To Better the Best

Is there a point in your career when it’s no longer wise to seek professional development?

About ten months ago, a new employer recruited “Brian,” a senior executive. By their own account, it was a long, expensive search for a tough-to-fill, key role. In place for a month, Brian approached the head of HR to request an executive coach for support as he assimilated into the complex, matrixed multinational. The HR head rebuffed, “I thought you were qualified when we hired you.” Three weeks ago, Brian called me. He had just accepted a job offer from a higher tier competitor, which included one year of executive coaching in addition to other generous terms.

We’re accustomed to professionally developing High Potentials.  Progressive organizations dangle it as a perk for which up-and-comers vie.  Yet, it’s hard to deny there’s a point where we view this differently. At a certain career stage or role, we expect the incumbent to have already “arrived.” What would you think of your CFO wanting to learn more finance?  Your General Counsel seeking confirmation about the law?  How about the CEO requesting leadership coaching.

In a recent piece for The New Yorker, physician and bestselling author Atul Gawande challenges the successful and accomplished to engage a coach to improve some area of professional performance. Already deeply experienced and highly skilled, Gawande describes how he engaged a retired surgeon from his residency to further hone his specialized technical skills in endocrine surgery. In the comprehensive and nuanced article, he admirably and unflinchingly self-discloses some cases where he underperformed. He goes on to describe how the coaching led him to performance improvements.

When it comes to supporting senior executives with their leadership and team effectiveness skills, I can vouch for two consistent success predictors. The first is whether the “coachee” will be – like Gawande – unsentimentally open about his or her performance. The second is whether the coachee’s key constituencies can handle it. Gawande describes the awkwardness of explaining a coach’s presence to his surgical team and to a patient awaiting anesthesia.  Wait, you mean my expert isn’t the expert?

Gawande cites Tennis superstar Rafael Nadal to point out the inherent irony. There’s no surprise when the world’s elite athletes work closely with a coach. We’d be shocked to hear otherwise. Yet, some institutions – like Brian’s former employer – expect their top performers fully baked. I find this as unrealistic on Mahogany Row as it is on the 50-yard line at Giants Stadium. That’s because we all benefit from some scrutiny to adhere to form, prevent bad outcomes and prepare for future challenges.

Maybe it’s time for organizations to take material steps to destigmatize executive-level performance improvement mechanisms. Build a rigorous program, announce it to the world, measure the results and publish for all to see.  Create pull by providing the support first to the highest achieving, most widely acclaimed performers.  Brand it as a perquisite; not remediation.  Let’s encourage unselfconscious lifelong learning in our institutions.


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