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Creating Successful Leaders

By Margaret Smith, UXL
Atul Gawande had been a surgeon specializing in endocrine surgery for eight years when he decided to explore the role that professional coaching could play in his career. This exploration of coaching was described in his article, “Personal Best: Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?,” published last October in The New Yorker.

The article examines the way coaching has historically played a traditional role in some fields, while failing to be a standard practice for professional development in others, such as his own medical field.

Initially, Gawande turned to coaching because his progress seemed to plateau. “During the first two or three years in practice, your skills seem to improve almost daily,” he explained. Although he excelled in his field, beating national averages, the surgeon feared that “the only direction things could go from here was the wrong one” because these results, despite their superiority to national data, had ceased to improve.

Instead of accepting that what he’d achieved was the best, Gawande decided to turn to coaching to push his professional career even further.

Despite coaching’s benefits, the surgeon acknowledged that many professionals do not opt for coaching for a number of reasons. “The concept of coaching is slippery. Coaches are not teachers, but they can teach. They’re not your boss—in professional tennis, golf, and skating, the athlete hires and fires the coach—but they can be bossy.

Professional athletes have long relied on coaches to enable their success, but this model is rarely mimicked in other professions. Gawande notes that the foundation of athletic coaching is a premise that differs from other professional education or training systems. He explains that “coaching in pro sports proceeds from a starkly different premise: it considers the teaching model naïve about our human capacity for self-perception. It holds that, no matter how well prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own.”

Unlike formal education and workshops, the result of coaching on a person’s professional abilities and skills is quantifiable and enormous. The concept of coaching was introduced to a group of public school teachers, and the result when compared with the system’s typical workshop-based strategy was dramatic:

“Workshops led teachers to use new skills in the classroom only ten percent of the time. Even when a practice session with demonstrations and personal feedback was added, fewer than twenty percent made the change. But when coaching was introduced—when a colleague watched them try the new skill in their classroom and provided suggestions—adoption rates passed ninety percent.”

Coaching works because it offers an outside set of eyes and ears. It allows you to be aware of where you’re falling short and can help individuals who feel as though they’ve exhausted everything they know, or feel burnt out and isolated. Coaching also boosts professional satisfaction as you continue to refine your techniques and skills through innovative guidance.

Gawande summarized the radical effect coaching had on his life when he reflect, after his first session with his coach, “That twenty-minute discussion gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years.”

Granted, the thought of hiring a coach can be daunting to many professionals who fear exposing themselves to the thoughts and judgments of others. The largest barrier, the surgeon admits, “may simply be the profession’s willingness to accept the idea. The prospect of coaching forces awkward questions about how we regard failure.”

Instead of viewing coaching as a failure to succeed independently, consider it in the context used in pro sports, and opt for coaching as a means of enhancing your skills and professional life.



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