“Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.”
Peter F. Drucker
Once you are centered, openminded, and receptive to new information and new ideas; and once you have gauged the abilities of your team, it is time to create a business with a bias for action, high energy, and disruptive thinking. In the role of coach, you will use every tool and technique available to nudge each player in the team toward personal and professional improvement, with an emphasis on a clear vision of the team’s mission and purpose.
Navy SEAL Teams assign trainers, coaches, and mentors, to provide the members of that military unit with knowledge based learning, critical skills development, and when ready, enlightened empowerment. Many corporations also do this to good effect. My take on each of these three methods of improvement is straight forward. When building or rebuilding a business, holistically or in part, you need to be ready to invest time and energy into improving the performance of every person and then be willing to drive collective team efforts to a higher level of play.
My experience has been that leaders understand the value of training, coaching, and mentoring but fall short of implementing one, two, or all three of these methods. The common rationalizations I hear are lack of money, too little time, or too few qualified people to manage and deliver each of these methods while simultaneously running day to day operations.
I must admit, you must be comfortable investing scarce resources today to ensure improvements in creative and productive human behavior in the future. This level of comfort and forward thinking is rare in smaller companies. New employees or members are expected to show up ready and stay that way. This hope-based approach feels rugged and tough minded but it’s shortsighted as well as dead wrong. Unless your business is static, or worse, declining, your employees need to keep pace with the increased volume, increased complexity, increased velocity, or a combination of these factors. They need to be developed.
Training to a Technical Standard
My definition of training helps me to separate it from the concepts, focus and expected outcomes of coaching and mentoring. Training is often used as a catch-all term encompassing any effort to deliver new information or skills, at any level, and for any length of time, to employees and members of companies. Training, in my opinion, has specifically defined elements delivered to a tightly defined standard, in a specific period.
The first way training is different from coaching and mentoring is the focus on specific learning tasks or elements that collectively add up to the addition of a new skill or imparting new understanding. Technical training is used for all types of specialties, physicians, carpenters, truck drivers, military personnel, all benefit from initial credentialling training and follow on learning. The term technical in this case means itemized, specific, and directive. You must turn the valve to the right, you must throttle the airspeed back, you must perform the function in this order. You get the picture.
Before I went to SEAL training, I was trained to be a RADAR operator and Air Traffic Controller by the Navy and graduated with all the skills necessary to operate the mechanical equipment found on a sophisticated Navy ship. After many weeks of intense schooling, I passed all my proficiency exams and practical exercises. I was ready to go to a ship and begin my assignment. Even though I was a proud graduate of an intense training program I assure you no Captain of a United States ship of war would have relied on my abilities without a team of coaches putting me through drills and observing, correcting, admonishing, and praising my efforts. Advanced training wasn’t enough, it was the beginning.
In the SEALs, I attended over twenty schools and courses of all kinds. In each of these courses, I was taught specific procedures and techniques to perform a specific role. When these courses were over, I was ready to assume the role of a qualified participant, but I wasn’t considered an expert, not yet. Experience, coaching, and insightful mentoring were needed before I was considered an expert.
The second way I differentiate training is the application of well-defined standards. Training information presented without a standard of performance is hollow and ineffective. If you were a surgeon would it matter if you removed all the tumor or would a part of the tumor be sufficient? Should ground maintenance inflate all the aircraft tires to the standard air pressure or are two out of four tires good enough?
Leaders who create or review training curriculum, or monitor and observe training, should make sure the standards of performance for everything being taught are a part of the material delivery method and the final student testing. Training without standards is like spitting into a strong wind, an embarrassing outcome.
The third-way training differs from its two cousins, coaching and mentoring, is duration. Training is classically designed to the length of time it takes to deliver the information, practice the skill or skills, and test or validate that the student has attained the course objectives through personal demonstration. This means training can be as short as an hour in length, and as long as eight years in duration. Training can be held as required, scheduled or can be impromptu. It can be part of onboarding new hires, or as part of formal training pipelines for professionals in trade schools, colleges, and universities.
Coaching to an Operational Standard
When does training end and coaching begin? It depends on the definitions you chose to use. I think coaching is a long-term effort to improve the performance of someone who is already trained to do what they are supposed to do. Coaching is an intimate, one on one engagement. Training can be conducted this way but is more often executed in large groups for efficiency sake.
Coaching is an operational area of behavioral influence. You can teach culture, but it takes coaching to ingrain a culture in every individual. You can train a group as a team, but it takes coaching to move the team from aspirational goals to execution and excellence. Coaching is leading behavior through surveillance and modification.
Coaching also takes wisdom, sound judgment, and an understanding of human nature. Of course, you need a certain level of technical knowledge, but good coaches are not always technical experts. To train a person or a group requires a high level of technical expertise and specific functional knowledge. Wisdom or judgment is optional.
Both approaches to human behavior and performance improvement require solid communication skills but coaching also requires the ability to listen and understand. A proficient coach also communicates to motivate and guide. Training instructors would like you to be motivated to learn the material or the skill being taught, but they are not obligated to move you to do so.
Most training tends to be one-way information flow, instructor to student. Most coaching is an interactive, two-way dialogue. Both delivery methods are important with training usually preceding coaching in the developmental process. So, now that your people are trained and working successfully toward their, and the company’s professional objectives. What comes next?
Mentoring to Achieve Peak Excellence
The terms coaching and mentoring have blurred in recent years with the advent of executive coaching, leadership coaching, and peak performance coaching focused on senior management in midsize to large companies and corporations. Most often in practice, these engagements, internally resourced or outsourced to consultants, are really mentorships.
An internal or external mentor can be assigned to you by your boss, a board of directors, or you can seek out and retain a mentor on your own. Mentors come in all sizes and shapes and every industry, profit or non-profit, benefits from the use of mentoring programs. Mentors are highly focused on one individual’s success. They may be paid to do so or if you’re lucky, they agree to do so as a favor. In any case, having a mentor can help you through unique professional challenges.
I have been privileged to have several mentors in my professional progression from enlisted SEAL to officer, while a portfolio manager, and in my current role as CEO and Chief Strategy Officer. My mentors seem to have appeared at just the right time for me to bridge my abilities from a place where training and coaching had reached the limits of their helpfulness.
As a SEAL you always prepare for war or at least conflict at some scale. Short, chaotic surges of uncertainty and high risk followed by boredom and continuous effort to maintain critical technical skills. My first significant mentor came early in my first five years as a SEAL. Bob Gallagher’s nickname was “the Eagle” and he was a veteran of countless combat missions in Vietnam. Bob was highly decorated, a recipient of the Navy Cross, the second-highest honor presented for valor next to the Congressional Medal of Honor. We all looked up to this incredible warrior.
The eagle was a quiet unassuming man who was so soft spoken he seemed to whisper his orders. After two years in the SEAL teams, I was assigned to the training department, reporting to this legend. The eagle was straight forward, clear minded, and brief, very brief. He didn’t give speeches and he didn’t berate us when unsatisfied with our work. You just knew you’d failed to meet his exacting standards.
There was over a decade difference in age between us but that didn’t matter. I asked thousands of questions, about war, combat, decisions under fire, tactics, training, anything that might make me smarter, give me an edge. I hungered for this level of wisdom because you see I had transcended training and being coached. Now I was the coach, helping others as a primary duty assignment in the SEAL Team Two training department.
The Eagle was my secret weapon. If only I could learn half of what he knew I would be far ahead of my peers and more than ready for the day I saw combat. I didn’t see combat for another ten years and when I did, I was a commissioned officer leading SEALs. I’d almost forgotten all I’d learned from the Eagle ten years earlier, that is until combat became real for me.
The Eagle’s maxims, admonishments, insights, sneaky tricks, and simple tactics flooded into my brain along with the adrenaline rush and the fear of failure. I immediately realized the value of his sage advice and mentoring and as a result, I cast aside much of the new, over thought and overly complex doctrine of special operations taught in the SEAL teams and instead embraced the Eagle’s common sense game plan for success in combat and it worked!
Years later, when I began my new life out of uniform, I found that the job of financial advisor and portfolio manager required more than brains and knowledge of the stock market, it required clients! I began that second career without a single client account and none on the horizon. My undergraduate degree in business administration and my graduate degree in management were comprehensive and enlightening but they fell short in one critical area required for business success, how to sell.
Don’t get me wrong, those B-school professors spoke about sales, I knew “sales” was important and why. They just didn’t teach us how to sell anything. I realized I had to learn to sell and learn fast or my new career would be over before it began. The financial services firm’s sales guidance was pretty much confined to a hardy good luck!
Of course, my firm had sales expectations, the compensation was all based on sales commissions, no salary. I was expected to generate sales input by finding prospects, pitching my services to them until they capitulated and opened an account. Then I needed to create an investment plan and start buying investments to support that plan. When that was done the sales commission system would spit out my share of that sale. Neat and simple.
I had a family member, Matt Fitzpatrick, a high school graduate and navy veteran of four years (electronics), who was making over two hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year selling meat wrapping machinery to grocery stores. In desperation (on day four after passing my certifications to invest other people’s money) I called him up and explained my problem. At that point, every cell in my body was screaming I should quit and find another profession. It felt logical to quit. I wanted to blame my professors for screwing up my education and my firm for “setting me up” to fail miserably.
Matt’s soothing voice on the other end of the line began to talk me down off the ledge. He started by inventorying my personal and professional skill sets, one strong point at a time. After thirty minutes of this question and answer session, he paused. At this point, I fully expected him to agree with my bleak assessment and suggest I quit, find a good salaried job, and move on, but that’s not what happened.
Matt became my mentor. His first observation, based on his thorough skills assessment, was that I should forget cold calling and other direct sales techniques and instead, grow my business using informative seminars. He explained how my briefing and teaching experience in the Navy dovetailed perfectly with the skills required to stand in front of a group of potential clients looking for help. I took his sage advice and went on to perfect the art of investment and financial planning seminars, often holding two a week in the first two years of my new profession. My business ramped up rapidly.
These days, I find I’m spending much of my time evaluating companies to purchase or assessing the market value of the companies in our portfolio of businesses. This process is a skill and an art I did not develop on my own, you guessed it, I had a powerful mentor who showed me the way.
Mentoring is useful in helping your best people push past their self-imposed limits and it can assist your leaders to evolve as they struggle to cope with greater levels of risk and responsibility. If you don’t have a mentor, it’s never too late. Also suggest or impose the use of mentorships for your subordinate leaders. Make sure you apply this effective method of performance or behavior modification; it will pay big dividends for you. It did for me!