Put Me In, Coach!
The Answer To ‘Now What?’
I was lucky. In my early thirties, I got a new boss, who taught me how to be a good manager, and how to promote television. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but twenty years later I realized what he’d done: methodically and intentionally, over a few years, he offered me what he knew. It set me up for the rest of my working life.
Twenty years later, when I started my last job, running a biggish department, it seemed everybody had a coach, so I got one too — the same coach as coached the CEO. Drink the same kool-aid the Big Boss drinks, I figured. She helped me do a few hard things, fire some people, be bossy. It was useful, helped my confidence. It didn’t alter my thinking.
After a decade, I got canned — “restructuring.” It hurt my feelings, but I understood. But… now what? I asked my old friend Harry. Harry had become a coach. He told me about it, excitedly, throughout his training. He was psyched. He didn’t want to help people update their resume and get a replacement job for the one they just lost. He wanted to help people find the work that would make them happiest, most fulfilled. Who does that?
Well, Harry does. I paid him with my own money, not company money. Because I was wigging out, honestly, about what I should do. He took me though his process. I had to adjust my behavior. When we were in a coaching session, we stopped being old friends making sick jokes. Mostly. Harry explained it to me: this was coaching time, not friend time. Furthermore, I had to set the agenda; Harry’s job was to guide the work. We stayed in character, me the anxious, confused former exec, Harry the reassuring guide. His process wasn’t mysterious, but I would never have come up with it. He’s a trained coach, for god’s sake, which is why I was paying him. The work, reading and writing and talking, pushed and pulled my thinking forward. It was emotionally hard, like therapy, but it wasn’t therapy. It was confusing, until things came into focus. Harry was expert at asking me questions that made me think in a new way. He pointed out how I had more agency than I had imagined. I began to see what I could do, actions I could take, to get where I wanted to go. It was always, finally, pragmatic: I want this, so I do this. By the time the coaching reached its end point, I had what I needed: an understanding I hadn’t imagined at the beginning.
I’m telling you all this in case your in your mid-thirties, or in your mid-fifties. If you’re younger, find a smart person to work for, someone to teach you how to be excellent. Or be like me, very lucky, and serendipitously suddenly have a great boss. Either way, good luck, young professional!
If you’re older, I’m here to tell you: the best part of your work life can happen towards the end, when you know the most, have lots of experience, but maybe feel unfulfilled, or confused about what direction to take, or hoping for more satisfaction from your work. Find a coach you trust and want to work with. It makes no sense to need help and not take it.
I told Harry I wanted to write this, because I’ve known a lot of successful people who got stuck after doing a lot of good work, and didn’t have somebody to seriously ask them, “What do you want?”