When I first booked a consultation with a “values coach” I was apprehensive. I’d heard about other leaders who swore by them — from Bill Gates to Steve Jobs to Eric Schmidt — but I’d never had a professional coach myself. Plus, this wasn’t just for me or a core group of execs. It was a benefit we were extending to the whole company.
Would it be a waste of time and money? Did it make sense for a small startup to invest this much in personal development? What did a values coach even do, anyway?
In the end, I hired one expecting a sort of professional audit. I got much more than I bargained for. Instead of going through our company’s financials or analyzing our KPIs, what we got was more like a career-oriented therapy session — someone who dug into the personal and interpersonal blockers keeping me and my team from performing optimally.
In terms of the logistics, we’ve had coaches come in for “office hours” once every few weeks where my staff can drop in; we’ve also done team sessions; some employees even make one-on-one appointments. There’s no limit or direction to what can be discussed. Some people choose to talk about job performance and professional goals; for others, it might be taking a more holistic view of their lives. As for cost, it turns out to be a manageable and easily justified investment.
Ultimately, working with a coach made me realize a fundamental truth about running a business: at its core, it isn’t about balance sheets, profits and productivity. Those things are all byproducts of building successful relationships with other human beings. Since getting some coaching, the way I approach my team and my clients has completely transformed — for the better. Here’s why I became a convert.
It brought out the humanity in our office
Working in the tech space, I’m lucky to have a lot of brilliant, ambitious people on my team. One downside of our work is that it’s not particularly social. On any given day, our office is full of software engineers, their heads buried under headphones and eyes focused on computer screens.
Now, of course I want my team to be focused, but I’m also aware this self-imposed quarantine can lead to feelings of isolation at work — a killer for morale and productivity. We break up the work with lots of social outings and team-building exercises. But I wanted the opportunity for my team to go deeper, to really explore how they operate as three-dimensional human beings.
It sounds like therapy, and in a way it is. Bringing in a coach has led to a more grounded office environment where people feel like they are more than their jobs — and are encouraged to express that at work. For me, it’s fundamental that working at our company provides more than income; it can also be a pathway towards that general sense of fulfillment we all seek.
And from a bottom-line perspective, extending coaching to all employees — not just the executive team — has created a more respectful, healthier environment that contributes to our retention rate of over 90 percent. That result alone is well worth the few hundred bucks an hour it costs to bring in a coach, especially when compared to the toll of replacing a valued employee.
I learned how to (actually) communicate
When I was younger, I worked with my dad in our family retail business. He can attest to the fact that I wasn’t always the best co-worker. I was oppositional, defiant; there would be arguments, I’d escalate them.
Looking back, my issue came down to ineffective communication. I wasn’t always sensitive to the needs of the people I was speaking with, or cognizant of my own patterns — like my tendency to be contrarian and defensive.
I’ve mellowed a lot as I’ve gotten older. As the CEO of a fast-growing e-commerce agency with more than 70 employees, I’ve strived to create a positive work environment grounded in respect. But I know that my words carry a tremendous amount of weight. It’s easy to slip into a top-down leadership style where I’m just telling people what to do without taking the time to understand their process. Left unchecked, that’s a recipe for resentment and ultimately, burnout.
Working with a coach helped me decode my communication style and identify my own blind spots and short fuses, as well as become attuned to the people I talk to. I’ve learned how to have two-way conversations with my team when I’m giving constructive feedback, setting boundaries or problem-solving. We now have an environment where people feel they can have meaningful interactions and things don’t go unsaid that can fester and turn toxic.
It helped us head off conflicts with clients
One of the most surprising things I’ve found about the coaching process is that the benefits extend far beyond our company. As an agency, we’re the outside help that’s angling to take over from people on the inside of a prospective client’s organization. It doesn’t always go over well. No one likes a stranger coming in to criticize your efforts and claim he or she can do better.
I’ve learned how to extinguish this tension before it ignites. Instead of coming off like a brash know-it-all, I’m able to include the stakeholders who aren’t that happy to see me in forming a solution. I solicit their insights and ask them to lead me through their process so far. Not only does it make them feel valuable and invested in the outcome, I get key insights into where things might have gone off the rails in their own process.
Knowing how to make everyone in the room feel comfortable and respected not only increases our chances of being hired; it makes the job that much easier once it’s ours.
In an era when there are countless “professional services” promising to add value to your business or make it more efficient, it’s easy to dismiss the concept of a values coach as unnecessary fluff. I almost did. But what I’ve found is that the skills I’ve learned from working with one transcend the workplace. I’m not just a better boss, I’ve become a better person. And there are few things more valuable than that.
This piece was originally published on Forbes.