Why executive coaches are necessary
In the classic opening scene to the movie Patton, George C. Scott in the title role strides on to the stage to rally the troops. He proceeds to deliver a string of pithy and often profane aphorisms reflecting his philosophy of war (all of them based on actual quotes of his). One of my favorites is this one:
“Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
I thought of that quote yesterday when I finished up a meeting with my two executive coaches (yes, I’m that much in need of help that I employ not just one, but two of them). They had just finished grilling me about a new initiative my firm is about to launch, leaving my ideas not dying exactly, but definitely with some bullet holes.
Afterwards, Patton’s line got reworked in my mind to this message:
“Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever succeeded by learning from his mistakes. He succeeded by learning from the other poor dumb bastard’s mistakes.”
The necessity of mistakes. I often encounter this sentiment in speeches, books, blogs, and conversations in our sector. And I agree with it up to a point. Or more accurately, I agree with the sentiment properly framed. Yes, you will inevitably make mistakes. Yes, it’s true that mistakes are an excellent learning tool and you must strive to benefit from them. Yes, you cannot fear making mistakes so much that you don’t take risks.
But I often hear something a subtly but significantly different note in those conversations: namely, that “I have to make my own mistakes to learn from them.” I often hear it from some young, talented, self-confident social entrepreneur with some innovative idea. They’re impatient to launch and they have a tendency to reply to grilling from others by acknowledging that they don’t have all the answers yet, but “I need to make my own mistakes to discover them.”
To borrow Patton’s salty language, that is a poor dumb bastard speaking. Mistakes are expensive. Mistakes often involve people feeling pain. Mistakes mean waste. And you do NOT, I repeat, do NOT need to make your own mistakes to learn.
The social entrepreneur that has the best chance of succeeding is the one who is resolutely committed to learning from the other people’s mistakes.
I believe the “other poor dumb bastard” school of learning is grossly under-practiced in the social sector. My rough estimate would be that less than a tenth of all the EDs I’ve ever encountered were seeing an executive coach. One reason of course is cost: nonprofit budgets often don’t make room for enough executive coaching and learning.
That is a practical issue of budgeting that nonprofits need to rectify. But there’s a second reason which is more pernicious and especially prevalent among the social innovators. And that is the belief among some entrepreneurs that “My idea or situation is so novel that old lessons wouldn’t really apply.”
That is another poor dumb bastard speaking.
For 99% of all the social innovations brewing in entrepreneurs’ heads out there, there are apt historical analogues. They may not be in your particular social issue or even in the social sector per se. But given the sheer number of new ideas and enterprises generated in the private sector, it is almost certain that someone has already tried to do something very analogous. And behind each one of those historical analogues are a host of individuals who already made the mistakes that you potentially could make.
Several years ago, my consulting firm was about to launch a software tool to map the ecosystem in homelessness sector (see here for the general concept) and support real time collaboration between agencies. At the time, as far as I know, something like it had never been built anywhere. And at the time, I was tempted to think that I’ll just have to learn from the mistakes as I go along.
Until I met with my two coaches. Both actually have minimal experience in the social sector and are corporate Silicon Valley guys (which is a big advantage because it enlarges the pool of mistakes I can benefit from). Specifically, they relentlessly showed me that the time tested corporate lessons of software, customer service, product launch, business models, and more all applied in some analogous fashion. These were lessons they learned the hard way. I learned them the easy way. Sitting with them for 90 minutes, I estimate that I saved myself from at least four big mistakes.
The reality is that most of us are not doing anything really, truly new under the sun. So save yourself some pain, go find yourself some other poor dumb bastard. Here’s how to do it.