Finding the Whole Person


How much fun is it to coach others? As Woody Allen said about sex, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had without laughing. And actually, I do spend a lot of time laughing. Sometimes the circumstances are just so incredible, unfair, or confusing that the only possible response is a deep belly laugh.

It’s pretty common in networking situations for people to ask what coaching is. I don’t have an academic definition. I don’t see much point in parsing differences between coaching, counseling, consulting, therapy, etc. ad infinitum. There is only a made-up marketing differentiation that people selling services may want to exploit.

My personal view is that anyone who retains me to help them is going to get the whole package: 48 years of business experience, 30 years of which was spent living abroad, 5 successful start-ups, 3 successful turnarounds, deep involvement with family business, transformational organizational restructuring of dozens of companies and departments.

How could I possibly separate my interests and studies in philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, writing, reading, public speaking, facilitation, couples therapy, technology, economics, social science, and trending? Why would I want to? Why would you, as a potential client, want me to? Wouldn’t you prefer someone with a holistic view of business as an integral component of the larger society around us rather than a specialist with a deep knowledge of a very narrow field?

As many of you know, I am a big fan of Dan Pink. His seminal work, A Whole New Mind, emphasizes the need for conceptual rather than information workers. The former is a person with the ability to take seemingly disparate pieces of information and put them together to create a picture of the whole. Many of those pieces will be from seemingly unrelated fields – perhaps music and literature connected to technology, supply chain analysis, economics, and the history of labor – to produce a comprehensive understanding of the future.

I often play a role in hiring senior executives for my client’s companies. While my clients focus on the resume or curriculum vitae, I focus on the whole person. What are her interests? What does she do when she is not working? How did she decide on her career path? What are her levels of complexity in thinking through a challenge? Who does she most admire, and what does that say about her values? How has she handled adversity? What is her level of resilience?

Hand in hand with Pink’s delineation of the conceptual worker, goes the current trend for progressive companies to hire fewer and fewer employees at higher and higher levels of ability. We are no longer throwing massive numbers of information workers at a problem. We are focusing on a smaller number of spatial thinkers, and providing them autonomy to go outside normal boundaries to find unique and creative solutions. 

And this is happening everywhere. I work with a large number of service companies around the Washington, DC region. I work with a primarily blue-collar company in Pennsylvania. I recently facilitated a seminar for a group of manufacturing companies in Iowa. The situation is the same for all of them. We are all in intense competition for the best and the brightest who can deliver outcomes, not resumes.

The latest evidence of this massive sea change is the military. Chuck Hagel recently proposed a reduction in overall force level from 520,000 to 440,000 – a reduction of 80,000 troops, or just over 15%! At the same time, he proposed an increase in Special Operations Forces of 4,000 to 6,970 – an increase of 60%.

The Special Operation Forces, of course, are the archetypal conceptual workers defined by Dan Pink. They are people who are given a problem to solve and the autonomy to make it happen…and they don’t get to say no. They don’t get to say that the job is too hard. They accept responsibility for devising and implementing a solution. And they bring all of their skills to the task at hand.

Green Beret Solitary

It seems to me that this is exactly what we are looking for in today’s workplace. There are not a lot of conceptual workers available. They are, for the most part, already employed. They are also demanding of us, expecting us to be as interested as they are in a wide range of interconnected topics and trends.

Our greatest challenge in this fluid economy is identifying, recruiting, hiring, and retaining conceptual workers. We need them at all levels. We have to create organizations that will appeal to their need for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. How can we possibly do that if we are not conceptual workers ourselves? 

Which takes us back to the issue of choosing a coach: Why would any of us want to limit ourselves by applying someone else’s definition of who we are and what we do? Why would we hire a “coach” when we can hire a whole person?

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