Our culture celebrates individualism. We lionize the iconic founder (Steve Jobs) more than the amazing team (Apple). Although innovation is more often the product of collaboration, we like to think of it as a flash of insight that strikes the unique individual.
More importantly, this is an era where overweening attention to self is tolerated or even celebrated – a tendency that David Brooks has referred to the culture of the “Big Me”. When you look at high-profile leaders in business and government, narcissism doesn’t appear to be in decline.
Companies are getting wise to this as they make hiring decisions:When a group is evaluating someone’s suitability to join the team, the characteristics they are looking for generally revolve around traits such as strong communication skills, technical competence, and demonstrated energy.
But I think we undervalue one of the biggest game-changers that can predict future performance: the degree to which the candidate is coachable.
We’ve all heard the term before. To say someone is “coachable” is to say that they can improve based upon input from those with more experience. Note that the trait we value isn’t about simply receiving and acting upon feedback; after all, “feedbackability” is not a word (thankfully). Coachable people are people willing to sustain effort to improve their performance over a period of time.
Since coachability uses sports coaching as a metaphor, and since our experience with those coaches were formed when we were young, it’s natural to think of coaching as something provided by an authority figure who is older and more experienced. And to an extent, received coaching from someone in a position of authority can enable us to be pushed out of our comfort zone without rejecting the message. If one of my peers had been making me and my teammates do wind-sprints up and down the ice rink or soccer fields of my youth, at some point I probably would have said “nah, I’m done – thanks”.
Looping back from my comment that we might undervalue someone’s coachability, what would we say about someone who is coachable? How about…
- They WANT to be better.
- They are willing to work.
- They are listeners.
- They are learners.
- They have control over their ego.
- Their potential isn’t necessarily capped.
- They are more likely to be team players.
All of us have watched a child while they try to tie their shoes or flip a pancake while loudly insisting that “I can do it myself!”. The push by children to do tasks independently is an important part of their development as they construct their identities. But some people never move on to adulthood and the path to wisdom. They are forever stuck in their childhood, insisting that “I can do it myself!” to anyone who will listen.
We tend to think of the coach as being older than the learner. While this is often true, to see coaching as something only useful for the young can be the undoing of more experienced workers (and retirees). The fact of the matter is that we ALWAYS need coaching. This is particularly true as new ways of doing things marginalize the old ways that took years to master.
Here’s a good way to think of it: when you’re in your thirties you need to learn from someone in their fifties, and when you’re in your fifties you need to learn from someone in their thirties.
The ability to be coachable is perhaps the most under-appreciated way to separate yourself from the pack and be extraordinary.