Being coachable, and encouraging coachability in employees
There is a quote widely attributed to Michael Jordan that defines what he – arguably the greatest professional basketball player of all time – identified as his greatest attribute.
Was it his unnatural ability to hit the clutch shot? Or the fact that he was as good at defending as he was at attacking the basket? Maybe it was his legendary stamina and resilience, repeatedly playing through sickness and injury to produce great results?
Nope, none of that.
“My greatest skill was that I was coachable," Jordan said. “I was a sponge and aggressive to learn."
Jordan has lots of support in that self-assessment. Legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson, who guided the careers of both Jordan and the late Kobe Bryant, agreed that there was “something coachable about Michael that Kobe didn’t have.” If Jackson had to remove Jordan because he was having a bad game, he would instantly start working on solutions.
“(Jordan) knew what he’d done. He had a conscience.”
Jordan’s career and his desire to be coached are not just examples for aspiring basketball players. By now, most in the business world know that “coachable” employees are in great demand. Coachable implies openness, dedication and the ability to adapt.
But that’s not all. Now that coaching is widely available outside the confines of the executive ranks, coachability has become a more important consideration in hiring and leadership development.
For organisations that want to recruit for coachability, there are a wealth of resources on how to spot it and build it into your organisational culture. Not surprisingly, most come from the world of sports.
What makes a person “coachable” or “uncoachable”?
Bill Beswick, a psychologist and author who has worked with some of the English Premier League’s most successful teams, believes you can spot a coachable person in the moment “immediately after a coach intervenes with advice, instruction or criticism.”
Beswick advises soccer coaches to take notice if a player responds with arrogance (I don’t need help), indifference (who cares?), anger (who are you to tell me?), subversion (seeks out others to undermine coach’s message) or low self-esteem (that translates the coaching advice into criticism).
Those observations are closely mirrored by academics and coaches in the business world. Legendary leadership guru and author Marshall Goldsmith identified four tell-tale signs of what he called “the uncoachables.”
They include people who are in denial. Those who in the face of objective evidence, cannot accept that they have a problem or have done anything wrong. In fact, Goldsmith argued that employees who “think everyone else is the problem” are completely uncoachable. “It’s impossible to fix people who think someone else is the problem,” he wrote.
Still, these examples don’t do much to identify the primary characteristics of a coachable person.
Top qualities of the truly coachable
As is the case with many “top X” lists, you’ll find a variety of interpretations and descriptions of the principal qualities of coachable athletes and employees. But there are several points on which just about everyone agrees.
Openness and Willingness
Just about anyone and everyone in this space believes that coachability begins with a willingness to learn and improve. Now, that’s a very easy thing for someone to fake, but most experts in this area maintain that the reaction an employee has to being assigned or offered coaching or advice is a good measurement of true willingness. Employees need to view coaching “as a positive signal” that the organisation wants to invest in them, not a sign they doubt the employee’s value.
Commitment and Desire
Although this may seem to be so obvious it hardly needs mentioning, a deep and driven desire to learn and be better is foundational to a coachable mindset. Executive Coach Alan Fine, who started his coaching career in high-level tennis before moving to the C-Suite, suggests that this desire to learn, and a commitment to personal and organisational success is the bedrock for coachability.
Smart and Passionate
That same Bill Beswick has studied some of the most successful coaches in professional sports and finds that some, like the legendary New England Patriot’s Coach Bill Belichick recruit players who are as smart as they are talented. The talent helps them do a remarkable thing, but the smarts mean they understand the value of coaching. “Belichick’s staff relentlessly squeezes maximum performance from players whose ‘excellence is defined by their heads and hearts as much as their arms and legs.”
With coaching being provided at scale to more organisations, and more levels of an organisation, it certainly makes sense for employers to borrow heavily from the coaching world and recruit employees who are able and willing to accept the guidance a coach can offer.
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