# 32: Great Coaches Listen and Ask

Schmidt, Eric, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle (2019). Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Handbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell, 90–91.

Story behind the Passage

Last year, I talked to someone who founded and successfully scaled a company that specializes in HR Search and Development. It was a true pleasure to get connected with this executive and learn from his expertise. We had not known each other before this initial conversation but we immediately went to the “no bullshit exchange” stage. That means: When I asked him a question about how to develop my business, he simply stated how he was seeing me based on this rather short but still deep conversation. And when he briefly sketched the “profile” of me, he said something that stuck with me: “You are asking the right questions at the right time.”

I was reminded of this incident when I had a longer conversation with someone today who, despite many other things, is also an excellent business consultant. The core thing about him is that he also is an artist and that is quite rare. Many artists, including myself, are rather weak on the business side and have to really learn a lot in order to turn their gifts into (monetary) value. It was a true gift that he took the time for this longer conversation today and we also ended up talking about the value of consulting as such. I shared my personal opinion that the next decade will see a tremendous rise of consulting but not the type of business consulting that the word has become famous for in the past — armies of too young and sometimes quite ego-inflated MBAs in blue and black suits who know little about entrepreneurship but a lot about Excel sheets.

I know, my description is quite harsh and I therefore need to clarify two things: 1) These people are really smart and it is not their fault that consulting has partly turned into such a billion dollar mafia that governments and large corporates pay for to push their interests. 2) Consulting involves a steep learning curve which is actually the reason why, for several years, I actually wanted to get into consulting as well. But when I use the term today, I mean a very different kind of consulting and that is actually what we also talked about today.

A real consultant to me is someone who creates value for the people he works with in a very old fashioned way. He shares what I call “meta knowledge.” It is the kind of knowledge you gain after actually doing the stuff your customers are just starting for many times over and over again. But that is only the first step of becoming a consultant. The next step that is necessary is actually learning from this experience by reflecting on it and by always moving on with the willingness to change your previous habits and thought patterns to create even better outcomes. Sometimes, this might not take much change but you have to be careful and attentive enough to figure out how to improve.

And lastly but most importantly, you need to have the communication skills to convey what you see to the people you work with in a way that they understand and really internalize your knowledge. That takes more than just “being open.” They have to overcome any defense mechanism to fully embrace what you are telling them and that will only happen if you have the brain and the heart to help them. This mixture of the two — head and heart — rationality and emotions — analytical and creative skills — is what I mean by consulting.

If you take that as the ideal, there is not much difference between a coach and a consultant — the borderline is blurry if you really take the value you create seriously. (Coaching is based on steering the process towards solving a problem by asking questions and mobilizing resources. Consulting is based on solving problems based on special expertise. Both functions are complementary but can be employed separately.). What counts is this innate longing to help people become successful or happy — or ideally both. It is this job of a midwife which you can take if you really see the diamond in people that you help shine.

What makes me quite sad is that these true coaches are actually very rare, at least in the business world. Otherwise, the really good ones would not be so demanded by the leaders of this world. The problem is, however, that they end up broken in many cases. They make people grow and are thus the most important human enablers on this planet. Without them, there would not be any success. Still, they sometimes end up as invisible. And I am not saying that they want to stand in the spotlight. No, they usually do not. But people often do not recognize that, in order to help people be so successful, you need to have at least the same capacity, skills, and expertise as the ones you are helping.

My “friend” today brought up the parallel to teachers and I immediately knew what he was talking about. Great teachers truly thrive if they witness how their students grow. That is all that counts for them. They would never ever do this justfor the money. The problem with us — the teachers in the business world — is that this sometimes does not pay. And I am not saying that people do not pay a decent honorarium. The problem is personality. If you are a true “teacher” who enjoys helping people grow, money and business thinking simply are not in your DNA. You can learn to think business and play business but somehow it always comes second. If you really want to be successful as an entrepreneur, you do have to stress money a bit more than that. Again, this does not mean that every millionaire puts money first. But money needs to be on your mind if you want to be able to close deals.

What does all this have to do with the Trillion Dollar Coach? Was Bill Campbell he a trillionaire? For sure not — but he made them. And the book touched me so much that I closed it and said to myself: If I were able to become this person for founders in Germany, this would create a legacy that is bigger than myself. I have no idea if I will ever get close. But what I can start with is share some of my practices that also come up in the book.

My Learnings

“People perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight.” This is exactly what the experienced entrepreneur who gave me the feedback last year confirmed. If you want to solve problems — your own or for others — you need to ask questions. But the good questions, the really helpful ones, can only be asked if you listen well. This is what coaches learn under the heading “active listening.” It means you are really with the person who is talking to you with 100% of your attention span. It means that you do not anticipate the best moment to pitch in and simply share some of your thoughts to show that you are smart or whatever. The real questions that will help the other person gain new insights about him/herself or some subject matter only come if you are 1) completely in this moment, in this conversation, 2) completely in your own body and mind; meaning you do not try to please or impress anybody with anything — you simply listen to the deep and meaningful questions that come up.

“When you listen to people, they feel valued.” It is hard to believe that something seemingly banal is found in a book on leadership best practices — but it is true and it is not banal at all. I am writing these lines on a day that has shown me again that listening is an exception. And I do not mean my conversation partner today. I mean those seemingly “busy” people who pretend to be looking for solutions and who are always so battered that things are so complicated. You know what: If these people learned to LISTEN, they would start seeing the solutions on a silver platter right in front of them. But they prefer to be busy talking to themselves without much creative output.

The result is that people who offer solutions because they figured them out themselves are not being LISTENED to. Hence, they do NOT feel valued. And this is not an emotional or an ego problem. For real problem solvers, the important goal is to actually contribute to the solution of a major problem. It is not about getting an award or an article in the paper. The problem with the lack of listening is that the solutions never get implemented. Instead, these people who do not listen continue talking and lamenting and the entire vicious cycle goes on.

How stupid.

How sad.

How much value is being wasted that way.

“… effective because it heightens the ‘follower’s’ feelings of competence (feeling challenged and experiencing mastery)” The third sentence I am focusing on gets us back to the issue of teaching which I touched upon at the beginning. Only if someone asks you detailed questions, which respond to what you have said before, can you go deeper into your own thinking. Yes, this requires listening on the part of your counterpart but it also requires a lot of competence. This competence does not always have to be rooted in deep technical know how but in the intellectual and/or cognitive ability to understand the bigger picture of what you are talking about. Only then can someone ask questions that challenge you.

The reason why I am saying that this gets us back to the aspect of teaching is because the only way you gain competence is by really learning stuff (theory and practice). That sounds boring but it will be increasingly important in the future. I just got a message from a founder while writing these lines who is very much wondering about this aspect right now with respect to the comparison between the U.S. and Germany. And I am indeed worried that, if the education system does not fix its problems quite soon, our economy is going to suffer immensely. If we keep wasting the universities’ potential to produce and convey first-hand knowledge and innovations, who can produce this? After all, business is about products — be it technological goods or services. Whatever it is, if you are not able to produce that anymore, you have nothing to sell — i.e., no value to create.

Sounds simple, right?

Consequently, “feelings of competence” can only emerge if there is competence in the first place. And I do not want to sound too bitter but I do miss that increasingly. All the social media and marketing stuff makes us believe that marketing comes first, and then somehow you come up with a product that keeps all promises. Well, that is not going to work. It is that easy. Entrepreneurship means solving problems. If you have no know how at all — no competence — you will not be able to solve the problems. And you can have the best business model or sales people in the world — if you have nothing to offer, no value to create, nobody will buy anything.

I do not want to end on an angry note, though. I love startups because they are eager to DO things, not just talk. Maybe the young digital entrepreneurs bring different competences to the business table than previous generations. For sure, they have capabilities that can be turned into value. Creativity is the unique capability of human beings. Still, it takes guidance to teach them how to quickly discover their own lack of knowledge and give them the necessary tools and infrastructure to develop “mastery.” This is exactly what great teachers do. And great coaches are just that — great teachers of life and business.

Here is what the authors and former “students” of Bill Campbell write in their closing chapter “The Power of Love.”

“[T]here’s another type of love Bill prized: love of founders. He held a very special place in his heart for the people who have the guts and skills to start companies. They are sane enough to know that every day is a fight for survival against daunting odds and crazy enough to think they can succeed anyway. And retaining them in a meaningful way is essential to success in any company.” — Schmidt, Rosenberg, and Eagle 178

Reflection Questions

1) Are you a good listener?

2) How do you feel if people are not listening when you are talking about something that is important to you?

3) In which field would you like to gain mastery?

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