J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

What Makes a Good Coach?

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Photo by Carl R. Jr.

I became interested in the topic of coaching after reading this excellent article in the New Yorker by Atul Gawande, published in 2011. Gawande, a skilled and well-respected surgeon, noticed that he had more or less stopped improving at surgery. Instead of coasting, he chose the path of self-improvement and hired a coach (a retired surgeon and mentor). Though his decision raised some eyebrows in the O.R. (it’s unusual for a practicing surgeon to use a coach), Gawande found numerous areas for small, incremental improvements (how he positioned his elbows, how his lights were placed). This was true even for operations he had successfully performed hundreds of times.

Since then I’ve offered pro-bono coaching services in various areas to a few friends. I was curious … would I enjoy it? Would I be good at it? I did enjoy it, and I think in each case my coaching services were helpful (though not enormously helpful).

Recently I met with a professional business coach, Ellen Ercolini, to learn more about coaching, both as a craft and as a profession. Ellen specializes in helping entrepreneurs and lifestyle businesses* make more money. Unexpectedly, the second half of our meeting turned into an impromptu coaching session for me (my career goals, strategy, how I present myself online, etc.). A short session with a highly-skilled professional coach made me realize just how powerful an insightful coach can be. I left the meeting inspired, and within 48 hours took action on several major projects I’d been putting off (including transitioning this blog from wordpress.com to a self-hosted wordpress.org plugin).

Meeting with Ellen also helped me understand just how deep coaching can go. Not only does Ellen have detailed comprehensive systems in place (both for her own coaching process, and for her clients to implement within their own businesses), but she has a method for categorizing the personality types of her clients, and a corresponding set of motivational/behavioral modification techniques for each type.

Reflecting on what I’ve learned about coaching to date, here’s my current list of what it takes to a be a good coach in a particular area:

  1. A deep understanding of the technical aspects of the craft/sport/business/activity, usually acquired through many years of experience.
  2. A well-tested, constantly-refined teaching system or program (exercises and lessons that result in incremental skill improvement).
  3. The desire and ability to observe closely and provide helpful feedback.
  4. The desire and ability to understand different personality types and what methods and communication style motivates each type.

My “A-ha!” moment was realizing that I personally lack the desire to try and understand what approaches best motivate different types of people. I’m interested in motivation in the abstract (especially for my fictional characters), but the nitty-gritty of applying various psychological techniques to motivate other people just isn’t my thing. It doesn’t fascinate me. It does fascinate people like Ellen Ercolini (for her, I think, clients are like puzzles waiting to be solved), and that’s a big part of what makes her an effective coach.

Hiring a Coach

I’m definitely open to the idea of hiring a writing coach, but first I want to experience what it’s like to work with a professional editor. Editing and coaching have some overlapping areas (another thing that Gawande discusses in the New Yorker article), and a good editor may function something like a coach. I’ll report back once I have more to share.

Would I hire a coach in another area? If I get more serious about racquetball, I would consider it, but at the moment I’m learning in leaps and bounds from watching youtube videos and getting tips from more experienced players. Same with chess. But if/when I hit a plateau, hiring a coach will be my first move if I wanted to break through to the next skill level.

Have you hired a personal coach? For what? Was it helpful? I would really like to know.

*  What does lifestyle business mean? It’s a controversial term, sometimes used derogatorily to refer to businesses that aren’t startups (businesses that aren’t trying to massively scale and maximize revenue at any cost). I use the term with a positive connotation — a profitable business that doesn’t entirely take over your life. As 37 Signals co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson points out, the direct correlation between hours worked and income is an antiquated notion. In the modern economy you can work very little and makes gobs of money, or vice versa. There is no virtue (or even necessarily profit) in overwork. I consider my own freelance database consulting to be a lifestyle business; I work <20 hours a week and have time to write fiction, write this blog, spend as much time as I want in the music studio, spend time with my family and friends, and play tabletop RPG games. I’ve been asked why I haven’t jumped into the startup game (I have technical skills, I know people in the startup world, I live in the Bay Area). Because I like my life, and I don’t need more money.

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3 Comments

  1. A note regarding comments … for some reason some comments are being tagged as spam when they shouldn’t be. I’m still troubleshooting the issue, but if your comment doesn’t appear or isn’t published, it isn’t because I haven’t approved it. Hope to get the issue sorted out soon.

  2. Excellent post. Very insightful post in your decision process to get more involved/not involved as a coach. Helpful to know yourself.

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