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The Four Stages of Successful Coaching

There is an old Peanuts comic strip featuring Charlie Brown and Lucy that resonated with me when I began working with professionals on business development for the first time. In it, Lucy—the psychiatrist who is “IN”—is trying to help a befuddled Charlie Brown get his life in order. Lucy says to Charlie: “Life is like a cruise ship, Charlie Brown. Some people place their deck chair at the rear of the ship so they can see where they’ve been and learn from their experiences. Others face their chairs at the front of the ship to better see where they’re going—and plan accordingly. Charlie Brown, on the cruise ship of life, which way is your deck chair facing?” Charlie Brown, true to his nature, responds, “I don’t know. I’ve never been able to get mine unfolded.”

No matter the field or profession, it’s important when working with a coach to find a good starting point and carefully review expectations, goals and abilities. My youngest son played junior high school football a number of years ago, and his coach shared a few “words of wisdom” that have stayed with me. Although he was working with teenage boys, his coaching philosophy seems to apply equally well to professionals. The formula for coaching success, he told me, involves four sequential stages of preparation and growth. Each one must build upon the prior stage.

  • Attitude: The first stage is attitude. Is the lawyer truly open to new ideas and suggestions for change? From time to time, I have been asked to “coach” an attorney who was less than receptive to the idea. The arrangement rarely worked. Coaching opportunities must be accepted voluntarily with enthusiasm. If coaching is made mandatory or forced on the lawyer, the likelihood that the lawyer will put in the required effort—with the right attitude—is slim. But once the right attitude is in place, the lawyer is ready for…
  • Conditioning: Any player or professional with the right attitude is better prepared to move to the second stage: conditioning. For a football player, that means time spent developing stronger muscles and improving physical coordination. For lawyers, conditioning is a time commitment. Time is scarce and sacred for lawyers, and a business development coach needs to devote a sufficient, sustainable amount of time to the effort. Mary Jane Pioli, a friend and executive coach in Seattle, reminds her clients that “Business development needs to be a part-time job, not a sometimes job.” Is the professional prepared to commit the time it takes to improve business development performance? Then he or she is ready to focus on…Chalkboard Strategy
  • Technique: Football players learn and practice different techniques depending on the positions they play. A lineman learns to block more effectively, whereas a defensive back practices different ways to tackle and cover receivers. In like manner, lawyers are more successful when they work towards perfecting their business development strengths. One lawyer may be an excellent speaker or a gifted writer. Another lawyer might excel in building personal relationships, managing client affairs or serving as a practice group leader. As a coach, our job is to help the lawyer recognize his or her strengths and then leverage those strengths by developing a…
  • Strategy: The fourth stage, strategy, focuses on planning and accountability. A football coach develops a strategy for each game based on his team and the opponent. A business development coach helps each professional develop a strategy based on individual expertise and market needs. A successful coach should encourage an open exchange of ideas that are both creative and structural. An effective strategy should develop naturally out of those discussions.

Keep these four stages in mind the next time you start a new coaching relationship. Particularly for those lawyers who can’t quite get the deck chair unfolded, following the four-stage process offers a roadmap to success.

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