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January 06, 2009

Bench Me, Coach

TrainingCartoon010709 That old John Fogerty song, Centerfield, never resonated with me. Begging a coach to put me in centerfield as opposed to comfortably (and safely) on the bench or off to the side isn’t anything I can imagine doing—unless it was the only alternative to being fired or not getting a much-needed raise.  Before you warn me not to bring this up in future job interviews, don’t worry.  I generally keep it to myself anyway, and the only reason I’m telling you is to illustrate how hard a case some of us (reliable, competent workers nonetheless) present to corporate coaches.

[Image courtesy of Grantland Cartoons ]

It isn’t that I, and many of my current and past co-workers, don’t like to contribute and be “part of the game.” It’s just that we don’t like to think of ourselves in our professional environment under the thumb of a “coach” of any kind.  We also don’t like the sports or competitive connotation of being “coached” to perform our jobs. It makes the relatively straightforward, sedentary process of dragging oneself every morning to work, and concentrating in a cubicle to complete often-dry assignments, more aggressive and intimidating than it really is. Business competitors aside, I never (or at least usually don’t) think of my cubicle as a boxing ring, tennis court, or stage. I question the aggressive enthusiasm of the term “coach,” and wonder about the mentality of office workers who like it. Instead of likable, productive over-achievers who ask to be placed in “centerfield” to honestly contribute, I’m reminded of the faux achiever who wants to be in “centerfield” and considered a central “part of the game,” and has a lot to say about what needs to be done, but in the end, has no ability to deliver on his ambitions. He may have initially intended to make good, and simply became overwhelmed by the scope of his plans; or this person knew all along it’s good to sound ambitious and beg for centerfield, but not so good having to worry about repeatedly running for and catching the ball.

When you bring a corporate coach into your company, how do you avoid this outside consultant getting monopolized and controlled by these “centerfielders?”  Employees over-enthusiastic to the work of the coach are bound to sign their own, and other innocent bystander work groups, up for unwieldy assignments. Even if they only sign up themselves for realization of unrealistic plans, isn’t there a good chance they’ll drag down others with their all-but-inevitable failure?  Stagnation isn’t a good thing, but if I have to choose between a stagnating, though workable, group of employees, and one that, under the guidance of a coach, sets dynamic, though disruptive, goals, I think I prefer just staying put—especially when there’s no money to spare for mistakes. Of course, if your company is flush with cash, that’s another story. I guess that’s the one caveat to my feelings about coaches with quixotic ideas. Trial and error, and changing your company’s work process into a lab for innovative experiments, is a lot of fun, and possibly very promising, as long as you can afford the error part. How many of you can currently afford setbacks in your work process in the name of professional growth and dynamism?  Other than Heiresses Incorporated, I can’t think of too many companies with that kind of financial freedom for experimentation.

Corporate coaches worry me because if they happen to generate a mess instead of the hoped for mess of cash, it’s you and your employees who have to clean it up. The coach by that time will have received payment for her work, and just may be drinking her third Pina Colada on the beach in Puerto Rico while you’re chugging expressos at midnight in a frantic push to finish all the “deliverables” this brilliant coach encouraged you to sign up for.     

Instead of bringing in a corporate coach from the outside to push your workers and company to greatness, consider peer coaching. Being asked to set objectives and benchmarks for improvement by those your employees work with everyday and are accountable to (especially when their failure causes these colleagues extra work) increases the chances they’ll set realistic, relevant goals.  If you’re not doing it already, add a peer coaching workshop or two to your 360-feedback regimen. Many of you already are asking employees to comment on the performance of co-workers, so why not take it to the next level, and ask them to help these co-workers make improvements in response to the critiques they’ve just delivered to them?  They’ll need a quick tutorial beforehand on the art of constructive criticism, but once that precaution is dispensed with, I don’t see many downsides to having the people who know them best coach your employees and vice versa.  If the peer coach gives thoughtless advice, he or she, as part of the coachee’s work group, will have to live with the results.

Believe me, centerfield is overrated. There’s glory to the centerfield position, but one of those balls you fail to catch could hit you in the head, and then think how worse off you’ll be?

Has your company implemented peer coaching yet?  Do you agree it’s much better than bringing in a corporate coach from outside the company?  What tips can you offer other companies on effective employee and company-wide coaching?


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