As an executive coach, I've had my praises sung when the leader I coached and the people around him or her experienced substantial sustained positive change. I've also had coaching experiences when no one sang my praises, myself included.
What distinguishes one experience from the other? I don't think it's whether the CEO, COO, CFO, C-etc., was lucky enough to get my "A" game while some poor soul suffered my "C-minus." Instead, the determining factor was and is coachability.
The Three Realities
At the outset of a coaching engagement, I discuss with the leader the concept of coachability. I bring up the three realities.
- Reality #1 – What you actually say or do.
- Reality #2 – What you perceive you say or do.
- Reality #3 – What others perceive you say or do.
We then discuss how frequently gaps arise between the three realities, especially when one is in a leadership position.
A former CEO once told me, "Since retiring, I seemed to have lost my sense of humor." Why? He'd gone back to his company as a part-time consultant—without power or authority. "They no longer laugh at my jokes," he said. As gently as I could, I broke the news to him that he hadn't lost his sense of humor—his jokes weren't funny to begin with!
People who are coachable readily accept the three realities concept while those who aren't resist it. Coachable people willingly accept the notion that what they perceive themselves as saying or doing could be different than actual reality. Moreover, they accept the fact that until the perception of others changes, progress hasn't been made.
By contrast, non-coachable people insist that they know exactly what they say and do at all times. In their minds, perception always matches reality. Moreover, if others' perception doesn't conform, they will say, "I changed my behavior. If they don't see it, that's on them."
On many occasions, Pamela McGee, SHRM-CP, Vice President of HR for The Father's Table, has encountered the three realities gap. "The leader cannot comprehend how the listener could possibly misunderstand what the leader was trying to express." She notes that this lack of comprehension "leads the leader down a negative path."
Another thing I look for with a prospective coachee is curiosity. In my experience, curiosity is a great indicator of coachability. Curious people are open, interested and even eager to explore ideas, concepts and options that hadn't previously occurred to them. By contrast, incurious people exhibit a rigidity that makes it almost impossible to change mind or behavior.
Lessons for Employee Selection
Reflecting on my former career as an employment law attorney, it strikes me that coachability is a critical distinguishing trait in whether a new hire will be successful in the workplace or potentially become fodder for the legal system.
In my practice, workplace claims were largely generated by un-coachable people—employees who would admit no wrong and regardless of the facts, steadfastly insist that they are right. These employees viewed corrective action they received as confirming their victimhood.
Claims were also caused by executives, managers and even some HR professionals who approached every challenging situation with a rigid "my way or the highway" attitude. There was no adaptability and no recognition that perhaps the way they addressed the problem made it worse, not better. Unwittingly, they increased the likelihood of a failed workplace relationship.
As all experienced HR professionals know, the fact that a candidate meets job qualifications is no guarantee of success. There's still a great deal of uncertainty as to how this person will turn out. What will their actual behavior be? What results will they produce? What level of self-accountability do they possess? How open are they to changes in direction or approach? All of these questions are critical to the success and retention of talent.
My advice to HR professionals involved in the employee selection process: Add coachability as a core competency. Explore the concept with job candidates. Share the three realities and get their reaction. Ask for experiences in their past that would suggest they're coachable. This could be sharing a painful experience where the candidate subsequently realized he or she had a blind spot that led to a bad outcome.
If you're considering candidates for a leadership position, the experience you solicit might be where management unwittingly made things worse. What lessons did the candidate learn from this experience?
New York Times bestselling author and CEO coach Marshall Goldsmith recommends looking for three traits: courage, humility and discipline. The first determines the willingness of the person to try new things and step out of his or her comfort zone. The second addresses the person's willingness to accept the fact that others count; it's not all about me. The last indicates whether the person has the drive to follow up and follow through so that change occurs—and sticks.
"My most important challenge as an executive coach," Goldsmith says, "is working with clients who have the courage, humility and discipline required to achieve positive, lasting change. If so, our coaching process will work—if not, it won't!"
To roughly paraphrase Charles Darwin, it's not strength or intelligence that best predicts success; it's adaptability to change. Coachable people are adaptable; non-coachable people aren't. Whom would you like to employ?
Jathan Janove, J.D., is a former employment attorney and author of Managing to Stay Out of Court: How to Avoid the 8 Deadly Sins of Mismanagement, The Star Profile: A Management Tool to Unleash Employee Potential and Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches.