Coaches Offer 'Outside Eyes and Ears' That Mentors Can't

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Many large law firms have formal processes for mentoring (a practice long prevalent in smaller firms), by which senior lawyers are supposed to give practice development and career advancement insights to junior ones.

But such mentoring is not coaching. A coach is not a friend who compliments and encourages; rather, a coach is a leader who occasionally pushes and challenges.

Waiting for a pat on the back or to be given the answers is not making proper use of a coach. The best coaching relationship is one in which the parties engage in a process of asking questions and applying challenging answers. That is difficult to do in a mentoring relationship in which the senior person holds the power to advance or retard a career.

Coaching is most commonly identified with athletic achievement. You may recall a supportive coach who encouraged sports in school or children's leagues. But for athletes who are deadly serious — the professionals for whom excelling at sports is their passion and their livelihood — the role of a coach is far tougher and more dynamic.

The same is true for any professional who seeks coaching. Surgeon Atul Gawande wrote recently in The New Yorker about this aspect of what coaches do: "Coaches are not teachers, but they teach. They're not your boss — in professional tennis, golf, and skating, the athlete hires and fires the coach — but they can be bossy."

Musicians and singers, Gawande pointed out, think of their coaches as "outside eyes and ears." They hear and see things that even the best performers can't detect about their own performances.

In endurance coaching, anyone can design hard workouts that exhaust you. In lawyerly coaching, anyone can tell you what to do even if it is beyond your comfort zone. But a good coach will help you understand where you want to go, devise a plan that is within your ability and that will get you there, and then be your mentor and accountability partner to assure your success.

Coaches fill many roles. A coach can be your colleague, spouse, significant other or a professional whose career is devoted to helping others like you to succeed. And even though you as a lawyer are in the business of giving advice, you can always benefit by receiving advice from someone with "outside eyes and ears."

David Maister, a well-known consultant to professional service organizations, has said of his own coach: "With skilled coaching I was capable of getting more done than I ever dreamed of and could achieve a great deal more when coached well than I could when left to my own devices."

Successful people engage coaches throughout their careers to reach pinnacles of success, and continually reinvent themselves through coaching to stay there. It is not an episodic engagement (that's consulting). Coaching is the development of a career-long team approach to identifying the challenges of your endeavor and to overcoming them.

The best coaching experience is an active and interactive process, a dynamic partnership in which the coaching client defines and conveys to the coach what the client "really wants" and works in partnership with the coach to achieve it.

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