At the top of your game? Get a coach!

A few months ago, Atul Gawande, contributor to The New Yorker, wrote an article about his decision to seek coaching. He wasn’t looking for a writing coach, but a surgical coach. In addition to writing, Gawande is also an endocrine surgeon. Initially, I wondered why a surgeon would need a coach. After all, don’t we all want a surgeon that has already “improved”? In explaining his decision, Gawande made two observations:

  1. Even the best of the best cannot achieve and sustain mastery on their own.
  2. While coaches do not need to be the “experts” in your field, they must serve as teachers, bosses, “editors,” and your eyes and ears for there to be benefit.

I found it fascinating that someone who has successfully completed many thousands of operations and beats national averages on surgical complications would seek coaching. After all, Gawande was at the top of his game! Likening his decision to find a coach to that of professional opera singers and athletes, Gawande notes that among athletes, there is a clear understanding that “no matter how well prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own.” Opera singers, even when they have mastered their art through years of training, continue to have a coach who observes them as an extra set of ears to make their best even better. This was Gawande’s situation. He felt he had peaked and wasn’t getting any better. The way he saw it, it could only go south.

There are some barriers to the general acceptance of coaching among professionals, Gawande points out. Among these, I suggest the greatest challenge may be our own openness to observational, non-remedial  coaching. In the corporate world, coaching sometimes is used for remedial purposes whereby a “weakness” is observed by others, and a coach is hired to help the person change things. Other times coaching is sought to make changes that will get you to that “next level.” What if, as a seasoned professional, you ARE at that next level? Would you hire a coach to observe you working and provide feedback just because you want to be even better at what you do?

Famous coaches work with elite executives who are at the top of their game.  I believe these situations are too few and far between. There are many reasons for this, but I would like to offer one that is so entrenched in us – fear of failing in front of others. For some reason, we have come to believe that as professionals, we should not let our mistakes be observed. Something in our professional status (surgeon, executive, therapist, and even coach) allows us to believe that we have learned and perfected our profession in a way that leaves little room for change. Yet, this very situation happened to Gawande. His pre-surgery decisions failed and his coach (a former surgeon) observed not only his decision process, but also the consequences of his poor decisions. (Note: No patients were harmed in this process…)

Whereas athletes and vocalists are vastly exposed to the public each time they perform, C-suite executives experience minimal public observation of their work.  It behooves athletes and vocalists to hire coaches to help them maintain their elite positions. While there can be serious repercussions from the failed decision-making of a C-suite executive, few people ever witness the process except in times of crisis (e.g. Tylenol tampering, various oil spills, etc.). The word “failure” is so loaded that no one wants to be associated with it never mind be observed failing!

Some people believe things are “good enough” if they are not failing. Gawande has a point, though. If you believe you are good enough, then the only direction for things to go is down. You have ceased to strive for excellence and mastery. For those who wish to not only achieve mastery, but also sustain it, a coach can provide teachable moments, act as another set of eyes and ears, and give feedback to keep you at the top of your game.