What is coaching? Is coaching part of leadership? Is coaching what you see the head of a football team doing as he runs down the sidelines yelling at a player on Saturday afternoon? Is coaching something broader than what is described in a sports context? If so, what does coaching look like in the business world? Is coaching an integral part of being a leader?

 During my business career, I have heard many leaders tell me that they “coached” this person or that person. I always wanted to know what they said and did as they “coached.” Too often, their coaching was little more than telling the person what to do. On very infrequent occasions, this coaching style can be a helpful technique to inspire immediate action from someone, to build their confidence to overcome a belief that they can’t do something. The push from the coach gets the person over this obstacle, and the coach can use a less directive approach going forward. So, what is coaching? Is it the same as leading? According to Bill George and Zach Clayton’s Harvard Business Review article, their answer is yes. (George Bill, and Clayton Zach. “Successful Leaders Are Great Coaches.” Harvard Business Review Oct. 6, 2022)

Upon reading the article, reference was made to the late Bill Campbell, former Head Coach of Columbia University’s football team.  A closer look revealed that he also played football and was captain for one of Columbia University’s only successful football teams. Coach Campbell went on to be highly successful, working with several CEOs in Silicon Valley. The article called him the “Coach of Silicon Valley.” He earned his master’s degree at Teachers College, Columbia University, my alma mater.  Bill returned to Columbia as their Head Football Coach for five years in the 1970s. His win-loss record on the field was abysmal. The relationships he established with his players endured throughout their lifetimes.

So how does a college football coach with a degree in economics transfer those skills into the world of business? At the surface level, many people would say there is no transferability. Bill Campbell did what he did best; he listened to others. There is a connection here to Burke’s nine dimensions used to assess Learning Agility. Two of the things that Bill did were: 1) Information Gathering and 2) Collaborating. He did this through listening. He was also able to look at this new opportunity and demonstrate another Learning Agility dimension, Flexibility. He could see the transferability of skills from the football field to interacting with a client. I mention the Burke Learning Agility dimensions at this point because the definition of Learning Agility is finding yourself in a new and ambiguous situation, not knowing what to do, and figuring it out. Isn’t that where Bill found himself, and isn’t figuring it out what he did? Something else that Bill showed, while not one of the nine dimensions of Learning Agility, is critical in learning new things is motivation. If Bill was committing to something, it was 110%.

Let me give all nine of the Burke Learning Agility dimensions. 1) Speed;2) Flexibility; 3) Experimenting; 4) Information Gathering; 5) Performance Risk-Taking; 6) Interpersonal Risk-Taking; 7) Collaborating; 8) Feedback Seeking; 9) Reflecting. We have talked about Flexibility, Information Gathering, and Collaborating as things Bill Campbell did to make his career change. In their article, “Successful Leaders are Great Coaches,” George and Clayton quote Coach Campbell, saying, “Your title makes you a manager; your people make you a leader.” According to Bill and Clayton, their acronym COACH describes how leaders need to work with others. They say you need to Care for your teammates, Organize them into their “sweet spot,” Align them around the organization’s purpose and values, Challenge them to reach their full potential, and Help them reach their potential.

In Learning Agility, we express the fact that context matters. Some environments promote learning agility, and others inhibit it. That, for me, is what George and Clayton call “Care.” A coach needs to create an environment where they can be vulnerable and ask others to be as well. George and Clayton talk about getting people into their sweet spot. There are several aspects of Learning Agility that require vulnerability. The leader can share their strengths as well as areas needing development. Learning Agility requires Interpersonal Risk-Taking, Feedback Seeking, Performance Risk-Taking, and Experimenting. All may experience failure and vulnerability before proficiency is achieved. This also generates an atmosphere of closeness between the leader and others, indicating “we are in this together.”  George and Clayton’s third belief for coaching leaders is the need to challenge others. The idea of this challenge is integral to the two Risk-Taking dimensions of Learning Agility. This can also involve the dimensions of Speed and Flexibility, doing it faster and doing it differently. George and Clayton’s last element of the COACH acronym is Help. In the Learning Agility context, part of the helping is using a didactic approach to allow the one being helped to discover the solution. That helping cycle involves creating a plan, executing the plan, and reviewing the results, both the positive ones and ones needing improvement. This involves the Learning Agility dimension of Reflecting. It could also include an element of Information Gathering and Feedback Seeking.

One of the characteristics of learning agile people is that they are always trying to do “it” better. As he reflected on himself as a football coach, Bill Campbell said that he lacked dispassionate toughness. That comes down to being insensitive to the feelings of others. Campbell may not have succeeded on the football field through the lens of wins and losses. The football field at Columbia was the crucible where Campbell developed his guiding principles as a leader and coach. With agility and flexibility, he transitioned to the private sector. He was sought after to start and grow businesses himself and coach Silicon Valley leaders. In this post-pandemic world, part of being a successful leader is possessing the COACH mindset and Burke Learning Agility capabilities.

About the Author

David Hoff is the COO and EVP of Leadership Development for E.A.S.I-Consult®E.A.S.I-Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. E.A.S.I-Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring advisement. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about E.A.S.I-Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.