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Coaching Builds Champions – Both in Sports and in Business

November 6, 2017


It was Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers were on the road playing the Golden State Warriors. The halftime score was 49-42 – advantage Warriors – and the mood in the Cav’s locker room was tense, to put it mildly.


LeBron James had a mere twenty-four minutes in which to fulfill his promise of bringing Cleveland its first ever NBA championship. He was leading his team in assists and points scored at the time, but more was expected of him. He was focal point of the team – the ‘chief executive officer’ on the floor if you will. Yes, the responsibility fell on James’ shoulders, but more was necessary to push him to perform at an even greater level.


Enter Coach Tyronn Lue. He didn’t mince words nor shy away from his superstar, instead, going right after him. "Game 7! Your legacy is on the line." That was not the first time Lue had confronted LeBron that night. During a first-half time out he had this to say – "LeBron, what's wrong with your body language? Your body language is terrible. You got to guard Draymond. You got to take the open shot. Quit turning the ball over. Fix your body language. Anything else you want me to tell you?"


Lebron’s first reaction was one of indignation. Then, Cavalier’s assistant Damon Jones spoke to him: "You trusted Coach all season. You said he was going to take us to where we wanted to go. If you trusted him then, you need to trust him now."


Whether you’re a basketball fan or not, you likely can guess the outcome. LeBron James went on to give a stellar second-half performance. LeBron was named series MVP, Coach Lue cried tears of joy and the city of Cleveland celebrated their first professional sports championship in fifty-two years.*


This is clearly a Cinderella-like story, so why share it with a group of high-achieving executives many of whom reside in the C-suite or owner’s office? Simple. This is a story that demonstrates being pushed to overcome long odds and delivering at a greater level than one might feel capable of. Bottom line: even superstars need coaching.


During the forty-plus years of my professional career, I’ve heard executives at all levels state with conviction that they have advanced beyond the need for coaching. I’ve heard this both during my twenty-five-year career at beverage giant Anheuser-Busch, Inc. and in the fourteen subsequent years that I’ve been engaged in my own coaching practice.


What I have discovered to be more accurate is that some people are simply un-coachable. It’s nearly impossible to help those who don’t believe a need for help exists.


It’s the executive who understands that learning never ends – that fresh perspective and new ideas will fuel productivity and increase value – who- will benefit from coaching.


What is equally important for the executive open to learning from others, is finding the right coach. Senior executives are in a unique position, often with a limited circle of trusted advisors, who are without a hidden agenda. This is where the right coach can be the most valuable, and this is why.


Outside perspective: A fresh set of eyes will see things that are often missed by those too close to a situation. It can be like wallpaper – we enter a room for the umpteenth time and don’t consciously take in the details of the décor. Someone entering for the first time is more likely to notice that the wallpaper, paint, drapes and/or furniture have seen better days.


It’s that type of outside perspective that will most benefit the executive who’s so deeply immersed in their business that daily issues are no longer noticed. An effective executive coach brings an outside perspective and observations that not only bring unexpected insight, but ensures that it is the executive that benefits from and shares that insight with his team.


Trusted advisor: How often are executives told what their employees believe they what they want to hear versus what they should hear? The higher up the ladder the more frequently this becomes the case. The right executive coach is one who will state things exactly as they are – a person who is focused exclusively on what is best for you and your company without regard for personal gain. As Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric said:


“Does coaching work? Yes. Good coaches provide a truly important service. They tell you the truth when no one else will.”


Confidant: The saying “It’s lonely at the top” is certainly true. The higher one’s position in an organization, the less likely they are to have someone with whom they can be totally open, whether the topic is work related or of a personal nature. The truly effective executive coach is not only able to listen in complete confidence, but also able to provide sound feedback which, otherwise, would almost certainly not be available.


Building legacy: Every high-achieving executive has realized success. Once they’re reached their stated goals, most expand and broaden their definition of success, seeking still further accomplishment. What I find to be more and more common with successful people is their interest in shifting focus from success to significance. Having achieved great things, they begin to become more aware of leaving their mark on the world, and contributing to the general good.


Again, an effective coach can play a vital role in this effort, acting as a guide, a sounding board, a reality check.


Return on Investment: When executives hear ROI, they instinctively think of a financial measurement, as well they should. And in terms of executive coaching, this is, in part, the case. According to FORTUNE Magazine:


“Business coaching is attracting America’s top CEOs because, put simply, business coaching works. In fact, when asked for a conservative estimate of monetary payoff from the coaching they got… managers described an average return of more than $100,000, or about six times what the coaching had cost their companies.”


When it comes to coaching, there is also an intangible ROI – one that is much more difficult to measure, but many will say is the more rewarding. This return is based on personal satisfaction, inner peace, and the feeling of achieving significance. That type of return is said to be priceless.


Engaging the right executive coach – at any level – can make the difference between good and great.


* My recap of the LeBron and Lue Game 7 story was inspired by Kurt Streeter’s article Tyronn Lue and the Igniting of LeBron. To read the full ESPN article, click here.

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