As we begin this new year, I’d like to recall the article I wrote about coaching in the November edition of the E.A.S.I-Consult® Newsletter. My article was inspired by the story of Bill Campbell, a coach referenced by Bill George and Zach Clayton (George Bill and Clayton Zach. “Successful Leaders Are Great Coaches.” Harvard Business Review Oct. 6, 2022) as someone they heralded as the epitome of coaching. I might have initially overlooked the reference to him, but they also mentioned a connection he had to Columbia University, where I went to graduate school. Looking further, I found that he had played football at Columbia and had been the team captain his senior year. He earned a master’s degree and became an Assistant Coach in Boston before he was hired as Head Coach at Columbia. He coached at Columbia for 5 years and had an abysmal record, but was beloved by his players. When it was clear to Bill and others that his future was not in coaching (at least in the football sense), he approached several of his former players seeking advice about making a career change and the transferability of the skills they knew he possessed. Everyone he spoke with saw a natural transition to the private sector, as he did have an undergraduate degree in economics. He quickly had a job offer with the advertising agency, J Walter Thompson, supporting Kraft and then Kodak. One of the things that made him unsuccessful as a football coach (by his admission) was his inability to treat his players dispassionately. By contrast, one of the things that led to his superstardom in the business world and as a leadership coach was his compassion toward others.
Bill’s approach to coaching was unique. He emphasized using his observations to determine someone’s coachability. His observations allowed him to identify what kind of learner a person would be. He also references Carol Dweck and her work on Mindset. Burke and I referenced Dweck in our first book, Learning Agility-The Key to Leader Potential, and her description of a variable mindset. Allow me to examine the overlap between Bill’s approach to coaching and the Burke Learning Agility assessments. As context, the nine dimensions of Burke’s Learning Agility assessments are: 1) Speed; 2) Flexibility; 3) Experimenting; 4) Performance Risk-Taking; 5) Interpersonal Risk-Taking; 6) Collaborating; 7) Feedback Seeking; 8) Information Gathering; 9) Reflecting. While Campbell didn’t use any commercial assessment to determine how he could improve the performance of someone he was coaching, he had a strategy that involved many of these dimensions. He put his twist on this approach. Which we’ll explore later in the article.
What was Bill Campbell’s approach to coaching? Part of Campbell’s success was that he began coaching after having been very successful as a senior manager in several organizations. He was dealing for the most part as a coach, with very young, very smart, very brash individuals. The individuals he worked with would not have “bought into” Campbell’s approach if he hadn’t had his success as something to reference. Campbell worked with both teams and individuals. In either case, the focus was the team. The team’s interdependence was critical to their success. One of Campbell’s tenets was about the team getting better. While at Apple, Bill was a participant in a meeting with Steve Jobs. Campbell wanted to know: 1) How is the hiring going? 2) How was Jobs developing his team? 3) How were his staff meetings going? 4) Was he getting input from all his people? 5) What was being said, not said? He stayed away from the strategic issues but wanted to know if they had a strong operating plan. Overall, he cared if the company was well run and whether people were improving as managers.
Another story in the book was about an article written in one of the industry publications. The title was “The 10 Most Terrible Tyrants of Technology.” At the top of the list, and rather proud to be in that position, was Jonathan Rosenberg, of Google. Rosenberg had also been coached by Bill Campbell. When Bill confronted Rosenberg about this, he asked what his mother would say if he sent her the article. Rosenberg knew she would not be pleased. Campbell used his reaction to show how this was hindering his effectiveness and the company’s full potential. Campbell called this his “People Manifesto”. The job of the manager was to allow his people to be more effective.
One of the Burke Learning Agility® dimensions is Feedback Seeking. The way someone demonstrates this capability is to: 1) ask peers; 2) ask their supervisor; 3) ask others how to improve; 4) talk about potential advancement with their supervisor. A second Burke dimension involves Interpersonal Risk-Taking. The ways learning agile people demonstrate this dimension is to: 1) bring up tough issues with others; 2) ask others for help; 3) discuss mistakes with others; 4) challenge others’ ideas even when they are not shared by many. Campbell’s view on feedback was that you be brutally honest, and couple negative feedback with care. Give feedback as close to the event as possible. If the feedback is negative, then deliver it privately. When a group or team was working, he made the “elephant in the room” explicit. He did a lot of pairing of people to work on tasks. He made it explicit that they were to collaborate. It was also expected that they would get and give feedback to each other.
Another Burke Learning Agility dimension is Collaborating. Someone demonstrated this dimension by 1) leveraging the skills knowledge and talents of others; 2) working with colleagues from different backgrounds; 3) collaborating with other parts of the organization; 4) asking stakeholders for their points of view. At one point Campbell designed a Peer Feedback Survey. This was the only assessment mentioned that he used. The items focused on: 1) performance; 2) relationship with peer group; 3) management and leadership; 4) innovation; 5) behavior in meetings; 6) collaboration. As you can see, there is a lot of overlap between Burke and Campbell on 3 of the Burke dimensions in this paragraph and the one before.
Indirectly Campbell focused on Collaborating at the beginning of meetings. If the meeting was on a Monday, at the beginning of the meeting he would ask people what they did over the weekend. He would ask about significant others and family. He would talk about his own. This created an environment to then focus on the task. He explicitly permitted people to be empathetic. Campbell said, at the end of the day it is about how you live your life and the people in your life. Sergei Brin, co-founder of Google described Bill as a combination of a sharp mind and a warm heart.
Campbell believed leaders needed to push their fear to be more courageous. He said courage is hard, people are afraid to take risks for fear of failure. Another Burke learning agility dimension is called Performance Risk-Taking. The way someone demonstrates this capability is: by 1) taking on challenging roles; 2) engaging in ambiguous tasks; 3) embracing work that is risky; 4) volunteering for projects that involve the possibility of failure. A lot of the work that Campbell did around teams and team effectiveness enabled them to lean into these scary performance issues. When Campbell was working with someone on a selection issue he talked about “smarts and hearts”. If Campbell was still around, he and I could debate the “smarts” piece. Yes, cognitive ability is important. There is a point where learning agility or the ability to figure out what you don’t know in an ambiguous situation is more important. Campbell also was concerned when he felt someone stopped learning. I think we would realize we were more in agreement than not.
Another Burke Learning Agility dimension we need to describe is Flexibility. It is defined as 1) proposing innovative solutions; 2) considering options before acting; 3) switching between different tasks/jobs; 4) finding common themes; 5) articulating competing ideas or perspectives. The essence of this for me is being able to create different paradigms that describe the relationship between seemingly disparate things. In an interview setting Campbell would not just ask someone “what” they did, but more importantly “how” they did it. Campbell said the people he worked with needed to be smart. The last Burke Learning Agility dimension to be defined here is Speed. The way it is displayed is: 1) quickly develops solutions; 2) gets up to speed on new tasks/projects; 3) readily grasps new ideas/concepts; 4) acquires new skills and knowledge rapidly; 5) reacts well to unexpected problems. Speed and Flexibility are the drivers of the Burke Learning Agility Inventory. A lot of this last dimension is what Campbell called “smart” but Burke defines it in a way that you can interview for it, observe it and develop it.
One of the things that made Campbell a unique individual was how he “built communities”. He was the proverbial Pied Piper, organizing group trips. He had a group that attended the Super Bowl, the Los Cabos Fishing trip, the College Football Hall of Fame Induction trip, and the Butte Montana Fishing trip. Some people would call these “team building” trips and there was a fair amount of that involved. And finally, he had a local watering hole called The Old Pro, in Palo Alto, where he “held court” on Friday afternoons. The book was a good read and highly recommended for folks in the field of coaching. Consider having a conversation with us about using the Burke 360 Learning Agility Survey in your coaching practice.
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.