I recently started using a triathlon coach, and it has been an interesting experience. I’ve long been intimidated by the prospect of professional coaching, considering myself undeserving of coaching since I’m generally a middle-of-the-pack performer, and there’s a wealth of training information available for free on the internet. Triathlon is essentially a hobby; however, coaching is taking me to a new level and allowing me to improve faster than training without support.

Finding the starting line

My coach is a top-tier professional triathlete, so my first few calls with him were somewhat intimidating. Imagine a golf lesson with Tiger Woods or improving your weekend softball games with tips from Barry Bonds. However, like most professionals, he’s down to earth and happy to share his knowledge, both theoretical and practical. While I’ve long felt unworthy of coaching, trying to manage the complexity of training for three different sports while working a demanding and travel-intensive job pushed me to seek professional help. Training programs abound, with hundreds of free options available for download, but one of the most difficult tasks in improvement is identifying your starting point, and then tailoring an improvement plan around your strengths, potential, and resources.

Finding this starting point is invaluable. Imagine spending 10-18 weeks in a training program only to discover those weeks could have been better allocated. In athletics, and in management and leadership coaching and consulting, one of the major benefits of an outside expert is identifying the right starting point, the right objectives, and a plan that creates the biggest impact in development activities.

Customizing the plan

We live in a time of abundant self-help resources, and anyone with a web browser and some motivation can find anything from how to manage a development team, to how to frame a house. Whereas we once hired experts for their technical knowledge, now much of how we use coaching and consulting is in filtering the wealth of available knowledge into an actionable plan. Done well, coaching will help you identify realistic goals, assess strengths and weaknesses, and create a customized map that builds on the strengths that will most quickly achieve your goals. Just as two competitors in the same sport may have very different focuses to their athletic development, so, too, will different IT organizations have different focuses to mature or execute a new project or activity.

Using coaching to accelerate your development requires a different focus in selecting a coach. Rather than looking primarily for expertise in your industry, look for how the coach shepherded his or her client toward achieving their objectives, and how he or she updates the development plan as conditions change.

Consider the coaching team

Major sports at the college and professional level have entire coaching staffs dedicated to unique elements of the sport. From strength training coaches, to batting coaching in baseball, specialists provide expertise in their particular area. However, these coaches report to a head coach, and despite the variety of experts, individualized coaching plans are usually developed for each athlete. Your IT organization likely employs a variety of coaching as well, and it’s critical that the team is coordinated and also individualized to key teams and individuals. If you hire a technical consultant, he or she is likely to see everything through a technical lens, just as a batting coach might see hitting as the prime element in baseball. Ideally, someone on your team will play the role of head coach, managing the team’s development plan and employing subject matter coaches where appropriate at a team or individual level. This person should bring general knowledge of your industry, and even exposure to other industries or technical disciplines, to inform their development plan.

Coaching may seem like a daunting prospect. After all, we’re a click away from an abundance of free expertise, and in athletics and management it always seems like improvement is only a bit of extra diligence away. However, pinning individual and organizational advancement on self-motivation and diligence is as unfair as expecting students to self-educate. Effective coaching can serve as an accelerator that’s worth much more than the cost of admission.