Part 5 – How a business coach helps people establish new patterns of behavior through concepts, ongoing practice, and feedback loops

Did you ever wake up one day and realize how different your life is than it was just a couple years ago? Or that some of the patterns and behaviors that served you then are no longer appropriate for your new reality?

In 2004, I realized that my own expectations about the formal hierarchy or org chart were keeping me from being as effective as I wanted to be. I had spent a few years in the US Marine Corps reserves, where the formal hierarchy tends to carry more weight than in the corporate world and functions very differently. With the help of a good coach, I started to notice when authority or formal hierarchy was at play in my work, and I started to note my thoughts and attitudes in those situations. Only then, when I was really aware of these moments, did I begin to practice influencing without authority. Before, when my boss asked me to drive a project, I would go around to team members and say something like, “I need your help with this project because the boss wants it,” and I would assume that because the boss wanted it, everyone would jump to. That’s where I was running into problems. Now, I’d practice going to those team members and saying something like, “If we were going to do x, what would that look like for you and your team?” Inevitably, I’d uncover all kinds of objections and hesitations (because people are busy, and they generally don’t welcome change that isn’t driven by their own agenda). Knowing those would help me approach my peers and managers in other departments with a better case for why they should help me (or my boss). My coach was there for regular check-ins as I tried new approaches. She might suggest a framework for thinking about influence and authority, but mostly she’d help me conjure up little experiments – things I could say or do that might produce an effect worth noticing. Those regular check-ins helped the short-term successes become long-term successes. While I still don’t think I’ve completely mastered it, influencing is a habit that ultimately enabled me to shift careers and achieve some of my greatest work successes.

We know from current brain science and education research that to learn something, including a behavior or a habit, you first have to unlearn the old habit.1 Sports teams know the importance of unlearning and learning. A soccer player, for example, wants to fix a stutter step before shooting or lock an ankle when passing. In football, a wide receiver might want to make sure he’s looking the ball into his hands before continuing the play. 2 They run drills over and over so that players develop good habits.  How long does this process take? Some say it takes about a month to develop a new habit, some say longer. My money is on 60 days or more.3 It probably depends on how long you’ve held the old habit and how often you exhibit it. Regardless of the time it takes, it requires practice, practice, and practice to form the new habit. I’ve noticed it works the same way in my work, marriage, and parenting. Common areas where even accomplished leaders seek to break old habits and establish new ones include, but are not limited to: 4, 5, 6

  • Having difficult conversations or resolving conflict
  • Delegating tasks
  • Carrying yourself with executive presence
  • If you’ve always done things to please others, considering your own needs before acting
  • If you’ve always done things to please yourself, considering others’ needs before acting


As I mentioned in a previous post, a good coach can help you understand what you need to change by helping you see what you haven’t yet seen. A good coach can also help you identify the practices that will enable you to change.


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  1. Virginia S. Lee. Unlearning: A Critical Element in the Learning Process. Essays on Teaching Excellence Toward the Best in the Academy: Volume 14, No. 2, 2002-2003. North Carolina State University. Accessed 4/29/2015.
  2. Paul Kuharsky, ESPN. Survey Says: The Titans’ bad habits. NFL Nation, September 2013. Nashville: ESPN. Accessed 4/29/2015
  3. Phillippa Lally, UCL. How long does it take to form a habit? University College London web site, August 2009. Accessed 4/29/2015
  4. Gretchen Gavett. Research: What CEOs Really Want from Coaching. Harvard Business Review, August 2013. Accessed 4/29/2015
  5. Sydney Finkelstein. Why Smart Executives Fail: And What You Can Learn From Their Mistakes. 2003. New York: Penguin Group
  6. David L. Dotlich and Peter C. Cairo. Why CEO’s Fail: The 11 Behaviors That Can Derail Your Climb to the Top and How to Manage Them. 2003. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

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