Are They Coachable?

“Years ago, at the great Bolshoi Ballet, auditions for the troupe were conducted among 8 year old girls. That’s because it took ten years to become great. How did the auditions work? The teachers weren’t looking for the best dancers. They were looking for the dancers who took coaching the best. The rest would come with time.”

This from marketing guru Seth Godin’s blog is well worth a read.

Not that I agree with all of it. For example, challenging the coach’s credentials makes a lot of sense to me. It is a sure fire sign that the coach is advising (if your gonna tell me what I should be doing you had better be an expert) rather than coaching – which is a process that helps the learner to find their own path to improvement. Of course occasionally a coach might go into ‘prescriptive’ mode – but not often.

The quality we should be looking in people who will operate at the highest level is not ‘coachability’ but ‘learnability’. How good are they at learning? How curious are they? How much new stuff will they try? Will they try it for long enough to see if it really works. Will they learn something even if it is not made conveniently packaged in their ‘preferred learning style’?

It is this hunger for performance improvement that really gives the edge.

How do you recruit for it?

How do your management practices nurture it?

How do you model it?

How do you manage those who have lost it?

Lead me, follow me or get out of my way!

David Greer is deputy CEO of Royal Dutch Shell’s Sakhalin Energy Investment Company. Now this is a business that is navigating tricky waters – and Mr Greer smartly recognised that staff motivation had taken a dip and needed lifting. A familiar problem to most managers.

So Mr Greer (or one of his staff perhaps) scans a copy of ‘Great Speeches from History’ and finds General Patton’s speech to the troops given the morning before the D-day landings. Here is some prose that will surely put the fire back in their bellies. With some careful updating and other contextual adjustments (including delivery via e-mail rather than face to face), a great, if derivative, motivational e-mail is sent to employees. It is soon recognised for what it is, leaked to the media, and Mr Greer’s problem is 10 times worse. Not only has he now got a de-motivated workforce – he has lost credibility into the bargain.
Most of the criticism that Mr Greer has attracted has been about his failure to find his own words.  His decision not to speak authentically – but to borrow from history.
I think this misses the point.
In modern businesses motivation and inspiration cannot come in the form of the occasional missive from the top.  It has to emerge from the day to day interactions of team members and managers who understand that they are doing something worthwhile. Something that matters.  Who respect and trust each other as members of the team.  Who stay in touch with the purpose and meaning of their endeavour.
In the words of Zig Ziglar:

‘People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily’.

If Mr Greer had presided over an organisation where every manager talked regularly with their team members about why the work mattered, about the importance of what they were doing, about what they as team members really wanted to achieve – his desperate clarion call from the Executive Suite may not have been necessary at all.