I overheard a conversation this weekend that got me thinking. My wife and I were enjoying a leisurely meal at Julius Meinl, a fantastic Austrian cafe in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on the two young women next to me, but I couldn’t really help it. Their table was about 18 inches from ours and one of the women talked loudly and intensely from the moment she sat down.
Over the course of our hour sharing public space with this pair, I learned a lot about Ms. High-Octane. She was obviously studying Russian history and language in a doctoral program, probably at prestigious Northwestern University. She had encyclopedic knowledge (and scary energy) about everything Russian – the language, the history, the literature, the culture.
Aside from the fascinating things I learned about Stalin and Dostoevsky, something else grabbed my attention. Our neighbor was quite obsessed with the schools she and her friends had attended. She went to a prestigious women’s college in the East, but had friends who had been to Harvard. It didn’t take a sociologist to discover from her comments that she felt just a little self-conscious about that.
That got me thinking: we all have deeply held beliefs about the best paths for people to learn. And like old universities with proud traditions (and superstitions), many firms and people stick to the “schooling” they received as the best way. “After all,” they reason, “it worked for me. I’m a success. I made it – and therefore, it will work for those I’m now responsible to coach and mentor.”
One obvious example of this is how many companies perpetuate a particular kind of learning in their firms: The (Dreaded) School of Hard Knocks. The logic goes like this: I’m a senior leader (executive, partner, principal) in my company. I got here the old-fashioned way. No one coddled me or went out of their way. I slugged it out, paid the price, and received my reward. The next generation coming through the ranks should not only expect to receive the same, I’d be cheating them (and myself) if I gave them anything different.
Of course, leaders rarely say it out loud, but that’s the essential message.
Why is it flawed?
First, there’s a little logical fallacy. Just because something is a certain way doesn’t mean it ought to be so. The fact that today’s leaders had to boot-strap themselves into position doesn’t mean it’s the best strategy for tomorrow.
Second, when really pressed, most of today’s leaders acknowledge that someone took an interest in them and helped them along the way. Maybe it wasn’t a formal coaching relationship, but most of us benefitted from someone’s generosity of time, experience, and insight. Unfortunately, we the flattening of organizations everywhere, the chances of getting that sort of investment in the normal course of work have dramatically dropped.
Third, why would you knowingly do anything but accelerate the development and performance of next-generation leaders? It’s bound to help you, to attract and keep top-notch talent, to top your competitors.
How about you? What “school” did you go to? How has that affected how you think about coaching?