The last Lambent Letter was about practice and what it can make you. Better than you were, no doubt, but not perfect. How much better depends on the quality of the practice. It reminds me of a story that I used to tell my guitar students. It is probably true, or if not, it deserves to be. There was Spanish teenager some years ago who was extremely talented at the guitar. He was very good, practiced a lot and was looking forward to a career as a concert player. But at that time, National Service was current in Spain and he was eligible. Physical handicaps may get you out of National Service, but being exceptionally good at something will not. So he bit the bullet and prepared for two years of National Service. Guitar playing is not a skill that is highly valued in the army, but because the young man showed so much promise, and several eminent musicians vouched for him, (and the guitar is the national instrument of Spain), the military authorities were prepared to give a little ground. They allowed him five hours of practice a week, one hour on each weekday afternoon. And so it was for his two years of National Service.
When he returned to civilian life, his music teachers were astonished. Not only had he not lost any skill, but he was actually rather better than before he left. He must have done deliberate practice, and deliberate practice is what gets you better at something, not the time you spend on it. It is possible to spend a lot of time at something and get worse at it. Garbage In, Garbage Out works in every field of life, not just computers. If you repeat something in a mediocre way, you get better at doing it in a mediocre way.
Coaches know the basic rules of action steps to give clients, and do we give them deliberate practice?
What does your client want to get better at? Their relationship with their partner? Their relationship with their children? Public speaking? Making money? Decision making?
If you read the last Lambent Letter, you will remember that deliberate practice has four characteristics. First it is designed and carefully thought out. So, it can be designed by coach and client together. Coaches do not ‘give’ action steps to their clients, although the literature often says this as a kind of shorthand. Coach and client agree them together if they are congruent with the client’s goals and values. So deliberate practice is practice designed to get results.
Deliberate practice can be repeated easily. So it should not be long and complicated. Feedback is crucial, so if you were designing deliberate practice for a client to have a better relationship, then the client will need to get feedback from the significant other person about how they are doing. The client will also need feedback from the coach. Finally deliberate practice is mentally demanding. This is why we avoid it. This is a handy checklist for any action steps we agree with a client.
There is another aspect of the saying, ‘practice makes perfect’ that can catch us out. Perfection is a trap in itself. It is unattainable – in this life anyway, for the more you know the more you know you don’t know. The more you can do, the more you realise your limitations. Once you ease open the door of the Aladdin’s cave of a fascinating skill and look in, you know that the possibilities are infinite.
Coaches are leaders to some degree, so they do need to function as a role model, however, many coaches think they have to be perfect. They do not.
How far should the coach embody the qualities that they are helping the client to work on? How much should they show the change that the client wants to make?
Should a relationship coach have a perfect relationship? Should a wealth coach have a six figure income? Should an executive coach be able to run a multimillion dollar company? I think not. But a coach does have to be competent within the domain that they are coaching in order to be credible. A relationship coach needs to be able to maintain good relationships. A wealth coach should have enough money to live at the level that satisfies them, whatever that might be. An executive coach needs to have business knowledge and acumen and be able to think like an executive.
There is a well know story of Gandhi that makes a similar point. A woman came to him with her son for advice. Her son was eating way too much sugar. It was rotting his teeth and making him ill. She had come to Gandhi because he was her son’s hero and she hoped the son would pay attention to what Gandhi said. She asked him to tell her son to give up sugar. Gandhi thought and replied, ‘Please come back next week and bring your son.’ The woman did not understand, but she did as she was told. ‘The next week she came again with her son. Gandhi took the boy aside and said, ‘Stop eating sugar. Your mother is right.’ The boy was impressed (and presumably complied with the request). The mother approached Ghandi again and asked, ‘Why didn’t you say that last week?’ Ghandi replied, ‘Last week, I was eating sugar myself.’
Perhaps Ghandi went back to eating sugar the next day, who knows? But the moral of the story is a good one. Do not tell your clients to make a change that you would not be prepared to make. They will sense the reluctance in you. Just like children who do not pay attention to a parent giving them advice, however good the advice is, if the parent themselves is not taking it. I have seen too many CEOs advocating the benefits of coaching to their managers, but when asked who is their own coach, they suddenly seem lost for words. And more important, these companies are not successful.
We pay attention to an example. We do not pay attention to a doctor that tells us not to smoke if we see a full ashtray in their consulting room. We expect someone who takes an assertiveness class to be assertive and not defer to everyone. So the coach needs to be congruent. They need to be following their own advice. But they do not need to be a perfect example of it.
So coaches do not have to be perfect, thank God, they just have to be good enough. We need to be authentic, to know the path and the best way to know the path is to walk it ourselves. You reach for the stars with your clients, you are not the star they try to grasp.