Why I Became a Coach

I’ve been lucky.

Lucky enough to get into Stanford, and then Harvard Business School a few years later. Lucky enough to move to London after HBS – I thought I’d stay for 2 or 3 years, but ended up staying 22, and loved every minute of it.

And lucky in my career: I had the good fortune of working for two of the greatest companies in the world, and of starting and running three pretty good companies of my own.

All of which brings me to today’s topic: why, after having all of these great jobs, would I decide to become an executive coach?

Here’s why.

My time as a CEO taught me many things:

Success depends more on people than numbers. This may seem obvious. But the reality is that most companies still don’t behave this way. Instead, they behave as if the numbers are the business, and the people, important as they are, are seen as a means to an end – and that end is ultimately a set of numbers.

I have a very analytic background, and I love working with numbers. But while the numbers perspective may be the most relevant from a shareholder’s perspective, it is wildly misleading about how results are achieved. The simple fact is that 99% of the numbers in a business are a snapshot of the past. And while you’re looking at the numbers, your people are busy creating the company’s future. So, yeah, people really do matter – more than numbers.

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Listening matters more than talking. OK, I don’t actually believe that. Let’s say they matter about equally. But lots of CEOs, including me in my early days, act as if the success of the business hinges on their every word. And they treat the act of listening as an unfortunate but necessary pause between their opportunities to add huge amounts of value by talking more.

My experience is that when you really listen to someone, when they feel both heard and understood, then magical things happen: first, you learn something. The older I get, the more valuable that seems. (What’s the real value of repeating stuff you already know?) Second, you dramatically increase the chances that you will be heard – people are much more willing to really listen when they feel they have been heard. Lastly, my experience is that listening is an essential step in enrolling and engaging people in your mission, whatever it may be.

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Seeing people develop and grow is more satisfying than just about anything else in business. Getting a business off the ground is a hugely rewarding experience – but by its very nature it’s a one off experience. Once the company is motoring along, the most rewarding thing, for me, and for many CEOs I know, is helping people to grow. And that satisfaction never stops.

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People don’t grow gradually. – nothing happens for a while, and then they grow by leaps and bounds. The thing that sets off these periods of rapid growth is usually an “Aha moment,” where they learn something important about themselves that changes the lens through with they see and evaluate different situations. This in turn opens up huge new panoramas for them, new lands that are exciting to explore, and that bring new options. The energy they feel at that moment is palpable, and the results that come soon after are huge.

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CEOs with the skills and inclination to spend time on developing their people get to experience these four truths every day. But the CEO phase of my career felt like it was over.

So why become a coach? Because coaching was the only other profession I could find where I got to apply these four truths, see the results, and enjoy watching the individual and organisational successes that follow. Plus, it’s great fun.

Tune in next week for my next topic:

Coaching sounds real good, but what is it actually good for?

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