Good coaches listen deep, question hard, challenge status quo

Like in sport, in business too a coach can hold the space and engage a star player to sort out his game when going through a rough patch

Kavi Arasu

[Anil Kumble, at the four Test series versus Australia at Adelaide Oval in 2007-08. Photograph by Riana under Wikimedia Commons]

The Indian cricket team’s dressing room sports a new head coach: Anil Kumble. The Indian head coach’s job is a prized one. Evidenced, if not by the frenetic minute-by-minute media attention, then by the sheer number of applicants for the top job: 57!

The Kumble coaching appointment saga took me back 10 years. It was 2006-07. John Buchanan was the coach of the Australian cricket team. The undisputed champions then, the team had earned a fearful reputation of clinically decimating opponents. Buchanan was a poster boy of sorts and I followed all what he spoke and wrote, and read all I could about his unconventional methods and the routines that he put the Australian cricket team through. It was another matter though that the team itself was star-studded: Shane Warne, the Waugh brothers, Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath, Matthew Hayden among others.

It was a random search fuelled by a liking for cricket, a passion for (and a job in) the people development domain and being a complete sucker for stories of “transformation” and success.  Buchanan and his boys kept reinforcing the stories that the media played out with success stamps from the cricket field. It was fascinating enough for me to decide that it was a success story that I had to get to the bottom of.

I remember reading and talking to other enthusiasts about his unconventional methodologies from pilates to public speaking. From prescribing Duncan Fletcher’s Ashes Regained as a mandatory read to dipping into Sun Tzu’s The Art of War for evolving the strategy he called “Everest”. And of course, the incisive deployment of data and analytics for team strategy. It was fascinating to say the least.

It was around that time that I came across a formal course that offered to train professionals to become “executive coaches”. The firm that offered the course—surprise, surprise!—was from Australia. I put two and two together to make the most simplistic of conclusions and enrolled for the programme, rustling up finances, convinced that I too could become a Buchanan. I pictured myself sitting down and telling people strategies for their life and businesses. And when success would come because people followed what I told them, it would be fulfilling. Or so I thought. 

The course was intense and through the early days of the mandatory practice it entailed, executive coaching turned out to be quite different from what I had imagined. In fact, it was so different that it was turning out to be disappointing. The only reprieve seemed to be that there were developed markets where coaching was effectively getting deployed in large organisations and in other walks of life. Most intriguing was a matter-of-fact information on how it was regarded as a corner office perk.

I hung around with the programme. The programme in itself was well designed. It had a few anchors.   One of them was to get the “coachee” to think through the dilemmas that he or she faced, without telling them what is to be done. It was frustrating beyond measure to think that I wasn’t allowed to think for the coachee, but help him think about his thinking. It entailed asking questions and holding the space.

Discovering what executive coaching is really about

It was a struggle. It was intrigue and a shade of hope that helped me stay on with the programme. As practice wore me down, the success that came in small pockets was soothing. Executive coaching, I realised, was about helping people create greater awareness for themselves. Awareness that gets them to come face to face with beliefs that over time have fossilised into their truths. 

Executive coaching, I realised, was about helping people create greater awareness for themselves.

As coachees explored their realities, clarity ensued and alternate realities sprung up for them, expanding the choices available for action. As for me, it entailed that I sharpened skills around deep listening, empathic questioning, challenging assumptions and looking at the coachee as a complete person, present with all resources required to solve his or her dilemmas. 

I soon realised that the moment coaches believed that coachees were complete and resourceful by themselves, their journeys became inspiring. Both for the coach and the coachee. I was well and truly hooked. It clearly wasn’t what I had come looking for, but what I found was fulfilling.

The experiences brought me face to face with my own assumptions and beliefs. With diversity of experience came an appreciation of how freeing it was to be a coach when it wasn’t expertise-led. For example, I worked with someone leading a business transformation project. In another scenario I worked with a senior executive transitioning into a higher responsibility and with a young mother weighing her dilemmas between her career and family.

Ownership of the way ahead is with the coachee and it’s a considered way forward.

Holding the space for people to find their answers is easier said than done, but when done well, is powerful for several reasons. The chief among them is that ownership of the way ahead is with the coachee and it’s a considered way forward. For only the coachee has a complete view of the realities he or she is faced with.  

Expertise and stardom in the domain that the coachee is wrestling with dilemmas in, is not the best of calling cards for an executive coach. Sure, an understanding of context helps and counts as a plus. But domain expertise is not a necessity. Great players do not make great coaches by default. Coaches require a different skillset.  

Great players do not make great coaches by default.

So much so, great coaches are aware of their understanding of the domain and the biases their understanding brings along. This awareness and clarity helps them keep their knowledge or understanding from interfering with the realities and the dilemmas that the coachee is wrestling with.

A decade ago executive coaching/business coaching was misunderstood in India because of a paucity of information. Things have changed now, but misunderstanding persists. This is partly because the words “coach” and “coaching” are used across the board, with meanings that stretch from attending classes for additional tuition to training. While the number of coaches with awareness, education, skilling, experience and credentials has increased in India, the sheer numbers who call themselves coach, while using tools and tackles from other fields, is an exponential multiple. What executive coaching is and the tremendous benefits it can offer still remains clouded to many.

Coaches do not play in the field but are still in the game

Coaching in a sport is expertise-led and has a completely different ring to it. Of course, there are sportsmen who have transitioned into the executive coaching domain. John Whitmore’s Coaching for Performance and Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis are books that have served as cornerstones for the coaching domain. Their being sportsmen first is an inescapable fact. When Gallwey wrote the book in 1974 there weren’t many books on coaching. How he teaches a complete novice the game of tennis in 30 minutes, not by instruction but by freeing the mind, popped many an eyeball then. It does so now as well.

As much as they are different, sports coaching and executive coaching are aligned at many levels. When Kumble says he will “stay in the background” and that his legendary status as a cricketer himself was not going to overpower his team, the similarities come alive. These are early days for him but his starting off with the buddy system, pairing off two players (usually a batsman with a bowler or an allrounder), augurs well for conversations in the team. Invitation to dialogue helps see blind spots better and trumps blind instructions to perform.

What executive coaches do with deep listening and questions, great sports coaches do with expert observation.

What executive coaches do with deep listening and questions, great sports coaches do with expert observation. Observations that they make by standing on the sidelines, yet staying in the game. The clarity that distance brings gives them the elbow room to work their feedback. This way, players who are perpetually in the thick of things get to see newer alternatives and connections. Coaches do not play in the field but are in the game. That is a unique position to be in and a unique role to play.  

Great sports coaches bring a few more strengths to the field: An innate understanding of different players, their likes, preferences and situations. This, when augmented with open conversations, helps tailor-make feedback that inspires a seeking for change. Case in point is former India coach John Wright’s discussion with Sachin Tendulkar on his batting just before the Test at Sydney in 2003-04. Tendulkar had failed to score big runs in the previous three Tests and this conversation aided his 241 against Australia in 2003-04. 

To be able to hold the space and engage a star player to sort out his game when going through a rough patch requires a different treatment vis-a-vis helping a junior player who has just broken into the team, succeed. Executive coaches who make a mark for themselves help different coachees integrate feedback in ways that are best suited to the personality of the coachee. There is no “one way”. If at all there is, it applies to “one person”!  

As much as coaching is a journey for the coachees and players, it is a tremendous experience for coaches as well. Great coaches are ones that are able to adapt to situations and coach outside their comfort zones. There are coaches like John Wright and Gary Kirsten whose preferred way of operation is to be in the background while there are others like Greg Chappell who preferred being aggressive and being at the forefront. For a coach to be aware of his or her preferred style and the biases that come with it and to operate otherwise when the situation demands, makes the difference between success and failure. 

While continuous communication with all in the team, storytelling, and feedback skills are basic to both executive and sports coaches, respecting the player for what he brings to the field and who he is as a person, is the foundation on which the coaching relationships are built.

Which brings me to the aspects of chemistry and culture. Great coaching, no matter in which discipline, is built on the backbone of trust and honest, open relationships. In the absence of chemistry the coaching relationship lacks a runway to takeoff. That can be debilitating. Building a chemistry involves cultural, contextual understanding and the wherewithal to apply coaching skills in newer ways. Perhaps it is here that Kumble scored high, given that he understands the team and the Indian mentality.

A coach can be an invaluable addition to an entrepreneur’s arsenal. Case in point: Coach Bill Campbell who passed away recently was a legend in the Silicon Valley, working with the likes of Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Marc Andreessen, Sheryl Sandberg and several others. When he passed away the who’s who of the tech world came together to mourn the loss of their coach. In a blogpost Ben Horowitz wrote of how Coach Campbell would “just understand”. That is a natural consequence of empathy and deep listening.

Finding the right coach

A search for a coach begins with looking for people with a chemistry and a connect to the coachee’s approach and outlook. Not someone who will provide all answers to dilemmas, but who has the depth to hold the space for exploration and discovery. Not someone who will direct the way, but someone who will hold up the mirror and challenge you to look into the eyes that show up in the mirror. Someone who will listen, challenge and help expand possibilities in the achievement of goals. And sometimes be the someone who will listen and “just understand”.

Opening conversations with a coach serve as useful indications of how coaching relationships evolve. When the coach makes an “invitational” beginning and the team warms up to the invitation, it augurs well for the future. “With Anil bhai, it is not only Virat (Kohli) or any other big player, but every player is in his scheme of plans. Even the ones who will not be playing regularly in the side. I feel that is a very important thing,” opener Shikhar Dhawan told media persons recently. Kumble is off to a great start.

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About the author

Kavi Arasu
Kavi Arasu

Leadership and Talent Development Professional

Kavi is a talent and organisational change specialist who loves to play at the intersection of people, technology and organisational change.  

He has two decades of corporate experience in multi-cultural environments, both in MNCs and Indian organisations. He began his career in sales and marketing before choosing to specialise in leadership, talent, organisation development and change.

In his last assignment at Asian Paints, a $2 billion coatings multinational based out of India, Kavi was the group head for talent management, learning, leadership & organisational development, and diversity & inclusion. In this role, Kavi led a team that implemented technology tools for learning, performance and culture augmentation, while ensuring that the change process was anchored in real, meaningful conversations, a strong human connect and on-the-ground work.

Kavi has particularly enjoyed working in the areas of leadership transitions and development, M&A integration, cultural assimilation, succession pipeline building and strengthening the pillars of culture. He has an abiding interest in the power of storytelling and the Future of Work.

As an executive coach, Kavi works with several senior leaders across the industry, helping them to take charge of the future and deal with their current challenges. He is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) with the International Coaching Federation. He began working as an executive coach in 2007 and has worked on embedding coaching as a culture in large organisations.

Kavi provides thought leadership to Founding Fuel’s learning business. He is closely involved in building a practice that helps clients achieve business results that they seek through uniquely crafted and impactful programmes. Inside Founding Fuel, he acts as a coach to the founding team to help them become better leaders, reach their full potential and to question status quo.

In addition to his role at Founding Fuel, he runs an independent executive development portfolio for senior leaders and select organisations. His areas of work range from executive coaching, strategic consulting and change for digital/tech projects, process facilitation, design thinking and the like. He strives to keep his work simple and anchored on real change while constantly working at the boundary of stretch and challenge. 

Kavi has a Masters in Business Administration. The fact that he is in “perpetual beta mode” helps him stay excited and alive. As the India Chair for the International Association of Facilitators for 2016, Kavi was instrumental in working with several global facilitators that helped custom design solutions around organisational strategy and design thinking.

Kavi speaks at a number of global and national platforms and connects with global peers to stay current and updated. An accent on inter-disciplinary approaches to problem solving, deep listening and a curious mind that believes in the power of conversation provide him energy. 

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