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A mentor is good, a coach is even better

December 15, 2010

As I started looking to improve my leadership capabilities I did what most of you likely would do and found a mentor. And I had a good one. He was a very senior executive within our organization, well respected and someone I could talk easily with. I learned a lot through that relationship but it was missing one key ingredient;  the freedom to hold me completely accountable for everything I said and did. It’s not that we didn’t discuss some interesting things, but the relationship was cordial and strictly professional. It missed an edge I felt was needed to knock me out of my old habits and into some new ones. I needed a swift kick to my behind and no mentor was going to be able to give that to me. I needed something else. I needed someone else. A coach maybe?

I had no idea how to go about getting a coach, not that it seemed to matter much because life often has a way of delivering to you exactly what you need at exactly the right time. As a frequent traveler I’m often in airports and I was in the airport of a former hometown when a woman asked me if I knew where the luggage would arrive (she would later tell me I looked like the most confident person in the baggage area). I told her where the baggage would arrive and went back to standing there, confidently (or so I was told). And that would normally be the end of the story because I’m normally not that chatty when I travel. I’m usually all business. I know where I am going and I focus on getting there. There’s no time for chitchat, nor any point. But for whatever reason, on this occasion, I felt the need to change that. And so I asked her what she was doing in this particular city and what she did for a living. She responded she was an executive coach. You can see where this is going, can’t you?

About six weeks later I hired her to be my coach. Five years later she’s still my coach, although I have additional coaching and mentoring relationships to augment the one I have with her. She’s my primary coach and always will be. I trust her and she knows me. She’s unafraid of telling me the truth (sometimes I wish she would be a little bit afraid!) and she pulls no punches.

If you’re at all looking to break through to another level in your professional life I would recommend a coach. A coach can provide an outside perspective, someone who can more readily gauge where you need help and even more importantly where you don’t. They can act independently of any consequences to you. It’s an unique relationship in that regard. I could fire my coach and walk away if I was unhappy or not ready to take her advice. Could I fire my mentor? Ah, no, although he could fire me. That’s why that relationship could only go so far. I could reveal to my coach every dirt, nasty, silly little secret and thought. She didn’t care. And she could respond with the most compelling and pointed observation. I didn’t care. The truth was allowed to come out in a coaching relationship. A coach provided safety and security along with wisdom, guidance and counsel.

Hiring her wasn’t an easy choice. It was a huge sum of money to me at the time. With my wife’s support we made it work, postponing a few “nice to haves” here and there. We needed to make some choices but we’re both glad we made them as the return on investment has been beyond our wildest expectations. Looking back, it seems almost foolhardy we ever considered doing anything but hiring her.

The bigger cost was emotional and even physical. I would feel beaten up, curling up into a fetal position, sucking my thumb, sobbing uncontrollably, occasionally wetting my pants. And that was before the sessions! I would book my coaching sessions with her at the end of the day because I was whipped after each one of them. I could barely function. I used to joke I could pay for all the coaching I needed by charging admission to the sessions as I was sure my co-workers would enjoy the regular beat down I was taking. Those early days, weeks and months were hard but as the foundation for success began to be laid, it became easier and easier. It was not unlike rebuilding a golf swing. The first few times you try a new swing it is terribly awkward. Everything feels out of sync, painful even. But as the new swing thoughts settle in, new habits form, and everything becomes a little easier. And subsequent adjustments are a lot easier to make.

Continuing with the golf theme, when people asked me why I had a coach I would often say “Tiger Woods has a coach”. That was an excellent answer until Tiger Woods rammed his SUV into a fire hydrant. But then I realized something. That’s when he needed a coach the most. And when he was ready he picked the most intriguing coach of them all – Sean Foley – a guy known for his holistic approach to coaching. Tiger’s previous coaches tried to make him a better golfer whereas Sean Foley believes you become a better golfer only after you have become a better person. My coach is a holistic coach. She didn’t set out to make me a better executive. She set out to make me a better person, someone living to his full potential. If that meant becoming a better executive, so be it. It did in my case, but I’m even happier with the person I have become. One day I will walk away from my executive position and I will walk straight into the ongoing challenge and joy of being the person I am, pursuing the limits of what I am all about.

So get a coach. Heck, get a mentor too. But definitely get a coach. And if you want a world class one, hire Tracy Quinton of Quinton International Group. If you want to be a world class leader running a world class organization you need her. Even if you think you don’t.

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