Nancy Napier: Hey, business leader — here’s why you could use a coach

Executive director of Boise State’s Centre for Creativity and Innovation.February 19, 2014 

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Nancy Napier

This month’s Business Insider focus on health care reminds me of an excellent article that physician and writer Atul Gawande wrote in the New Yorker on Oct. 3, 2011 in which he asked a question that now seems obvious.

If you think of high-performing elite athletes, how many have coaches? The top tennis players, golfers and runners as well as teams at all levels have coaches to help athletes perform even better. I mean, Serena Williams has hit many more than 10,000 serves and is a leading player in anyone’s book, yet she still looks to a coach to find even more ways to improve.

So, Gawande wondered, why don’t surgeons use coaches as well? Is it because they think that once they’ve done an operation several times, they know what to do and do it well and thus don’t need additional help? Or is it a sense of professional pride that to ask for coaching means something might be wrong?

He argues forcefully that maybe there is value in being coached, of having some other expert observe and suggest ways to improve. And then, he became brave — and vulnerable — and tested his idea on himself by asking his former professor and world-class surgeon to come watch him operate. Gawande admitted he was nervous and felt awkward having a peer witness his performance in real time. But in the end, the older surgeon had several suggestions that helped Gawande improve his performance on future operations.

So why don’t more businesspeople (or doctors or teachers, for that matter?) use coaches more seriously? Often the notion of having an executive coach is almost punitive: “You need help in dealing with people, in communication, in managing a team ... fill in the blank ... so we’re going to have you work with a coach.”


Or maybe there’s a stigma: Do we think that admitting the need for coaching shows vulnerability or weakness? Hmm. Tell that to Mike Tyson or Lindsey Vonn.

Instead, what if the rest of us thought of coaches in the same way that athletes we love to watch do? Why don’t we think of getting coaching from people who have our best interests at heart, know the game, can save hours of energy and mistakes, and do it all in a spirit of helping us get better? After all, we want to watch the best tennis or golf or football possible. Don’t we want our businesspeople to perform at their best levels as well?

So ask yourself how you might use a coach to get better. What would someone else see that you can’t? Even if you’re not up for a full-fledged professional coach, look to your circle of people whom you might ask — and get some tough, straight feedback to help you avoid mistakes and learn faster. The key is to always think that there are ways to improve and to realize that sometimes others can see them better than we can.

Then, do what the athletes do — practice with purpose. Who knows — maybe we’ll start talking about “elite leaders.”

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