Rethinking Your Professional Health: Having An Executive Coach Is A Gift, Not A Gap

Posted June 15th, 2021 by Andrea DiMella, in From The Trenches, Talent

By Andrea DiMella, VP and Head of Talent at Atlas Venture, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC

Spring in New England is in full bloom. All around birds are chirping, flowers are blooming, and there is sweetness (and pollen) everywhere. Life is anew. Really anew. I don’t know about you, but this spring feels particularly poignant. The pandemic isolation was long, personal, and collectively traumatic. Having the seasonal change of nature’s new life coincide with vaccinations climbing and COVID cases decreasing, has me almost sprinting back to the office.

And I’m not alone. Most states are easing restrictions and progressively re-opening for business. Many professionals are finding their way back to the office after up to 15+ months of virtual work. The days of zoom fatigue and blended home/work life may still be a part of our present, but working in-person with colleagues will be a part of many professionals’ very near-term future. And in parallel, the biotech venture market is surging. The unprecedented rate of new biotech company creation has outpaced the availability of qualified talent at all levels. VCs are competing to attain and retain entrepreneurial talent and it trickles down from there. As if coming out of the pandemic fugue wasn’t hard enough, the challenge of company building and all it entails – operationalizing new science, establishing company culture, creating high-functioning teams – gets even more difficult when there aren’t enough warm and able bodies to fill all the organizational needs.

So, we can likely all agree that we’re sprinting into unchartered territory where the demands will be intense while our interpersonal and professional skills may be “zoom-muted”. We will need new sources of reserves to accomplish what’s ahead while solving for that those tight-talent-market empty seats. Are you feeling sharp and on point to deliver? Are you ready to be back in the fray and what are you doing to prepare? Simply put, what is the state of your professional health? And, would you consider working with a coach to help (re) train your “professional fitness”?

Executive/Professional Coaching

Coaching is not new and one can find examples of it from the earliest of days (Here and Here). Today’s realm of Executive and Professional Coaching grew from the 1980’s seeds of John Whitmore work, bringing sports coaching methods into the business world. At base, Whitmore and others believed the “inner game” of an individual (or team) is what can get in the way of high performance. Many schools of thought have taken off from there and coaching as a profession has grown extensively. Forbes estimates that coaching is now a $2 billion global industry. Executive/Professional coaching is so proliferative that much is being written and studied around the benefits and positive outcomes from it (Here, Here, Here, and Here).

My own journey with professional coaching started 15 years ago while in big biotech/pharma.

At that time, I viewed coaching as a “what got you here won’t get you there” tool to aid in career progression and felt lucky when it was offered to me. Since then, my view has evolved as has how I use coaching today. Instead of advancement, my coach helps me focus on professional fitness and developing a clarity of vision for a desired future state. Through the coaching sessions, I work on actively unlocking potential and expanding my leadership impact through relationships and discourse. When my fitness is high, I see more of the forest through the trees and navigate day-to-day workload and challenges with greater grace. With my mind’s eye attuned this way, I show up and engage with curiosity and authenticity, extracting learnings along the way. While that sounds philosophical, maintaining that kind of “fitness” has taken effort and a lot of practice. And through working with a coach, I have more awareness of what helps me be at my best.

Here are some of the foundational observations I’ve made through working with a coach that have helped me the most – maybe they will help you take the plunge yourself:

Advocate for Yourself

Most of us are accustomed to the proactive care it takes to maintain one’s physical health. From annual checks, to teeth cleaning, eye exams, healthy eating and exercise – tracking, managing, and addressing one’s health needs is a comprehensive endeavor. For the most part, this is not accomplished in a vacuum. People seek out and select the doctors, specialists, and trainers that they trust and build a (high) functioning relationship strengthened by bidirectional input and feedback. Approaching one’s professional health and fitness isn’t particularly different. Yet it is not commonplace for executives to self-initiate or ask to work with a coach – cost, time, and lack of awareness around coaching are all exacerbating factors. Some or all of those factors may be initially more insurmountable than not, but if it became more customary for leaders to advocate for working with a coach, we may see a shift in the standard support and benefits provided with employment. As the inspirational quote goes, “you get in life what you have the courage to ask for” – so it can’t hurt to ask. Put your professional health first.

Customize and Personalize

Using the physical fitness analogy again, coaching someone to run a marathon is different than coaching to run a 5K. While certain components are consistent between the two, the coaches, themselves, tend to be different experts and the overarching intentions of the coaching differ dramatically. With professional coaching, finding the practitioner that best suits one’s needs and style is necessary. Additionally, it is imperative to tailor and self-author the focus areas and strategies based on the intention of the work. Each one of us comes to the table with our own set of professional skills, traits, and inner dynamics. A coach will have a repertoire of methods, practices, and tools to offer optionality around the approach. What works to help one individual be at their best will not do the same for another. Find what works for you and continue to evolve it.

Consistency is Key

Just like training for an elite athlete, professional fitness is a continuum – not a “one and done”, but a cycle. Take Usain Bolt, he said “I trained 4 years to run 9 seconds.” Imagine the time commitment and regimen put into 4 years of training. Clearly, most days aren’t “race” days and training for race days is a daily practice. Similarly, to get the fitness benefit from professional coaching, consistency is key. A coaching structure includes scheduled 1:1 meetings, architected goals, often 360-feedback, all with the purpose of encouraging and creating accountability as well as the cumulative benefit of “time in training”. Coaches understand the “physiology and psychology” of professional and leadership health and how progression overload training and “muscle memory” is needed to make gains in any effort. Coaches help one queue their own “professional muscles” to expand range, adaptability, agility, and power. Then when race day comes, one’s professional “system” is in top shape perform.

Practice Prevention

If you’ve ever been injured before, you likely gone through some kind of rehabilitation to regain mobility, strength and agility (I wrote about the stages of rehab, as it relates to managing talent during a pandemic, here). If you ask physical therapists their advice, they all agree that if people incorporated rehab programs into a consistent “prehab” practice, most injuries could be avoided. With less injury down time and the right training (aka prehab), performance could excel and peak. It’s only taken me 15 broken bones, two dislocated joints, a few torn ligaments plus two reconstructive surgeries to finally wake up to the ‘prehab’ wisdom around athletic performance.

Taking this analogy to the professional arena, Executive/Leadership coaching can be some of the most effective “prehab”. Yet too often, the suggestion of a professional coach is received as remedial and for ‘fixing’ a leadership dynamic or problem. What if leaders and executives were to approach coaching with a prehab / preventative mentality and incorporated it into their operating model? If coaching was a regular component of onboarding, development modules, and team/individual training plans, I posit, we would see an increase in executive, team, and organization fitness. When challenges arise, as they inevitably do in biotech company building, those with high professional fitness, would have less down time, fewer detrimental impacts, and rebound with strength.

“A good coach can change a game. A great coach can change a life.” ~John Wooden

Now, whether or not coaching is right for you is your decision to make. If my observations resonate, coaching could be a useful technique to hone your emotional and leadership intelligence, interpersonal skills leadership, and professional fitness. In fact, working with a coach could be more than a game-changer.

And lastly, don’t forget, fitness is not an event, it’s a process. Case in point, this blog is 4 days overdue. Clearly, I still have plenty to work on with my coach.

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