Whether in the context of the sports pitch or in the boardroom, our society reveres great coaches. Icons like Phil Jackson and Tony Robbins seem to have a preternatural ability to see growth potential in learners and teams. They question presumptions others hold to be immutable facts, “go there” with those they work with to pinpoint and overcome mental blocks and blind spots — and bring out the best in them.
But coaches’ abilities alone are not enough to produce teams that win championships or excel at work.
A 2009 study by McKenna & Davis
(Hidden in Plain Sight: The Active Ingredients of Executive Coaching) that links psychotherapy outcomes to executive coaching finds that 40% of impact of coaching is dependent on the learner’s readiness for coaching.
We must ask ourselves what it takes to be coached well. This is known as coachability.
Coachability also applies to our ability to learn and grow even in the absence of a coach. When we embrace coachability, we’re able to learn from the multitude of everyday experiences in our personal and professional lives, either through self reflection or through feedback from the peers, managers and mentors.
What is coachability?
Coachability is the combination of the mindsets and behaviors for continuously integrating feedback to drive growth and change within ourselves. Put another way, it’s the pre-condition to receive and consistently apply feedback and advice with focus and bravery, and maintain the mental and emotional openness needed to consistently observe its impact — and adapt. Coachability in a broader sense is learnability.
This isn’t always comfortable. Indeed, for many, accepting growth areas can be painful at first. But those who embrace a coachable mindset don’t just reap the benefits of their coach’s advice; they’re better at turning all feedback into personal development.
How can I embrace coachability?
To unpack the concept of coachability and better understand the process of mastering it, I spoke with Florian Brody, a certified life and leadership coach with extensive business experience, originally from Europe and working for the last 20 years in Silicon Valley with clients on all continents.
Over the course of our conversation, we outlined a 4-step roadmap to becoming more coachable that anyone can follow.
1. Develop a ’beginner’s mind’
The beginner’s mind is a mental state in which we accept that expertise and ego can serve as blinders on our ability to recognise possibilities, and instead broaden our field of vision to entertain ideas and options only visible to beginners.
“Academic and professional education as well as corporate work style put us into a way of being that requires us to know the answer in order to succeed,” Brody tells me. “All too rarely will your boss be satisfied with ‘I don’t know’ or ‘that’s an interesting question, let me think about it’. That’s a shortcoming of managers in many workplaces. She should appreciate those answers, and if she works with a coach, there is a good chance that she will appreciate your approach to an important issue over someone who has the answer right away.”
To start the work of developing a beginner’s mind, let go of your preconceptions and approach problems with curiosity. Instead of jumping to conclusions based on prior experiences, ask simple questions without judgement. And finally, be open to being proven wrong and learning from it.
2. Recognise that learning is your responsibility, and ‘do the work’.
As I mentioned at the start of this article, coaches’ abilities are not the driving factor in the success of learners. The driving factor is the level of commitment within the learners themselves to grow, develop and improve.
Florian Brody put it more succinctly: “You can’t go to the gym and ask your personal trainer for upper body strength, and come back when it’s ready.”
We know intuitively that achieving growth in our physical and mental fitness is no one’s responsibility but our own. Research conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership in the 1980s shows that 70% of learning happens through experience (challenge assignments), 20% from developmental relationships, and 10% from formal coursework and training. Depending on your coachability, your coach may contribute to the 10% of formal training and the 20% slot; as you develop your self reflection and with it your coachability, your work with your coach impacts the largest share of 70% of the learning that happens from your own experience.
The takeaway for coachability is that we must commit to our own growth, rather than outsourcing it to others. When we do that, coaches and teachers can fill their rightful roles as strategists and guides.
3. Take a look in the mirror, and name your blind spots.
Phil Jackson didn’t enable Michael Jordan to become the world’s best basketball player because he knew how to play basketball better, or because he constantly reassured Michael of his own greatness. (Anyone who’s seen The Last Dance will agree that Michael certainly didn’t need that kind of ego boost!)
Jackson was able to help Jordan become the best, because Jackson helped Jordan see his own blind spots and overcome them. Especially for those of us, like Mike, who hold our own abilities in high regard, this can be a painful exercise. Wouldn’t it feel nicer if our coach simply stood in our corner and gave us the pep talks? Perhaps, but this is the antithesis of a coachable mindset.
“Opening up to yourself, to your power and your vocation requires work and includes an inherent risk,” notes Florian Brody. ”Many of us fear the discovery that we’re not as strong as we thought at the work and skills that define who we are, or worse; that our true vocation may lie in a field very different from what we thought we wanted.”
Being open, vulnerable, and ready to go deep aren’t just qualities we should admire in introspective people; they’re necessary prerequisites for all of us to be coachable.
4. Be present for the process.
Coaching is always about authentic presence and what happens now.
When we embark on a path of growth with a coachable mindset, there’s one final pitfall we must avoid: the temptation to focus our attention on the intended destination, rather than the journey itself.
John Kabat Zinn, who developed a medical approach to mindfulness already knows the answer when he asks the audience in his talks, what time it is. “It’s now. Check it again. You’ll notice it’s now again. It has a funny habit of doing that.”
Developing in a mindfully open way that emphasises authentic presence changes the way we lead and interact. We can do this by bringing our authentic self and staying present to the development, whether it is with a coach or in a feedback conversation or while self reflecting.
“Problems come and go, coaching is about your personal development, to grow your ability to be yourself right here,” concludes Brody. “As you continue to practice, you get to know yourself better, your self, your ego steps back and you can open up to so many more opportunities.