Are you coachable? (The answer might surprise you)

What does it mean to be coachable?


One of my favorite coaching stories is about a man named Bill Cambell (often called “The Trillion Dollar Coach” because he coached Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt — who famously said “everyone needs a coach”). One time Bill sat down with a young hot shot entrepreneur and asked him probably the most important question in coaching: 


“Do you think you’re coachable?” 


The hot shot replied, “that depends on who the coach is.” 


And Bill Campbell, without saying a word, got up and walked out of the meeting. 


Wrong answer.


Right question.


Are you coachable? What does it mean to be coachable? I want you to think for a moment about your answers to those two questions. 


For a long time as a coach I thought my job was to, you know, coach people. I had a bunch of clients and I loved being in the saddle. But these days, even though our firm coaches hundreds of clients around the world, including some of the most famous leaders on earth, I only coach a select handful of clients and my answer to “what coaches do” has changed. You see, I no longer primarily believe that a coach’s main job is to coach. Over the last decade I’ve come to believe that a coach’s main job is to draw out coachability. With no coachability, there is no coaching relationship. Coaching relationships dry up, in large part, because a client drifts away from coachability. Without coachability, coaching is a colossal waste of time and money. 


So what is “coachability”? And do you (or I) have it?


To begin exploring this, try rating yourself on a scale from 1 to 10 on how coachable you are? (1 being “not coachable” and 10 being “coachable”)


The coaches in our firm have been talking about this idea with high level leaders for years. Usually about people on their teams that we’re coaching. “Is so-and-so coachable?” they’ll ask. Or often we’ll ask the question before coaching someone in their company: “before you spend money on coaching we want to make sure they’re up for coaching.” Other times there have been coaching relationships that have gone sideways, or didn’t work out the way we’d hoped. And like a comedian blaming an audience for not laughing at their jokes, a coach is tempted to say “they just weren’t coachable.” Maybe that’s true. But Jerry Seinfeld once said, “If an audience doesn’t laugh, it’s because I wasn’t funny.” The moment a comedian blames the audience, they’re no longer a comedian, but a critic.

Either way, a general definition of coachability is if you try to coach someone, it goes well, and that means they’re “coachable.” So on the previous scale of 1 to 10 you can imagine someone with level 1 or 0 coachability getting angry or defensive or even decreasing performance when you try to coach them. They would have “low coachability” score. A person in the 8-9-10 range, when you coach them, responds well, integrates the “advice”, engages with the feedback, participates, gets curious, learns something, applies the coaching in a constructive way, grows, etc. 


On this scale, in order to find out if they’re coachable, a person asks themselves, “If someone tries to give me coaching will I receive it well?” Most people either say “yes” or they ask, like our poor hot shot from earlier, “depends on the coach.”


But for Bill, this is the wrong answer, and the wrong scale. 


This is because there’s a whole other section of the scale – a part of the scale that most people never think about. 

At Novus Global, we want you to reimagine the same “coachability” 1 to 10 scale, but this time move “receives coaching well” from the 10 where it was before and instead put it in the middle (around 5). In this paradigm, being “open to coaching” doesn’t make you coachable, it makes you a 5. If this were true, then what would the new 10 look like?

A 10 would not be someone who is merely “open” to coaching. A 10 would be someone who is desperately seeking out coaching.


That’s what it means to be coachable. 


If you’re merely open to coaching, congratulations. A lot of people aren’t. But that doesn’t make you coachable. That makes you tolerable. 


The question isn’t “am I open to coaching?” The question is “am I actively seeking out coaching?”


If you’re not actively seeking out coaching, you’re not coachable.


To some this may sound harsh. But this paradigm, for those who are willing to engage with it, will radically change how you see yourself, your teams and company cultures for the better. For once you redefine the bulls-eye of coachability as actively seeking out coaching, it creates a culture where everyone is desperate to grow and where everyone is learning how to grow through utilizing the expertise, wisdom and skills of others. It creates what we at Novus Global call a “coachable culture.”


Most leaders I know are leading with one hand tied behind their backs because they think they mostly have a coachable culture but they don’t. And once people redefine what coachability is, all sorts of developmental conversations begin to open up all over the organization. People become more willing to grow and even invest in their own growth.

Productivity increases. Job satisfaction increases. Teams become more agile and are more likely to relate to obstacles as opportunities.


That is the power of a truly coachable culture. 


And that’s the job of a coach (testing for and drawing out coachability). And that’s one of the jobs of a leader who wants to embrace a coach’s mindset and do what coaches do: 

create coachable cultures. 


I love how the story about Bill ends. As Bill leaves the room, the young entrepreneur jumps out of his chair and says to Bill, “Wait! Let’s talk. I’m ready.” It ends with the hot shot becoming coachable. How do we know? Because he suddenly flipturned from being “open to coaching, depending on the coach” to actively pursuing coaching


That’s coachability.


So let me ask you, are you and your teams coachable?