Many of us would have been in a stage in life where we were not satisfied with our career, personal life, or both. Dissatisfaction does not necessarily come from being unsuccessful in our career or life. It can also result from following a work and life routine that doesn't resonate with your values and passion and feeling stuck without knowing the right direction to take. We are all afraid of making that leap or taking that one decision because of the fear of disrupting what is working well in terms of financial and social safety. Unless an external force or event disrupts us, we all want to cling to the status quo. I also was going through such a phase in my career. While I was grateful for having a well-paying job, recognition, and growth at a reputed organization, I always wanted to try something different following my passion. Still, I was too afraid to do anything that would disrupt the status quo. While numerous books are available giving guidance about finding your purpose, passion, Ikigai, etc., putting them to practice is challenging to do alone. It's a topic that is still seen as too cringy to discuss with your friends' circle. That's when I started looking at hiring a coach to help me. I went through my exploration journey for 18 months to understand more about coaching, started working with a coach, enrolled in coaching training, and became a certified coach myself. I want to share what I learned about coaching during this period, including some answers to questions that I tried hard to find during the initial period.
What is coaching?
The International coaching federation(ICF) defines coaching as "partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. We all have goals we want to reach, challenges we strive to overcome, and times when we feel stuck. Partnering with a coach can change your life, setting you on a path to greater personal and professional fulfillment."
The keyword here is partnering, not guiding, helping, or mentoring clients. I first heard about coaching (outside sports) a few years back when I attended a training titled Coaching as a leadership style. As part of the training, we were asked to have coaching conversations with our assigned partners regarding a goal the other person wants to achieve without telling them how to achieve it, even if you know a solution or ways to achieve it. While it sounded easy, it was tough to have the conversation as most of us are tuned to giving answers when people come to us with a problem. What makes coaching different is the emphasis on not providing a solution but helping the other person find a solution that works best for them. A coach acts as an enabler and catalyst to the change you desire and will not solve our problems for us. A good coach will help you discover the answers yourself and be your accountability partner towards your transformation journey by listening, reflecting, asking questions, and providing perspectives. If you look at our own life, we would have had scenarios when someone at work or a friend comes to us with a problem; it is easy to tell them what to do based on our understanding of the problem and what has worked for us in the past. But we don't realize during those conversations that we only understand that problem from our point of view and can never comprehend the problem to the same extent as a person having the problem. Our solution is based on what worked for us (a unique individual). There is no guarantee that the same solution will work for another individual whose qualities, characteristics, and environment are different. Moreover, we human beings always look at solutions suggested by others with skepticism and apply them without internalizing them. We don't hold ourselves accountable for the process and the outcome.
How is coaching different from mentoring?
Before exploring coaching, I assumed that coaching and mentoring are the same. This is one of the first questions that I get asked whenever I have a conversation with someone new to coaching. A mentor and a coach are different, while the same individual can play both roles under different circumstances. We generally choose a mentor in a specific field, and invariably, that person is more experienced in that field and can advise us from a position of experience and strength. That is one of the reasons why most of us have mentors at work, and most companies assign a mentor to new recruits or college graduates joining a company. A mentor helps the mentee navigate and become successful in a new area or field with a definite outcome, and it is based on the mentor's prior experience in the field.
On the other hand, a coach need not be an expert in your field nor someone senior to you at work or outside work. In simple terms, a Mentor is someone who has already walked the path that you want to take and always walks ahead of you. To reach your destination, all you need to do is follow them based on their directions and guidance. At the same time, a coach is someone who walks along with you and will work with you to identify the right destination you want to reach and, in the process, discover your own best path to reach your goal. This is not to say coaching is better than mentoring or vice versa. We all need both a mentor and a coach for different scenarios in our life, and knowing the difference will help us reach out to the right individuals to mentor or coach us.
Mentoring will work best when you are very clear on your desired outcome. Some typical examples where mentoring is a better option include onboarding in a new company or a new role, interview preparation, cracking job interviews, resume preparation, Learning new technology, getting familiarized with new processes at work, etc. Coaching is the best option when you are not satisfied with your current state, have identified areas of improvement and limitations that you want to overcome but are not clear of the destination, or you are still in the process of figuring out. Most importantly, it works best if you are willing to invest your time and energy in working with a coach to move away from the current state. Typical examples include a career change, becoming a better communicator/collaborator, starting your own business, improving your fitness, improving relationships, developing leadership skills, becoming a continuous learner, developing a new habit or a soft skill, and navigating uncertainties in work & life, etc.
Examples of coaching in action
Every successful leader in the industry has a coach. The coaches work in the backend and are not always visible to the outside world. Many of you would have heard about the successful coach — Bill Campbell. He coached many famous CEOs of great tech companies worldwide, including Apple, Google, eBay, Intuit, etc. The below lines by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt in his book — Trillion Dollar coach demonstrate a good coach's impact for a company like Google.
For those fifteen years, Bill’s counsel was deeply influential. It’s not that he told us what to do — far from it. If Bill had opinions about products and strategy, he usually kept them to himself. But he made sure the team was communicating, that tensions and disagreements were brought to the surface and discussed, so that when the big decisions were made, everyone was on board, whether they agreed or not. We can say, without a doubt, that Bill Campbell was one of the people most integral to Google’s success. Without him, the company would not be where it is today
Another example is the role of a coach in professional sports like Cricket, Soccer, Tennis, etc. Take the example of the Indian cricket team and the former head coach Gary Kirsten, who helped India win the 2011 cricket world cup. He coached an Indian team full of superstar players who are now called legends, including Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni, and Virat Kohli. These players don't need better coaching on playing a ball or new techniques to handle different bowlers. Then why was Gary Kirsten so successful as a coach. As a coach, he provided objective feedback every time they failed and backed them up for their strengths. He acted as an accountability partner to ensure they turned up for practice and correctly followed the process. The same applies to Alex Fergusson, known as one of the greatest soccer coaches and made Manchester United one of the most successful teams in the premier league history.
These great coaches have one thing in common, whether in business or sports. They didn't teach the CEOs or star players how to run their business or play their game but instead acted as an accountability partner and ensured that the CEOs and the players lived up to the fullest potential in their own turfs.
My Journey with Coaching
Coming back to my own story, I have read a lot of self-help books and autobiographies in the hope of getting key insights & inspirations from successful people that I can apply in my day-to-day life. While the motivation to act remains until I am reading the book, it is hard to practice consistently for it to become a habit. Working with a coach changed all that for me. It is one of the best investments of money and time I have ever made for the value received. I had a specific problem statement in mind when I reached out for coaching, but my coach held up the mirror and helped me explore myriad other possibilities that I had not considered or was too afraid to explore on my own otherwise.
Working with a coach will be one of the best decisions if you are looking for personal transformation or career transformation in your own lives and are willing to invest time, money, and energy towards achieving that. Coaching is more relevant now, considering that we live in an uncertain and volatile world disrupted by digital. Coaching has worked for many other leaders across the world and me, and it will work for you as well. Find a coach and start your transformation journey today.
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