Adult development and coaching expectations

A couple of us were chatting about coaching. It was such an amazing generative conversation that I kept walking around, thinking about it over the weekend. As a result, this somewhat late insight materialized, a remix of the Adult Development Theory (see my primer to get your bearings) and the expectations people might have around leadership coaching. This story hops along the stages of adult development (using Bill Torbert’s nomenclature here) and offers my guesses of how I might perceive coaching with the mindset of that stage.

With the Opportunist mindset, any sort of leadership coaching will likely appear as a hook to exploit or a threat that someone might exploit me. Any engagement will have this “let’s see if we can hack this to do my bidding” quality to it. For example, I might use it a bit to see if this would help me secure some advantage, such as attaching myself to a figure who I might perceive as powerful. Any genuine engagement for the purpose of coaching is unlikely. I engage to exploit.

With the next, Diplomat mindset, the deep attachment to shame of failure will hamper any active engagement. If I am asked something, I am petrified to answer in the wrong way. However, I would crave passive learning. I will glom on to anything that looks like advice and wise words, and I would be very happy to react to these words with “likes” and “thumbs up,” even if I don’t fully understand them. With this mindset, coaching software is primarily a way to procure approval and ensure that I am part of the “in-crowd” of those who learn from these really smart people who are clearly authorities on leadership. I engage to belong.

Further down the rabbit hole, the Experts mindset presents the same fear of failure, but now it is bolstered by my expertise. This configuration is least receptive to coaching. “Why would I want a coach? That’s for noobs. I already learned everything there is to know.” By the way, in my primer, I portrayed this developmental stage as transitional, as something that we experience on our way to the next stage. Since then, I’ve changed my mind. Expert is a very stable configuration. With fear of failure on one side and considerable wisdom on the other, it is often a lifelong trap of perpetual, agonizing slow-boil of misery and dissatisfaction with life. When inhabiting the Expert mindset, I am unlikely to hear feedback and will resist the nudges to even try coaching. I don’t engage.

The Achiever mindset turns this attitude upside down. The craving for coaching comes roaring back. I want to tussle with you and I know that every time I do, I will learn something that will take me closer to finally achieving the maximum level of effectiveness. I demand coaching advice. I set the schedule, come prepared with topics at hand, and ready to dig deep. I might even be hard to keep up with, and I might even fire my coach if they can’t. I want to have the latest and greatest in coaching strategies. Don’t give me any of that “how to win friends and influence people” stuff. I engage to get results.

Eventually, the hard-charging Achiever mindset gives way to something different. Somewhere, somehow, the realization emerges that the “maximum level” is not only unattainable, but also absurd as a notion. There’s a bit more shift in the attitude toward coaching. I still see it as valuable, but I am realizing that coaching is a nearly moment-to-moment activity. Everyone has so much to teach me. Every interaction is a coaching moment. I still talk to my coaches, and look forward to our conversations, but they no longer have that edge of Achiever angst. We talk to uncover insights hiding in the nuance, to play the hacky sack of ideas, with deep respect for each other’s experiences. I engage to generate.

Whew, that was fun to type out. I am realizing now how I loosely traced the same outlines Jennifer Garvey Berger drew in her seminal Changing on the Job. So if you’re interested in diving deeper into this particular ocean of ideas, that’s where I would direct you next.

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