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If you’re like me, in my search to find the right coach, I dream about enlisting someone at the top of their field – the Stedman Graham or Steve Jobs of our profession. Conventional wisdom suggests that if you want to get good at something, you need to learn from the best. But does this always hold true?
This week I visited with management expert Roger Connors, perhaps most known as the best-selling co-author of The Oz Principle and several other workplace accountability books. Most recently he’s heading up a new organization called Zero to Ten and his newest book, Get a Coach | Be a Coach, will be available soon.
We talked about the unexplored magic in mentoring – or being mentored – with individuals just one or two levels above or below us in a particular realm. It may be an area that doesn’t require the industry’s greatest sports or executive coach, but someone who can help you to get from a “4” to an “8,” perhaps or to successfully pass a certification exam.
For example, Roger said, “Consider the task of learning to code. As you scan online forums and take various courses, you realize it would be helpful to have a coach. One connection you see is a seasoned veteran with over 20 years of experience coding. Another has two years’ experience. Who are you going to choose?”
He notes that If you’re like most of the people he’s spoken with, you’ll choose the person who’s been in the field 20 years.
But your instinctive bias toward extensive experience may not be the best choice, Roger says. “In our coaching at Zero to Ten, we’ve found that recency often trumps mastery,” he noted. “People who’ve recently trodden your same path can relate in ways a 20-year expert potentially can’t. They remember the nuances of learning something for the first time and how to explain things that used to be difficult.”
Conversely, he notes that someone with much more experience doesn’t always remember what it was like to be a beginner. Likewise, the skills they developed two or more decades ago may not align well with the dynamic you’re facing today.
Furthermore, the most advanced experts are typically scheduled weeks or months in advance and may be less accessible to someone distantly removed from their locale or their immediate skillset. This does not in any way devalue the highest levels of expertise; but the principle teaches us, as learners, to value “recency” in looking for effective coaches.
A better alternative: Look one level up
So here’s a novel idea that Roger espouses: When seeking out a coach, find someone who is just one level up from your current capability. This is where you will find great value.
For example, consider Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. In her book, Lean In, she describes the powerful effect of reaching out to peers that are just a level up in expertise. In her book, she says, “Friends at the same stage of their careers may actually provide more current and useful counsel.”
“Several of my older mentors advised me against taking a job at Google in 2001,” Sheryl continues. “Yet almost all my peers understood the potential of Silicon Valley. Peers are also in the trenches and may understand problems that superiors do not, especially when those problems are generated by superiors in the first place.”
Or, suggests Roger, consider Drew Houston, Co-Founder of Dropbox, who advised listeners on a Masters of Scale podcast by Reid Hoffman: “Look for people who are one year, two years, five years ahead of you. You [will] learn very different and important things.”
Research on the subject supports this opinion as well, Roger says. Dr. Richard K. Ladyshewsky of the Curtin Graduate School of Business in Perth, Australia, said in the International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, “there are benefits to working with a peer coach at a similar level to oneself because of the way in which problems are analyzed and resolved. Experts use a forward reasoning process because they have worked on the problem many times before, whereas those with less experience use a background reasoning process because they have limited experience with the problem.”
In his article, Ladyshewsky concludes: “Because experts see problems in different ways from novices, they may not necessarily be the best coaches.”
“This is a principle often overlooked by professionals, but it resonates with most coaching recipients on a personal level,” Roger says. “We want the ability to relate with the person we’re talking to. And no one is more relatable than the person who’s recently gone through our struggle as well.”
So as you seek out a “level up” coach, according to Roger, consider these recommendations:
1. Ask the people you already work with
Many of us shy away from sharing our talents openly and we certainly don’t offer them if we’re not an expert. But using the principle of “leveling up” greatly expands the notion of what a person can coach on. Unbeknownst to us, we likely work with the very people who could coach us best. We just need to ask.
2. Understand their level of expertise
It’s helpful to ask a potential level up coach when they last completed a project like yours. There is no fixed rule, but generally, you want someone who is not far removed from a beginner’s mindset.
3. Clarify your level of expertise
Equally important is the need to share your own level of expertise. Tell the prospective coach what you’ve done so far and what hasn’t worked to give them a better sense of your current state. Remember, your level of expertise will change as you improve, so it’s imperative to review this point each time you meet with a coach.
4. Don’t use more time than needed
Coaching doesn’t have to be a long or drawn-out process. You can gain just as much value, if not more, from a focused 15-minute “pick your brain” conversation than hours of storytelling or back and forth. The heart of level up coaching is skill-specific and performance-based teaching, rather than an indefinite accountability partnership.
5. Get more than one coach
It’s wise to get multiple perspectives on a topic. The very nature of getting someone one level up will necessitate that you move to another coach once you reach the next level. You should continually be on the lookout for the next coaching fit.
In conclusion, says Roger, “By thinking, ‘Who do I know that is one level up?’ and following this pattern until an objective is achieved, we open the possibilities of coaching far beyond what is commonly perceived, even by your own organization or by the coaching industry’s traditional experts.”
“In an industry where a development coach can cost as much as $3,500 an hour and experts rule the terrain, the concept of finding a level up coach can expand or even disrupt the traditional model in a way that saves money while making coaching accessible to all.”
I have more than 20 + year’s experience in the coaching and training industry and really love Roger Connor’s 5 points. I hope that this article has been beneficial for you in either helping you grow your coaching or consulting services or helping you find the right coach or advisor for your personal and professional growth.