Are You Coachable?

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No less than the great Michael Jordan once said: “My best skill was that I was coachable. I was a sponge and aggressive to learn.”

I’m an avid sports fan, and I’m as interested in the coaches as I am the action on the field. When players are drafted or traded, the discussion seems to be all about his individual talent. Coachability is seldom mentioned in a long list of skills and achievements, although I’m sure it’s something coaches and recruiters look at carefully, especially in rookie players.

To be coachable, a player needs to be open to the idea that he has room to improve. That attitude is in direct opposition to what got that player to the big leagues in the first place: huge confidence and unswerving belief that s/he’s the best of the best.

That kind of ego isn’t confined to professional sports; you meet business professionals with the same swagger. And it can be as hard to coach a team of senior managers as it is a team of larger-than-life millionaires who have 6 inches and a hundred pounds on you.

Coach Paul O’Connor says “Being coachable to me is all about two things: not taking correction personally and the ability to take critical feedback and directly applying that feedback into the game.”

So there are two coachability skills, and the first is by far the hardest to master. Taking correction well means surrendering your ego to a higher goal; you must value being good more than being right. Accepting coaching mean you accept several premises:

  • That you have room to improve your performance
  • That you care enough about your work to want to be better
  • That your coach / manager / peer has something to teach you; and
  • That the other person has sincere intentions and the company’s interest at heart

It stings whenever we’re corrected or criticized – I don’t think anyone’s immune. We all know that twinge of humiliation when someone tells you that you didn’t get it right. If you can live with the momentary discomfort long enough to hear the coaching, you’ll be able to grow and learn. If you let the twinge close you off from your coach, you’ll be stuck at the same level for a long time.

The second skill is applying the coaching to the game. True coachability means that you absorb the feedback and test it out the next chance you get. Better yet, you practice the skill over and over before putting it to work in real life situations. Being coachable means having the patience to develop a skill and the discipline to master it.

Workers and athletes who are not coachable are often also not accountable. Every mistake or poor performance is someone else’s fault. The equipment, the conditions, a coworker, or the refs – they’re all to blame, but not me. Excuses are one of the best clues that a worker is not coachable. If it’s never my fault, I don’t have to change.

If you’re wondering how to screen for coachability in an interview, Mark Murphy of Leadership IQ suggest asking this question: Could you tell me about a time you doubted your abilities? The answer, Murphy says, will be very revealing.  “… someone is not coachable if they’ve never had doubts, and they’re fairly narcissistic if they think they’re perfect. And you’re not just forcing them to reveal any doubts they’ve had; you’re also testing to see whether they’ve been able to transform those doubts into any kind of improvement and self-growth.”

Every elite athlete has a coach – it’s how they got to the elite ranks. If Michael Jordan welcomed coaching, you’d be foolish to try to avoid it in your career.


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