September 21, 2023

Turning Theory into Muscle Memory

Clinician Leadership | Leadership Development

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I was in a meeting recently with a prominent physician leader who wanted to learn more about our coaching firm and what we offer for healthcare leaders. He made a provocative statement: “You’ve got a branding problem.” It struck me profoundly: Here was a highly successful physician executive who’s led multiple national corporations, and yet he perceived executive coaching as a last-ditch effort to help someone change their ways before being asked to leave. It’s a persistent myth in healthcare, in sharp contrast to other industries that have long invested in coaching high performers.

In reality, many forward-thinking healthcare organizations have engaged us to maximize the impact of their leaders and teams, much like professional athletes and market innovators have a longstanding tradition of magnifying their skills with expert coaching.

My introduction to coaching as a physician leader

As a physician leader, I trained and practiced at a time when physician leadership was a novel idea. For the record, it wasn’t that long ago. I, and others, had to seek out leadership training. 

I was introduced to coaching when I hired some consultants for our medical group. They happened to be trained coaches who worked at Nike and Intel. I was intrigued by their methods and ability to ask thoughtful questions that cut to the heart of the issues that we were dealing with. As a result, we grew more successful in addressing the issues that mattered most. 

Their methods were not a one-size-fits-all approach, but an individualized one. It was hugely successful at the time, yet it was my only experience with coaching, other than hiring coaches for clinicians who found themselves in hot water for persistent behavioral concerns. Now, many years later, I recognize that experience was the catalyst for pursuing the coaching career which I now enjoy.

What’s different with coaching?

Executive coaching is different. For starters, it is not just for underperformers. While it can be helpful and rewarding to save someone’s career or help them discover their inner confidence, for example, coaching is just as valuable for successful leaders seeking greater success for themselves and their organizations. We usually frame it as: “You don’t need to be sick to get better.” 

Coaching also differs sharply from leadership training, where someone goes off to a seminar and listens to various topics or theories about leadership components. While helpful information can come from training, it’s delivered out of context for the individual. The guidance may or may not be relevant to the unique circumstances a leader may face. It also doesn’t take their personal leadership style, relationship dynamics or other unique factors into consideration. 

When the information is relevant, the skill sets needed to apply the new information are not addressed. Even more so, issues or habits that get in the way of applying the information are likely to be entirely different from one individual to another. 

As a result, while the information may be important, relevant and helpful, the inability to apply it means that clients regress to their habitual ways and the information remains just a theory. It doesn’t help. My boss calls it “acute seminar psychosis” and I experienced it many times over the course of my early career where great information was brought home in a binder, and over time it moved from my desk to a shelf on the bookcase, where it was rarely looked at again.

Coaching is about making change. 

As one of my mentors has said, “If there’s no reason to change, there’s no reason for coaching.” 

Coaching is grounded in universal human principles, neuroscience, emotional intelligence and intentional behavioral change. Coaching serves as a catalyst for growth and development. Coaches walk alongside clients as trusted partners. 

At MEDI Leadership, our coaching takes the theories and ideas, turns them into new behaviors and actions and, with ongoing practice, new habits. In other words, with attention and intention, clients move from unconscious incompetence through conscious incompetence, then to conscious competence and unconscious competence

unconscious incompetence ⇨ conscious incompetence ⇨ conscious competence ⇨ unconscious competence

I’ve also observed that coaching clients move from a lack of confidence to confidence, and from frustration to joy. Importantly, they also expand their leadership capacity. As one of our clients put it, the MEDI brand is “turning theory into muscle memory.”

When to reach out to a coach?

One question I’m asked frequently is “How do clients know they need a coach?” 

There are several ways people come to coaching. Common scenarios include organization development initiatives involving coaching, a history of prior coaching and a need to re-engage (e.g., new position), or they’ve been asked to engage a coach to address their performance. Times of transition such as a new role, new organization or challenge are key times to work with a coach. 

Some leaders sense they are not performing as they wish — despite past successes, there’s an awareness that they’re stuck or not getting the results they want. It’s during these times that motivated leaders reach out wanting to push their own boundaries. 

Finally, other leaders seek us because they want a safe space and sounding board to work through issues, away from competing agendas and politics in the organization. It can be lonely at the top and things can get murky without an outside perspective.

Consistently, healthcare leaders tell us that investing in coaching translates into lasting behavioral change that leads to enhanced performance, reputation, and results.

Related Resources:
3 Myths About Executive CoachingWhy Coach High Performers?How Adults Learn: Common Pitfalls & Making New Skills “Stick”

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About the author

Gary Hoffman, MD

Gary Hoffman, MD, is a seasoned executive coach with rich, first-hand experience as a physician executive. His expertise is working with fast-changing healthcare organizations, executive and physician leaders, and clinical leaders transitioning from clinical to executive roles.

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