direct in these dialogues. Let them know that you’ll make a sincere effort to improve. Don’t promise that you will succeed. Be realistic – let them know that you will probably “fall off the wagon” during the next year. Let them know that you will be sensitive to the value of their time.

Three Questions

Answers to three simple questions can predict success in coaching change: 

1. Are you willing to “let go” of my past behavior and help me change my future behavior? 

One mistake that we make when we try to help others change is to focus on the past, not on the future. How often have we been “helped” by a spouse, friend, or partner who is able to impress us with their photographic memory of our previous “sins”? How much does this help anyone? None of us can change our past; all we can do is change our future. Focusing on the past can be demoralizing. Focusing on the future can be energizing.

It is useless to have a dialogue with successful people about what they have done wrong in the past. The successful person, who “receives” the feedback often becomes defensive, denies the feedback, and tries to prove that the sender is “wrong” or “doesn’t understand.” The “sender” may feel awkward, embarrassed, uncomfortable, or even afraid. Successful people tend to resist negative feedback about their past, but they appreciate constructive suggestions for their future.

By focusing on the future, the coach can cover the same material much more constructively. Rather than focusing on “how you made an ass of yourself in front of the executive team,” the coach can focus on ideas for making more effective executive presentations in the future.

Having your coach focus on the future will make this process more fun (and less painful) for you. Work with someone who overlooks past mistakes and helps you get better tomorrow.

2. Are you willing to be a supportive coach – not a cynic, critic, or judge? 

Successful people tend to respond well to future-oriented advice that helps them achieve their goals. They tend to resist advice when they feel that they are being judged or manipulated.

Improving an interpersonal relationship involves a two-way effort. If we work hard to change our behavior so that we can have better relationships with others, and we only receive cynicism or criticism, we may give up.

Your coach needs to understand that your efforts to change behavior over the next year will often result in failure. We all tend to revert back to old behavior. The more stressful the situation, the more likely this is to be true. If your coach does not give up on you when you fail in the short run, you will more likely succeed in the long run. If your coach expects you to fail and says, “I knew you could not change,” your odds for successful change go down.

The people whom we respect can create either positive or negative self-fulfilling prophecies concerning our behavior. Optimism is key in helping people change. If your coaches communicate a belief that “you can do it,” you will be more likely to succeed. If they do not believe that you can change, they may do more harm than good.

3. Will you be honest with me when you give me suggestions for the future? 

Coaches who aren’t honest with you are not that helpful. If the coaches are unduly negative, the person being coached may become demoralized. If the coaches are unduly positive, the person being coached may be positively reinforced for negative behavior. Neither option is useful. Just ask your coaches to tell the truth as they see it in assessing your behavior.

In my work, hundreds of my clients have asked their colleagues these questions. The vast majority of people say “yes” to all three. In some cases, people say “no.” Perhaps the relationship has been too strained for them to want to fix it. Perhaps they are uncomfortable providing honest suggestions. Perhaps they are too busy. If they don’t want to participate, don’t force the issue. Work with people who are willing to help you.

Follow up with Coaches

After recruiting your support group of coaches, ask them for their ideas on how you can improve, either through 360-degree feedback or merely asking for suggestions for the future.

Identify the one or two behavioral changes that can make the most positive impact. Ask them for ongoing suggestions for improvement in these behaviors. Do not promise that you will do everything they say. Listen to their ideas, understand their perspective, and do what you can. Stick with the plan and make sure that you follow up.

If you recruit supportive coaches whom you respect, ask them for ongoing suggestions, listen to their ideas, and follow up, you will achieve a positive long-term change in your behavior and improve your relationships with the most important people in your world! LE