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Put Me in, Coach—or, Rather, Put Coaches in

Here’s a prediction: A dramatic increase in one-on-one coaching will be one of the key workplace trends of the 21st century.

A recent essay in the New Yorker by physician and author Atul Gawande helped cement this notion for me.

Gawande’s article is the latest in a string of convincing books, articles and studies showing that some prevailing views of talent and professional development are wrong-headed. In particular, many people and organizations assume that skilled professionals need little or no additional guidance after they’ve earned their credentials. And if they are to improve their performance or stay current in the field, it should be left up to the individual.

The medical profession is among those where this belief predominates. But Gawande, a surgeon with eight years of experience, makes the surprising discovery that he is better off with a coach. Like any good story, his insight comes from an unexpected place.

A chance lesson with a tennis coach on a business trip leads Gawande to dramatically improve his serve for the first time in decades. That experience, in turn, prods Gawande to question the possibility of coaching in other domains and to reflect on the way his performance as a doctor—measured in rates of complications—had peaked in recent years.

When he invites an old medical-school professor to observe and coach him, his performance starts to improve again. Here’s Gawande’s reaction to the way his coach points out a host of small flaws during a thyroidectomy that seemed just fine to Gawande:

“That one 20-minute discussion gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years.”

Gawande also makes the savvy observation that organizations seeking to improve results tend to devote much more attention to new-fangled technology than to the capabilities of people employing the tools.

“What ultimately makes the difference is how well people use technology. We have devoted disastrously little attention to fostering those abilities,” he writes.

Gawande’s essay marshals evidence that coaching can help various professionals, including teachers and concert violinists. And it comes on the heels of a wealth of research in recent decades that “deliberate” or “purposeful” practice with a coach can make a big difference in performance.

Some companies have warmed up to coaching. They provide coaches to senior executives, for example. Many also agree with the philosophy that individuals can continually grow rather than believe that talent is largely innate.

“The best organizations assign people to jobs in much the same way that sports coaches or music teachers choose exercises for their students—to push them just beyond their current capabilities and build the skills that are most important,” Geoff Colvin wrote a few years ago in Talent Is Overrated.

Still, stretch assignments and individual mentoring for top executives are just the tip of the coaching iceberg. I think companies will come to see value in giving one-on-one coaching attention to big swaths of the workforce.

It won’t be easy or cheap. Even just a few hours a week of coaching for the bulk of a firm’s employees would be costly. And most employees are already time-crunched. Managers could play a big role in expanded coaching, but recent trends are for them to spend less time with direct reports. As Gawande points out, greater amounts of coaching also may require new attitudes about failure and even a new ethics of coach-professional confidentiality.

But the payoffs for companies moving in this direction are potentially huge. The sorts of performance gains that top athletes have achieved with coaches and that Gawande began to see in his own surgeries are available to most workers.

Not just skills but attitudes will improve as employees appreciate the chance to learn—leading to greater customer service, more productivity, better sales. Smart businesses will eventually see extensive coaching as a competitive advantage. What’s more, they will benefit from the side effect of a burnished reputation as an employer—one willing to invest in workers.

So I’ll stick my neck out on this one: There will be a massive increase in one-on-one coaching in the decades ahead.

And if I’m wrong, I can always blame a lack of personal coaching.