Fear, Coaches, and the Will To Fail

Coaches, let’s talk about fear and — not the team — fear and the coach.

I get to meet and speak with a lot of coaches, which pleases me. Because i’m an introvert with a taste for authenticity, I am also lucky enough to quite often get them in small groups or one-on-one where folks stop marketing and start sharing. For years, i’ve noticed that a great many of them live daily with the belief that they are not good enough. They think that their victims are wrong to rely on them for advice. Someone in the back will shout "impostor syndrome!" that’s good, bobby, but impostor syndrome isn’t even close to being all of what i’m talking about.

In impostor syndrome, the coach is acutely aware of this belief in his own insufficiency, and it’s usually composed of equal parts of worry about being found out on the one hand and of being immoral to be perpetrating the fraud on the other hand. Some of the coaches I know, disproportionately but not exclusively women, suffer from impostor syndrome so severely it cause them to end their careers. If you have that problem, you’re certainly someone i’m addressing today. But there are other ways to manifest the base belief, and they are equally destructive, to both the individual and the teams she coaches.

Can you think of someone you know who a) is a bully, but b) has never bullied you? I tacked that clause b on so maybe you could find a little emotional distance, because what I will say can be very hard for a bully’s victim to hear. If you consider that bully from the requisite distance, I think you might see what I see: a person who is quite convinced she is not good enough.

"Bully-ness" is a spectrum, but if you look closely at coaches, I can guarantee you’ll find plenty of bullies in the trade. Unlike an impostor, they are usually hopelessly unaware of their belief. They stalk and storm around our movement, possessed of every answer, and believe they’re enacting their mission by being smart argumentative psuedo-bosses. Like all coaches, they vent about the johns, but unlike most of us, the venting isn’t one-off-bad-day stuff, it’s continuous.

So. Scared coaches. Some are impostory-y flavored, some are bully flavored, both attributes are continuums with lots of variety.

What I want to talk about tho is the basic belief, shorthand to insufficiency, that the coach is not good enough to coach.

Let me tell you now: I am good enough to coach. ("wow. Did he just say that? Heh. Alex, i’ll take arrogant pricks for $100.") I am an arrogant prick, by the way. We’re not in denial about that. But this isn’t one of those places where it’s visible. Rather, I can make that statement with confidence because of what I believe about what coaching is and how it works.

To turn back to the starting point, what I am saying is that the belief in insufficiency that drives so many coaches is firmly grounded in a bunch of misunderstandings, internally supplied and externally supported, about coaching.

Misunderstandings: 1) a coach changes people. 2) for measurable productivity improvement, 3) using mostly words, 4) to do what some system says they should 5) all enabled by the coach’s knowing right answers.

Look at that list, those of you who feel insufficient, and ask yourself which of those clauses you or others are telling you that makes you feel you are not good enough to coach.

Because every numbered clause in that statement is a mistaken belief. If you can clear those ideas from your head, you’ll be able to say as I do: "i am good enough to be a coach."

(Good christ, sometimes I say the ickiest sounding shit. I feel like a tony robbins wannabe. Please please believe me, I am no glad-handing smiler hawking videos about the infinite capability of all human beings to use their will to get fabulously wealthy. I am a snarky cynical geek who is a successful coach of other geeks. To paraphrase a favorite onion video, "i’m just some fucking schmoe." all i’m saying is "you, too, can become just some fucking schmoe.")

1: People change their behavior — if they do — all by themselves.

Coaches aren’t changers of people, we are "possible occasions for change". I don’t make people sleep. I work to create a nice sleepable space — clean sheets, good air temperature, right lighting, a bath, the correct level and kind of ambient noise, milk and cookies or a slight overpour of fine scotch, whatever.

Notice something really important about that metaphor: the best sleepable space is different from one person to the next, every time. As a coach, my strongest skill is my ability to vary the setup in lots of ways given tiny often unarticulated clues from the would-be sleeper.

2: Measurable productivity improvement within the scope of a coaching engagement does sometimes happen, but the perform storm for that is rare.

First, measurable productivity improvement depends on having some means of measuring productivity. Most of my clients have no viable model whatsoever of where their production comes from. They may have numbers, but they are almost certainly either lies or mistakes.

Second, deep productivity depends on a whole host of factors that are entirely outside the scope of a coach’s remit. A single example will suffice. My small team can change their productivity by a factor of ten, but if their collaborators aren’t also changing — especially the ones they depend on — it’s not gonna move the needle.

What’s the answer? Enable change for their collaborators, too, and so on and so on. And that takes time. As we say in the rooms, time takes time. By the time a change on the ground manifests to a productivity change in an org, the coach is gone.

3: Words are almost never enough to create a space for change.

(we don’t want to wake the geepaw dragon about folk-linguistics here, so i’ll try really really hard to compress this.

Words can create small spaces for short-term trying of different behavior, but only the trying will suffice to close the deal, for most of us most of the time. Words can talk your five year old onto the bike to see what it’s like, but they can’t explain how to ride, and they can’t persuade her to ride her bike everywhere for the next ten years. Only riding the bike and valuing the experience can do that.

4: And good lord it’s not a system, it’s a "way", and the formal trappings of the system are almost entirely irrelevant.

With system + way, one can win. With no system, way can win. With system but no way, well. That’s how these orgs got here.

What does that way consist of? "embrace change". A continuous practice of making small changes in behavior at every level in every domain, waiting a little to feel their effects, and doing it again.

5: The knowledge of the coach is important, alright, but it’s not the knowledge base so many people think it is.

It has three components.

  1. You need a broad shallow knowledge of the trade: notions of what goes in to making software and how the ingredients are gathered and combined.
  2. You need a deep and specific knowledge of how people signify where they’re at, verbally or otherwise, on purpose or otherwise. You can and will build this on-the-job. Mastery of coaching is mostly grasping this subject.
  3. You need to know what to do when you don’t know what to do, and you need to know how to remain calm in the face of that experience.

Coaching certainly requires knowledge, but it isn’t about being the smartest person in the room, having all the answers, knowing all the things. Aside: impostor-y folks seem to have the hardest time with c. Bullies seem to be bereft of b. That’s not gospel, just a pattern I see or make up.

So those five clauses are basically every single one a misunderstanding, and it’s easy to see how they lend themselves to the belief that you’re not good enough.

Walk away from them.

I have just one more thought and then it’s back to my ONI game.

None of this is meant to suggest in any way that you won’t fail.

You will fail. I guarantee it.

I’ve been doing this for twenty years. Here I am being an arrogant prick: i’m really good at it.

I fail all the time.

Coaching is hard. Nobody succeeds all or even most of the time.

Expect to fail, at this or anything as hard as this.

You just have to be willing to fail. I often tweet "play for keeps or don’t play." and what I mean is just this: "be willing to fail".

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