What I Learned about Coaching from Speechwriting

Much is written as well as taught about the process of executive coaching. For me, my introduction began with my first career: speechwriting.

Speechwriters are storytellers. They help leaders put their stories into words.

Executive coaches are story makers. They help leaders create their stories to grow their skills as individuals and their capacity as leaders.

Speechwriting and executive coaching are, of course, two distinct disciplines. Speechwriters work with words. Executive coaches work with behaviors. Both are in the self-improvement business. One focuses on words. The other on actions. Both focus on the same goal: authenticity. Keeping it real with honesty, integrity and compassion.

Speechwriters and coaches emulate each other’s professions with how they begin their processes—with good questions! Here are three good starter questions.

What’s happening? Context is essential. Both speechwriters and coaches need to know the lay of the land. How is the organization performing? What does the competitive landscape look like? Placing the speech in the context of vision (what the organization wants to become), mission (what the organization is doing), and values (what holds the organization together) is essential.

What challenges are facing the organization? Even in the best of times, there are clouds on the horizon. As well as rainbows. Asking your client (or her aides) to give a quick overview of organizational strengths, structural weaknesses, opportunities for growth, and threats to the status quo or the future is an excellent way to get a feel for the challenges. Speechwriters can integrate some topics into their presentations. Coaches use this information to know the challenges the executive is facing.

What is our plan of action? Good speeches are calls to action. Good coaching is anchored in action planning. It is the speechwriter’s job to encourage the client to be specific in what the organization will do and what role the audience (stakeholders) will play in it. It is the job of an executive coach to encourage the client to look at what they can improve and be specific about road-mapping action steps.

These questions may spark a host of other questions, but these three provide a framework for discussion that gets to the heart of the matter. They place the speechwriter or the coach on the road to understanding their client better.

Touching the heart

These questions are diagnostic. There is one other element: the heart. We call it empathy.

Empathy is the feeling of understanding another person’s suffering. Leaders need to do more than understand; they need to alleviate. They act with compassion to make things better for an individual and the team. 

Speechwriters who tap into the vein of empathy through stories and examples will enable their clients to come across with a sense of concern for others. Likewise, executive coaches who remind their clients to connect with their people on a personal and professional level enable them to build a strong sense of rapport and commitment.

“We speak not only to tell other people what we think,” wrote neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, “but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is a part of thought.” And to which I add “the impetus to act.”

First posted on Forbes.com 1/07/2022

Watching Ted Lasso Can Make You a Better Manager

Say you land a job about which you know little, in a field you know even less about, and in a country different from your own. If you do, you will be emulating the premise of Ted Lasso, a new show from Apple TV+.

The good news is that Ted Lasso, co-created by Jason Sudekis and stars in the title role, is a comedy. The better news is that the 10-part television series is an insightful primer on management and leadership.

Lasso is an American college football coach hired to manage a “football” (soccer) team in England’s Premier League, the world’s highest competitive soccer league. An outlandish premise, yes, but a treat to watch as well as from which to learn. 

You see, Lasso is an everyman who makes up for what he doesn’t know about English football with a deep and profound understanding of human nature, in particular as it applies to creating a team culture. Without divulging the plot twists and turns (and delights), the series reveals vital lessons that every manager would be wise to follow.

Trust your people. Lasso’s right-hand man is Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt). The two have a long history together, and while they do not always agree, they trust one another. The two of them readily embrace the outside perspective that comes in the form of the team kit man, Nathan (Nick Mohammed).

Lay back. To me, the heart of Ted Lasso’s leadership is “laissez-faire.” It is an endearing quality that adds charm to his character while it reveals his faith in people. Lasso sees talent, skill and desire in players that others may overlook. That is the genius of the manager. Look at the best in others and allow them to prove themselves. 

Make tough decisions. Management calls for setting direction and ensuring that the train stays on the rails. Leadership requires making tough decisions about people. Lasso’s natural style is laid back as it relates to people, but he knows that his role is to make the final call. He does it so well that others emulate his example.

Believe. In the first episode, Lasso posts a handwritten sign saying “Believe” over the door to his office, which by the way, has a very open-door policy. Lasso does what all great managers do: enable people to believe in themselves. (Yes, you will find such signs in every high school and college locker room, but with Lasso, the message is not a cliché; it resonates with authenticity.) 

Believe begets confidence

Belief in self is what distinguishes the winners from the also-rans. Belief is the cornerstone of confidence, which is essential to leadership. People have to believe that the person in charge is capable of doing the job. That sentiment leads to faith in the leader. And when the leader can turn, dare say transmute, that confidence to the team, great things can occur.

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them,” wrote Ernest Hemingway. That statement can be ascribed to Ted Lasso because the root of his ability to connect with others is his willingness to trust them. He looks at people with an open heart, a willingness to suspend judgment as a means of enabling them to fulfill their role in the team.

Managers who balance direction with guidance, belief with confidence, and purpose with conviction, are those who point their teams in the right direction and watch them soar. Or at least do their very best.

First posted on Forbes.com 9.21.2020