The First Rule of Fight Club: You do not talk about Fight Club



Why we need more people to talk about the benefits of being coached


“…welcome to Fight Club. The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. Third rule of Fight Club…” and so it goes on as the fictional character Tyler Durden explains the eights rules to the new members of Fight Club in the 1999 cult film.


Something similar seems to be happening with executive coaching as, for reasons that I will delve into, leaders in business do not talk about being coached – it is a private affair. One of the core principles of coaching is confidentiality, an essential boundary which is clarified and agreed as part of the contracting that takes place upfront in any new engagement. Two of the leading coaching associations (Association for Coaching and European Mentoring and Coaching Council) led the way to create a global ethics standard that encapsulates confidentiality:

“When working with clients, members will maintain the strictest level of confidentiality with all client and sponsor information...”

Confidentiality is an essential foundation to successful coaching outcomes as an effective partnership requires trust, openness and honesty, which demands the utmost discretion and privacy. The person being coached (the coachee) needs to be comfortable that the conversations they have with their coach will be private and not shared with their sponsoring organisation. It is crystal clear that the coach should not share the content of any coaching session or divulge the name of the person they are coaching to anyone else within or external to the corporate client. Confidentiality on the coach’s part is unambiguous and makes good business and coaching sense.


The question is why this confidentiality has extended to the coachee so that business people don’t typically talk about their coaching. Paraphrasing my recent conversation with a senior HR business partner, she said: “…there is a stigma associated with being coached, as there is a misunderstanding that coaching is about fixing people, hence the desire for it to be kept private.” It isn’t the only time that I have heard this word be used to explain why being coached isn’t routinely talked about so, what does stigma mean and why is this a problem? The definition of stigma from two of the online dictionaries describes it as:

  • a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person – Oxford dictionary

  • a strong feeling of disapproval that most people in a society have about something, especially when this is unfair – Cambridge dictionary

As an executive coach, I have a coach, and during my previous corporate career in financial services, I was coached as part of a senior leadership program. There certainly was no stigma for me, but I must admit that I wasn’t completely surprised by this explanation. While I suspect there are other reasons for not talking about one’s personal coaching experience, this potential stigma is a big problem, and I strongly feel the coaching profession can and should do something.


In this article, I will explain why I believe that coaching’s foundations, which are primarily from psychology and therapy, are a cause for business people to not talk about the benefits of being coached and that because people don’t talk about being coached, potential coachees don’t hear about it. Therefore, coaching isn’t normalised, and thus, demand (for coaching) is being unnecessarily stifled. It gets worse. By not talking about the coaching that successful business leaders receive we may falsely create the impression that they don’t receive help and therefore we contribute to increased self-doubt, lack of confidence and anxiety in those that are not aware of the benefits coaching is having for the successful professionals they see in action every day.


People like us do things like this


Coaching of elite athletes and professional sportspeople is now expected. For example, the pro cycling teams that compete in the Tour de France or the British Olympic cycling team have coaches, and professional football teams have coaches for the different aspects of their games. We see the coaches sitting on the sidelines of the tennis courts watching every shot the elite tennis players take in every match they play. Coaching in sports is now ubiquitous and widely accepted as vital for those aiming to be at the top of their game. It would be exceptional for a sports team or athletes to get to the top of their fields without the help of several coaches, each one advising, supporting, encouraging and challenging their charges. It has become normalised over the years, and as Seth Godin (teacher, author and inspiration of mine) says when he talks about marketing:

“PEOPLE LIKE US DO THINGS LIKE THIS”

So where is the coaching in business? I hypothesise that highly successful business people are in the main uncomfortable sharing their experiences and specifically how coaching is helping them to up their game and become even more successful. As one senior female leader in a global financial services firm told me, “…it’s perhaps a generational thing, expressing vulnerability isn’t allowed, and expectations are high that you shouldn’t need any help to lead your team.” It gets worse because this pervasive attitude could be adding to the levels of stress and anxiety amongst professionals in the modern workplace.


Increasing the level of anxiety


We are building up expectations and creating false impressions that the finished, polished and perfect products that we see are the first and only drafts or were created ad-lib. That slide deck, that presentation, that speech at the all-staff get together, or that executive who exudes gravitas and commands the room is never the first version. They are like drafts of a book, and the first draft isn’t usually fit to be shared, the second and third drafts deliver the fourth draft which probably then needs reviewing by a proofreader and copy editor before publication. These successful executives receive help, and it might not always be from an executive coach, it could be an excellent boss, a mentor, a reverse mentor, a sponsor, a trusted peer, a family member or friend who provides the valuable insights and plays one of several roles helping out. Better yet, it is a collection of these helping you to become even better.


Here is a powerful example. Everyone by now will have watched talks on TED.com, and no doubt will have their favourites, the ones that we go back to like a favourite book and share with others. One of my most-liked talks is by Susan Cain (author and Chief Revolutionary of Quiet Revolution), she gave a 2012 TED talk “The power of introverts” which has collected over 21 million views. It is a moving story about how it can be difficult being an introvert in a culture where being social and outgoing are prized above all else. Susan gives a powerful, personal performance to get her message across. In a recent podcast interview, Susan explained how she hired a coach, a specialist personal presentation coach to work with her for the full week before giving that talk. To deliver one 19-minute speech on a subject she was deeply passionate about and an expert in, Susan not only required the help of a coach but worked with them for a full week! I get it, that’s a TED talk, that isn’t a professional in a modern workplace so let’s switch back to the corporate world – the most senior executives are almost all being coached or have been coached to help with their public speaking skills when in front of investors, clients or even regulators. This is just one example of how coaching is helping in the modern workplace.


Stay with me and let me explain how coaching is helping executives and hence why collectively we should be doing more to spread the word.


So why should you have a coach?


Some of the world’s best leaders from business, who are exceptionally talented, skilled and determined understand the value of a coach to help them improve themselves. People like Bill Gates “Everyone needs a coach” or Eric Schmidt who lists being told “…to have a coach” as one of the top pieces of advice he was given. At the time Eric was advised to have a coach he was an established CEO, and his initial reaction was to say no because he didn’t think he needed one. Fast forward in time, and the most recent book which he has written is titled, wait for it… “Trillion Dollar Coach” clearly, he has changed his mind and gained from his coaching over the years.


The 2017 TED talk by author and surgeon Atul Gawande, has the title “Want to get great at something? Get a coach” and has been viewed over 1.7 million times. “having a good coach to provide a more accurate picture of our reality, to instil positive habits of thinking, and to break our actions down and then help us build them back up again. "It's not how good you are now; it's how good you're going to be that really matters."


While these are only a few examples of people talking about the benefits, they are overwhelmingly positive and headline-grabbing. In my experience and anecdotally the experience of others in my network, be they experienced HR professionals, prior peers in my corporate career or some of my recent coaching clients, successful professionals do not talk about being coached and stick to the first rule of Fight Club: You do not talk about Fight Club


You do not talk about Fight Club coaching


As already highlighted, there appears to be a stigma around being coached, and yet if we look at the CIPD definition of coaching, there shouldn’t be:


“developing a person’s skills and knowledge so that their job performance improves, hopefully leading to the achievement of organisational objectives. It targets high performance and improvement at work, although it may also have an impact on an individual’s private life. It usually lasts for a short period and focuses on specific skills and goals.”

The CPID also list characteristics of coaching in organisations:

  • It focuses on improving performance and developing individuals’ skills.

  • Personal issues may be discussed but the emphasis is on performance at work.

  • Coaching activities have both organisational and individual goals.

  • It assumes that the individual is psychologically well and does not require a clinical intervention.

Hold on, intervention, that sounds like we are fixing something that we probably would want to keep quiet, for example, I referred the patient for surgical intervention. The word intervention does sometimes get used by practitioners and also the organisational buyers of coaching, but a coachee would never use that word and nor should we. Instead, why not use partnership, transformation, development, relationship, collaboration etc. Perhaps the way some of us think about coaching and the way we talk about coaching with the institutional decision-maker is leading us astray.


The second reason that I want to highlight is that most coaches don’t recommend to their clients that they should talk about being coached. Why should they, as to most coaches this is a private, confidential agreement which, as already mentioned, has confidentiality instilled in the coach from the very first interaction? Coaching qualifications are in no small part based on psychology and therapy, and as an emerging profession, it has tended to attract a disproportionate amount of people from human resources, learning and development and therefore psychologists and therapists. I hypothesise that this has to a large extent, been responsible for the mistaken belief that all parts of coaching should be confidential. In the main, I favour Marshall Goldsmith’s approach. Marshall encourages his clients to tell their stakeholders that they are seeking ways to develop themselves. Paraphrasing from “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.”


“Your odds improve considerably if you tell people you are trying to change. Your odds improve even more if you ask for ideas to help you improve.”

My third reason is the cost of coaching which will always play some part in not talking about it, especially as executive coaching is more typical at the senior echelons within firms and paid for by the sponsoring organisation. It is not always easy to say no to your team and more junior professionals if they know that you have a coach, and they have a front-row seat in seeing the benefits it is having.


Here is another way to think about it: what are the roles that we want a great business coach to play for us? I am confident that once I take you through them, you will agree that we should be encouraging our clients to talk about the benefits of being coached.


Key roles provided by a great coach


A great business coach provides five key roles in developing already successful professionals and executives and helping them to get even better:

  1. Help you solve real business issues as a great coach knows things that you don’t know and can help stress test your ideas and reduce the risk of repeating mistakes others have previously made. They can be a great source of advice through the sharing of their experiences and anecdotes.

  2. They are an independent and confidential sounding board, whether to help you let off steam and vent or perhaps brainstorm creatively and help you consider options for your business and people more strategically. Having the time to think and reflect with someone outside of the establishment’s line management can be transformational.

  3. Someone that will say things that others cannot say and challenge you, perhaps by raising some uncomfortable truths or holding you accountable for what you did or did not do. Often successful executives are surrounded by people that don’t feel comfortable giving them truthful feedback, and the coach can bring up these issues safely and neutrally.

  4. An outside perspective which can help you see yourself as others see you, something driven people are often poor at doing.

  5. Help you with identifying and developing new skills to be more effective in your role or to manage change and for example, building high-performing teams, managing conflict, or empowering others.

I cannot imagine any leader in business (other than the most arrogant) who wouldn't want to benefit from having someone to work with who provides these roles to help them develop. My coaching clients place significant value on me doing this for them, whether a confidential sounding board, a supportive but challenging kick, or to provide feedback and insights to help you think better – my sole purpose is to help them develop and up their game to bring about improved results for their businesses.


Benefits of spreading the word


I see four principal benefits of coachees spreading the word and telling the people in their professional networks that they are being coached:

  1. More widely involving a coachee’s stakeholders and actively telling and engaging them on the coaching journey can help make coaching more impactful for some clients. One of the most experienced and respected executive coaches Marshall Goldsmith uses Stakeholder Centred Coaching (SCC) that has the regular involvement of stakeholders during the coaching engagement at its core.

  2. As a Managing Director in financial services, I shared the key insights I gained and focus areas for my personal leadership development with my team. They could see my focus on growth and that they were playing a significant role in helping. Through the subsequent conversations, my team’s level of self-awareness increased with the result that they proactively worked on ways to improve themselves. Sharing a personal coaching journey can help raise the quality and effectiveness of your team.

  3. There is a broader benefit for the coaching community, by lifting the veil, we will get more people talking about coaching. Therefore more people will hear about it, and we will increase the demand for coaching from aspiring and established leaders in business.

  4. By normalising coaching and raising the level of transparency of coaching within organisations we will help time-poor and increasingly stressed professionals realise that the most senior people have coaches, they are getting help to be successful dealing with the many challenges they face. They didn't do it alone, and you don't have to either which could help better manage the expectations that professionals place on themselves and hence reduce anxiety and stress levels within the modern workplace.

I, therefore, hope that we as executive coaches will work towards the goal of increasing the proportion of our coachees that proactively and loudly talk about their coaching journey, the key insights gained and how it has helped them to be more successful in their jobs. Coaching is about change and action, so let’s change from this:


PEOPLE LIKE US DO THINGS LIKE THIS


to


SUCCESSFUL PROFESSIONALS LIKE US HAVE COACHES TO HELP US BECOME EVEN MORE SUCCESSFUL

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