A recent article in the New Yorker magazine titled Personal Best Atul Gawande makes the case that professionals such as doctors and lawyers can benefit from having coaches.  He contradicts the teaching model that some professions have as compared to the coaching model.  In athletics he points out there are coaches so maybe a doctor can benefit from having one as well.

The article drew my attention because in many respects it can apply to project managers.  Throughout my career I’ve identified a variety of individuals and asked them to serve in a mentoring role to help me improve as a professional.  However, there is a distinct difference between a mentor and a coach.  A mentor is typically a peer who can act as a sounding board in a safe environment, probably away from the office.  A coach is someone who observes the professional on the job and offers in many cases real time feedback.

Project managers interested in identifying a coach will likely discover that this is not a simple personal decision.  Inviting a coach to observe the project manager on the job will at least require corporate management approval.  I suspect that organizations will have a hard time justifying the expense of hiring a coach for that project manager as well.  It is an interesting idea though that is worth exploring and discussing with the management chain.

Going back to the article, the author explains that coaches in sports focus on “mechanics, conditioning, and strategy.”  If we translate this to the business world I believe that the same emphasis is needed.  Here is how I would position them for professionals interested in honing their practice:

  • Mechanics are similar to the skills needed to perform various activities on the job
  • Conditioning is similar to the consistency needed by professionals to ensure a certain standard is attained
  • Strategy is the global vision needed to lead the project in a manner that aligns to the corporate goals and stakeholder needs

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the article though is the following story:

“The U.C.L.A. basketball coach John Wooden, at the first squad meeting each season, even had his players practice putting their socks on. He demonstrated just how to do it: he carefully rolled each sock over his toes, up his foot, around the heel, and pulled it up snug, then went back to his toes and smoothed out the material along the sock’s length, making sure there were no wrinkles or creases. He had two purposes in doing this. First, wrinkles cause blisters. Blisters cost games. Second, he wanted his players to learn how crucial seemingly trivial details could be. “Details create success” was the creed of a coach who won ten N.C.A.A. men’s basketball championships.”

That is great coaching advice and I wonder if this should be the motto of project management, “details create success.”