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How performance coaching can unlock powers you didn't know you had

What is performance coaching?

Performance coaching is the process by which you encourage someone to become the best version of themselves at work.

In a business context, it's usually a one-on-one process where an experienced teacher coaches a manager or executive. They'll likely have sessions that involve broad conversation and reflection on wider issues - things like motivation, values, or decision-making.

They'll also go deeper into more specific, practical areas like time management, skill enhancement or people management. As well as being taught directly, this sort of coaching could include working with other people within the organization: a secondment to a different department or taking part in cross-functional projects could also be on the cards.

Performance coaching aims to take coachees from competence to mastery. That's why coaches who specialize in this are sometimes called high-performance coaches - it's about more than just being able to do the job. 

It's about doing it with excellence.

How is performance coaching different to life coaching or therapy?

Performance coaching isn't life coaching, although there are certainly some crossovers between the two. 

Life coaching is more of a holistic discipline, where a moral authority or life coach helps address psychological or spiritual issues that hold you back from certain achievements or feelings. They might help address things in your relationships, career, or day to day life. Life coaches are different to therapists in that they aren't always qualified in psychological science. Nobody would dare declare themselves a therapist without accreditation - the law would prevent them from doing so - but life coaches (unfortunately) can. So they might be a great addition to your life, but can't usually guarantee success.

Performance coaching isn't therapy either, then - therapists can identify and treat specific psychological conditions like mental health problems, mood disorders, addiction issues or certain forms of anxiety. Therapy can be done in short bursts for specific problems, or as a long-term practise for the upkeep of positive mental health in general. Sort of like going to the gym, for your mind.

Performance coaches can sometimes identify issues that might be better suited to a therapist, and refer you to medical professionals if necessary, but in general their work aims for more of a specific outcome in the context of business and work.

There's no doubt an effective life coaching or therapy program can have positive effects on a person's performance at work. Happier, healthier, more motivated and empathetic people come to work feeling energized and ready to achieve.

But performance coaching will take people who are already capable of doing their job and help them turn the dial - going, in the words of Jim Collins, from good to great.

Why make use of a performance coach?

Making that leap from good to great is a nice way to encapsulate the real benefits of performance coaching. But there's a few other reasons to engage in it, too.

First of all, it's kinda lonely at the top.

People in positions of authority are often agreed with to the point where everyone surrounding them becomes a 'yes man' - afraid to criticize for fear of ostracism or punishment. And we all know what kind of culture that can create.

It's why many leaders get to 'the top' and stagnate; plateauing in skills and drive because they aren't forced to confront their failings.

Effective one-on-one coaching can bypass this moat of authority and hold a mirror up to leaders that really need to take a look at themselves. They'll need to set their ego aside and listen for a minute - not always a pleasant thing to do - but some real feedback can be refreshing and enlightening if they're not used to it, and can lead to tangible results. 

A typical CEO can get by working at, say, 80% of their potential. They can steer the ship competently, getting by without ruffling any feathers. But with that much room for improvement, why leave possibilities on the table? Why not do some reflection to eke out that extra potential, and gain a real competitive advantage?

The benefits don't stop at just the solo executive, either.

We'll look at more specific skills that can be coached below, but the effects of many of them aren't limited to individual performance.

Getting the best out of yourself can also help you get the best out of others, too. Whether you're in a position of direct management, or just have frequent opportunities to work with others, having a better sense of focus in your work and openness in your relationships can make for a huge boost in how you're perceived in the workplace.

Perhaps you'll become less hurt by constructive criticism. Maybe you'll become a better listener. You could end up as a bolder, more inspiring leader when previously you'd let others take the lead.

These changes don't always come instantly, of course, but even a single conversation can give you clarity and a new perspective on something that's been blocking you for a while, setting you on the path to positive change sooner than you might think.

What issues can performance coaching help with?

There's a whole range of skills and responsibilities that a performance coach can help with. From mindset to management and productivity, these are just some of the things performance coaching can help with:

Self-knowledge

In the words of Albert Einstein, "Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them." Gaining understanding of our limits, attributes, strengths and weakness is known as intrapersonal intelligence and can be gained through a combination of solo work and mindfulness and conversations with a performance coach.

This is extended by coaching the ability for intrapersonal communication - the ability to communicate with ourselves through internal vocalization and thoughts. It's what we use to construct our self-image, give ourselves a pep talk, or deal with adversity when we're without external support.

Addressing negative emotions or behaviors

After gaining a certain amount of self-knowledge, we're better equipped to understand the roadblocks that sit in our path to success.

Coaching can help eliminate roadblocks like these, such as:

  • Fear
  • Feelings of inferiority
  • Hesitancy
  • Guilt

And it can also be a much-needed reality check on adverse traits and behaviors like:

  • Idleness
  • Narcissism
  • Boorishness
  • Inability to listen to others

There's obviously a limit to how far a coach can go - they can't change entire personalities. But even just sparking a thought you've never had before can be just the thing you needed to start heading in the right direction.

Learning new skills

Before jumping into a course or training program for an exciting new skill, you have to learn how to learn, and get yourself into a mindset suitable for study. Chances are, if you've got far enough in an organization, you probably succeeded in some sort of education system. But for some, the ability to learn new skills and disciplines past the age of 18 disappears.

Getting back into the mindset of continuous improvement is something a good coach can help with, along with techniques for note-taking, information retention and habit-forming.

Public speaking

Being a great public speaker is seen as something that comes naturally with practice. While this is partially true, a speaking coach can really elevate your performance in presentations by giving the feedback you need but won't always get - especially if you're in a position of authority.

Things like presentation structure, body language, vocal techniques and even slideshow design are all things that can be coached. And they can make the difference between your presentations being simply tolerated to being remembered. If it means the difference between winning a pitch and going home empty-handed, then a few coaching sessions are certainly worth investing in.

People management

There are plenty of employees out there who'd happily give some constructive feedback about their boss. While it's important to listen to them to find out how to get the best out of them, a neutral party is also worth consulting for expert advice on how to manage people effectively. 

Coaches can ask the right questions and get you to think about what you're really trying to do when you manage people. They can help you understand and define your leadership style, and equip you with a better toolkit for dealing with different character types. 

Concentration and discipline

The ability to do deep work - defined by Cal Newport as focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task - doesn't come easily. It needs a combination of good mental health, a conducive work environment, supportive colleagues and family, and a tightly organized personal schedule. 

But, with enough practice, it can become a habit, and the rewards of consistent deep work sessions can be tremendous. Coaches can help build systems and thinking frameworks to make deep work happen more often and for longer.

Creativity

Being able to come up with innovative ideas might seem like an innate skill that some creative souls are born with, but it's actually a systematic thought process that can be taught. Leaders that need a more pioneering skillset can make use of a coach to open their minds over time to new ways of combining, disassembling, reconstructing, and extrapolating from existing ideas to make way for new ones.

Physical coaching

Healthy body, healthy mind. If you're not close to your physical best, you won't be able to support the people that depend on you. Regular personal trainers will do the job just fine, although the emergence of trainers specifically to keep executives in good health is worth looking at - they tend to fit training regimes around the lifestyle demands of busy CEOs and managers.

Who is performance coaching for?

A properly customized performance coaching program can benefit almost anyone, whatever their industry.

For those new to a profession, it might not make sense - gaining competence through initial training and experience is going to be necessary before thinking about taking their skills to the next level. But you might be surprised at what kind of job type or character can benefit from performance coaching.

Some of the highest achievers in the world use performance coaching, with sport being an obvious example. Conor McGregor is one of the most successful MMA fighters of modern times, and certainly one of the most confident. Yet after a single loss in 2018, he brought in coaching guru Tony Robbins before his next fight for some last minute pep talks. And of course, like any prominent fighter, he has a whole crew of coaches working with him during the months leading up to a fight. It's a team effort.

In business, high performance coaches are mostly sought for particular reasons at particular times. According to David B. Peterson, an executive coaching expert at 7 Paths Forward, it's a growing field:

"Twenty years ago, coaching was mainly directed at talented but abrasive executives who were likely to be fired if something didn’t change. Today, coaching is a popular and potent solution for ensuring top performance from an organization’s most critical talent."

In particular, the services of a coach can be useful for those who:

  • Are at a career crossroads or inflection point
  • Have an ambitious goal
  • Want better clarity in their plans
  • Are returning from a sabbatical
  • Are dealing with setbacks or fallout from negative life events
  • Want to beat burnout, stress or overwork

What makes a great performance coach?

Performance coaching won't go anywhere if the coach themselves isn't up to scratch, or they're a poor fit for their subjects.

It's tempting to list attributes to find the recipe for a perfect coach, but, just like dating, trying to find someone that ticks every single box on your wish list is a fools' errand, bound to leave you unsatisfied. Instead, it sometimes pays to just get out there and see what fits.

Some of the values and interpersonal skills necessary aren't easily defined on a resume - they're only surfaced after actually interacting with them. So you should approach this a little like looking for a therapist - find someone that's closest to what you need, and go for a trial period first. You might find you instantly click, or you might have to move on swiftly. If you're responsible for picking coaches for your team, you'll have to seek feedback from them at the same time as monitoring their post-coaching performance.

You'll also want to find one that takes feedback themselves and tries to ensure effectiveness. In a HBR study on executive coaching, this was found to be lacking in more than a few of their subjects:

"...coaches can be very lax in evaluating the impact of their work and communicating results to executives and stakeholders. While 70% of coaches surveyed said they provide qualitative assessment of progress, fewer than one-third ever give feedback in the form of quantitative data on behaviors, and less than one-fourth provide any kind of quantitative data on business outcomes of the coaching engagement."

The solution? According to the authors, organizations that hire coaches externally should insist on getting regular, formal progress reviews to make sure their investment is worth it - with as much data as possible.

Learning cultures are earning cultures

A culture of consistent learning and personal development will orient any company toward success. In the supersonic environment of modern business, a company's ability to adapt and improve is only possible if its people can adapt and improve themselves.

Recent research quoted by the Society for Human Resource Management shows that only 10% of organizations have a 'true learning culture' - one that "supports an open mindset, an independent quest for knowledge, and shared learning directed toward the mission and goals of the organization".

Alongside that, only 20% of employees surveyed showed 'effective learning behaviors'.

Put another way, that's 90% of companies and 80% of employees leaving untapped potential on the table. Sounds like a pretty good reason to invest in a little coaching, don't you think?

As put eloquently by the School of Life's Emotionally Intelligent Office book, a productive workplace must first be a wise one:

"Because its culture recognizes and normalizes error, the wise office is correspondingly always open to learning, taking constant care to instruct and guide. Learning is not a process that ended with a university degree. The wise office accepts that pointing out to every individual - with infinite tact - the many ways in which they are imperfect is not a violation of their dignity, but the foundations of care; even of a certain kind of love."

Maybe now's the time to give that coach a call.

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