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In the June  11, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader questions using a personal marketing plan and the power of an executive coach.

Question

executive coach

I hired an executive coach with whom I’ve spent many hours developing a personal “strategic marketing plan.” But I have failed to meet the deadlines for some of the objectives we came up with. So, I have cut off working with this coach. I am not so quick to blame the coach. It may be a matter of my own preparedness. I’ve learned a lot, but I wonder now if this personal strategic marketing plan has not taken over my daily calendar and my life. Have I made a misguided plan, or am I just not an adequate strategist? What is your view on coaches and this general approach to planning — written goal, objectives, strategies, tactics?

Nick’s Reply

It can be useful to develop a detailed plan for yourself, and it is certainly a lot of work if you pursue it with care. I believe in careful thought, preparation and planning in life. But when I hear, well, marketing phrases like “personal strategic marketing plan,” I cringe.

Coaches & plans

There are good coaches out there who can help you, but when you hire any kind of coach — a career coach, a psychological therapist, or even an accountant (they’re all coaches of a sort) — you’re subjecting yourself to the coach’s philosophy. That means you must judge the fit. If your philosophies don’t mesh well, you could be headed for serious trouble.

However, you may also be falling for a marketing pitch yourself, and for a pricey bundle of hoopla that’s more fluff than substance. (There is an ugly under-belly to the coaching industry that you should be aware of: “Executive Career Management” scams.)

Assuming it stems from a legit coaching program, any detailed plan will nonetheless encounter obstacles, and some of them can be fatal. On the other hand, some important and satisfying milestones can be achieved along the way. But must a person achieve every milestone defined in a plan? Further, does failure to meet the plan’s deadlines suggest the person is doing something wrong?

Planning & living

This is where I part company with dogmatic coaches who impose rigorous planning and schedules on their clients. Life can turn into a series of bets on the plan. Rather than being instructive, the inevitable failures can be debilitating. Worse, as you note, this planning process can become a lifestyle in itself and distract you from real life. This can make your plan an albatross.

There is a line in a John Lennon song (though he may have borrowed it from cartoonist Allen Saunders): “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

I try to remind myself that at any moment, in any day, I may have to drop my plans, because something more compelling confronts me and I have to deal with it — like it or not.

I think planning is a good thing because, as you point out, you can learn a lot from the process. But planning is an idea. It’s not real life.

Coping vs. planning

In a short, potent book called Management of the Absurd, Richard Farson suggests that there is no such thing as planning — only coping. He says that coping is far more important a skill than planning. Why? Because the world keeps coming at us in unexpected ways. Planning implies controlling the world around us. Coping — to Farson and to me — implies changing ourselves to effectively meet the challenges of what the world throws at us.

The planner can be left destroyed by the unexpected. But the coper can ride any wave, to one extent or another, and survive or even flourish.

Plan as best you can, but be ready to cope with all the wonder, pain, disaster, and opportunity that life throws at you. That’s where life is — on the edge of change, in the way we deal with everything we encounter, and in the ways it changes us.

Kill the Buddha

Please don’t surmise that I believe coaching or getting coached is a bad thing. But you hired the coach, and only you can fire the coach. The coach might have been wonderful, and now it may be time to stop working together. It may be time for you to cope with your coach.

Remember what the guru told the pilgrim who was searching for the Buddha. The pilgrim wanted to know, “When I find the Buddha, what should I ask him?”

The guru replied, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Hmmm. The bookend to John Lennon’s quote may be the title of a (very good) Van Morrison album: No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. Could it be that at the end of every path you choose, the best answers must come from within yourself? Should you kill the Buddha? Don’t ask me.

Have you used an executive or career coach? What was your experience? What advice would you give this reader — and others — about coaching services? Do you believe in planning, or in coping?

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21 Comments
  1. The captain on a sailing course once told me: “Always make a plan for your journey. If you have a plan, you can change it. But without any plan, you have no clue where you are going, and are not prepared for what happens”.

    A plan, for sailing, life or career is good to steer you in the right direction. Just do not become a slave of the plan, be prepared to adjust, otherwise you will get very sad and frustrated, because life itself is unpredictable.

  2. I think Eisenhower’s quote (well, the most well known portion of it) is always apt: “…plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

  3. Prussian General I believe: “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy”. Plans can and do change often but compass stars should remain fixed points.

  4. What are the objectives of a personal marketing strategy?

    One of the few things that will get you thrown out of our interview loop is “ personal branding “

    Unless you are Oprah, you don’t have a personal brand.

    • @VP Sales: Thank you, thank you, thank you. Nick, all good points. I work in soft money and I have a Plan, Plan B Plan C, and Plan To Be Named Later. Even my PhD didn’t get me what I’d hoped, because the world changed so dramatically in the 10 years I was earning it.I did lose a valuable part of myself on that journey–my ability to be in touch with my feelings and to embrace my humanity. It’s coming back slowly. For Buddha’s Sake, don’t lose that part of yourself.

  5. I watched a Jordan Peterson video where he said you should negotiate with yourself (as for goals, plans, schedules) as you would negotiate with someone else. Ideally, you would schedule tasks that you would want to do.

    Some people do the task they least want to do first to get it out of the way. Some do the easy ones to build up momentum.

    Regarding the article, I wonder if the planning coach pushed too hard or if the client’s issues came to bare? People today, especially the children, have been coddled and not had their will power developed. Regardless, one needs to assess their own self-control and to strengthen it like they would their muscles, stamina, in the gym.

    Take one’s attention span. How long is it and where is it focused? Many of us wasted too much time on the Internet on things that are easy to watch–and useless. Hell, after we don’t even feel good about it.

    As for planning itself, is the task important? **Does it supply a sense of meaning in your life? For example, getting groceries, toilet paper…it’s important but monotonous. Going to Vegas for a hedonistic party–this has been promoted as the goal in life. But that act has no meaning.

    The world is awash in meaningless lives, where people are “biologically alive” but DEAD otherwise. They have become Zombies, the Walking Dead. This leads to self-destructive behaviors, apathy, and hedonism. To break out of it requires great self-discipline, the likes most people can’t handle. This is akin to hiring a martial arts trainer. The trainer has to be able to recognize how much to push you–but not break you to the point that you quit.

    But what makes you not quit? We’re talking about making a Change. Change requires Leverage. Do you have leverage over yourself? Does your coach have leverage over you?

    I’m hearing great things about Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. It reminds me of the 80s and early 90s when the Self Help movement was full of these cool books. Fast forward to today, and we’re awash in social media that is primarily infantile and hedonistic.

    30 years ago it would be unheard of for people to lack the attention span to not read to the end of this comment, nor to be so easily offended. This jump to offense comes from a lack of self-control, a closed mind, and one who is only a psuedo-self (the character in a narrative, not who you are).

    • @Jack: I just finished reading a lengthy novel, A Confederation of Dunces, after I read a lengthy news article about the 50th anniversary of the author’s death. Does that count for attention span? (Do I get a bonus because I borrowed it from the library and had to drive over to get it?)

      • WOW! A blast from my past – that book was recommended to me by an aspiring writer 30 years ago.

      • Lol. You should get an achievement award for suffering through that collection of hot, steaming mess. Maybe a cash reward in lieu of the brain cells destroyed while reading it.

  6. I once hired a coach to advise me on my resume, interviewing, and dress as I was seeking work after 10 yrs with one company. She was recommended by a colleague, charged a modest amount, and gave me good advice. I felt confident as I interviewed. But a personal recommendation was a big factor in my hiring. Having the right degrees and experience doesn’t trump a personal connection.

    Fast forward to a career change from engineering to accounting. After taking classes to qualify for (and pass) the four CPA exams, I had trouble finding an entry level accounting job in my area. After attending a Job Club for several months that was very helpful, I realized how many unemployed experienced accountants were in the area, so looked elsewhere. My son-in-law, a CPA, shared my resume with several people he had worked with, and one of those contacts resulted in my hiring. I had to relocate, but am now only 10 minutes away from my grandchildren instead of 3 hours. I’m working for a great company that didn’t play games in the interview, offer process, or hiring. I’m loving it!

    The coaching I received has been useful throughout my career…but it was specific, very limited in scope, and targeted only to my job search and interviewing. I don’t believe one can ‘create’ a brand. One has to earn their reputation and then live up to it.

    • I think you are overlooking the point that your “reputation” is your brand.

      The connection may have put you in the room, but you needed to close the deal. If you were not able to project confidence and competence, its unlikely you would have been offered the job. I believe successfully leveraging the personal connection is a version of “Luck comes to the prepared.” Perhaps the coaching helped prepare you.

  7. What comes to mind in reading this is the old saw…”When Man Plans, God laughs”
    And I believe Eisenhower’s point that Chris note..planning is a useful exercise, but plans are useless because life changes them. I read similar from some CEO I think IBM’s who noted similar..that he thought
    the exercise of planning was a very useful exercise…it put people together, made them engage, generated ideas.

    I’m a Marine & was taught the Marine Corps had a simple approach. An A Plan, a fallback B Plan…then improvise. given what the USMC does for a living improv was what was the norm…

    If one is going to create a plan by yourself or via a coach…a good plan contains the means to deal with inevitable changes. Built on a foundation that changes will happen and that plans are meant to change…

    As to Buddha, if Buddha wants to build a plan cast n concrete and expects you live your life by it..
    you’ve got the wrong Buddha. one living in a cave. You need a Buddha who will not just try to teach you guide your career, but how to deal with life’s surprises..And remember …the coach works for you not the other way roundIm

    Spoiler…I wasn’t a planner…I spent my career life dodging and/or dealing with the unplanned mixed with grabbing what I perceived as opportunities. I’d put myself into situations and or was put in them, and made them work..or find something that did. Improv seemed to work better.

  8. Big question to me is how old is this person involved with “budda?” It’s highly probable this person first listened to someone enthusiastic about the latest, greatest, fad that is totally false and only works in theory. Too many times these charlatans take words out of true context and meaning and incorporate them into their “great theory.” Question #2, how criteria did this person use in choosing this budda? Did this person look for or ask what/how much experience this budda really has in the marketplace?
    This person should do the common sense approach and determine what his/her strengths are, their weaknesses and how susceptible they are to con artists such as this budda. Hopefully this person will learn a valuable lesson from this experience and not fall for charlatan buddas.

    • @Don’t Buddha: All that matters to me is that the OP fired the Buddha.

  9. Thanks for the saying about meeting Buddha in the road. It sparked my curiosity and I did a bit of Internet reading about what it meant. Very thought provoking, and appropriate for this question. I visit this blog almost every week, even though I’m not looking for a job. Always great stuff.

    • Thanks, JR! I love that story about the Buddha, and I’m also a fan of Zen koans. Look it up — I think you’ll enjoy it, too.

      “A koan is a riddle or puzzle that Zen Buddhists use during meditation to help them unravel greater truths about the world and about themselves. Zen masters have been testing their students with these stories, questions, or phrases for centuries.”

      A well-known koan is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” It sounds nonsensical, but that’s the point. Then there are the Nasrudin stories, which will either frustrate you or occupy your mind 24X7! Check him out. One example:

      Nasrudin and a friend were watching Nasrudin’s children. The friend asked Nasrudin’s young son, “What is a dilettante?”

      The son replied, “That is an herb used for seasoning.”

      A delighted Nasrudin turned to his friend and said, “Did you hear that? What a fine boy I have. Just like his father. He made up an answer all by himself!”

  10. Thanks Nick for sharing your insights. Thanks to everyone for sharing their unique experiences and perspectives. I feel that it’s valuable for a person to be guided by a coach on their work-life journey especially if they are unable to succeed or progress/ grow on their own. While partnering with the coach, the intent for the person needs to be self-development. So, it’s beneficial for the person to work with a coach who would help them find their ‘inner buddha’ or ‘inner sage’.

  11. I say “stay away from recruiters, career and life coaches, and other such people”. They have no skin in the game for you, nor do they have your back. Waste of time, money, and emotions. A good mentor is free, and more real world to boot.

  12. I never really thought about planning versus coping. Some great nuggets of wisdom in this post. Thank you Nick.

  13. From my perspective as an adviser/coach (in the past 5 years I have helped 100+ CEOs complete the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Initiative)…

    ….what is missing from the question is what was the dialogue between the “coached” and the coach about missing the deadlines.

    Sounds like firing the coach was a way to avoid addressing why the target deadlines were missed.

    In 20+ years of consulting and coaching, I have learned that every person and every company is different. People learn and absorb data (& life’s lessons) in different ways.

    The role of a good coach is to show a game plan that generally works and then help the “coached” sort through how to modify the approach to fit that person’s needs and determine where behavior modification is the appropriate change to be made to accomplish the goals.
    If the coach uses a “my way or the highway” approach, you have the wrong coach!

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