When to learn what from who and how

Whoa, that title. Please bear with me.

Since making the move from full-time-athlete to full-time-guy-with-regualr-job-that-happens-to-be-in-advertising it’s struck me how many similarities there are in professional life that transcend industry. And in discovering that, realising how useful it is having a tool kit of transferrable skills I never thought would be relevant to anything but winning races.

One thing that’s struck me is how much of a difference it makes to your own career to have an effective manager, or leader, or mentor, whatever you call it. And in turn, how the advertising industry does not seem to really hammer skills of leadership and nurturing into mid level managers. Rather, it rewards people who work hard as executional account people, then hopes that success will translate into growing a team of junior members.

I have had good managers, and I have had crap ones, and I am sure I will continue to have good and crap ones for the rest of my career. Luckily, I have a great one at the moment. But as I’ve come to realise, it’s not just luck that determines whether you’ll learn from your line manager or not, it comes down to recognising how you can best work with that person and ensure you’re getting the most out of them. Ideally without them knowing.


To make sense of this, I’ll use a sporting analogy.

From when I was 13 through to 25 years old I had three amazing coaches, all with very different styles and I believe are representative of most leadership styles. For the sake of this blog let’s call them ‘Coach 1’, ‘Coach 2’ and ‘Coach 3’… original I know.


Coach 1

From 13 to 22 years of age, this coach gave me the tools to learn, let me made mistakes, but did not let me forget them. Everything was about being tough, about learning, about making sure I was working ‘harder’ than anyone else was. This was truly character building, especially having the kind of influence at such a formative part of life in my teenage years.


Coach 2

After making junior and under 23 world championship teams, the approach of ‘working hard / being tough’ was not enough to get me to the world elite stage, so I moved to the ultimate micro manager style coach. This was the type of coach who wanted to know what I was doing at all times, what I’d eaten, what my heart rate was every morning for the past 14 days, and wanted to have ultimate say over every aspect of my racing schedule and whereabouts (ie life) all year round.


Coach 3

Withstanding that approach for 1.5 years, I moved to the chilled out self empowering style of coach. The coach recognised I was clearly committed and had over 10 years of experience so in most instances left me to my own devices. His primary role was to oversee the big picture, set up a good training environment for me, and advise me where necessary.


All the above coaches have positive and negatives to their styles, just as any leader has. But all had to be managed very differently to get the most out of them.

I can relate Coach 1 to the managers I’ve had that I’d classify as ‘caring’. He legitimately cared about my development as an athlete but also as a person. I’ve had this kind of leader in the world of business only once, and even then it wasn’t by a direct manager. For this kind of person, you want to keep them close because you have so much to learn from them, and they’re willing to teach you. But you’ve also go to always know to put business first and that any wellbeing for your development as a person must coincide with the good of the company you work for, and be willing to take it on the chin and be objective when they tell you that you’ve stuffed up. Ultimately, they’ve told you out of respect for you.

I think we’ve all had a few Coach 2’s before, and to be honest I think they can be really useful to developing and creating good work. You just need to know when to leave them before they rule all your decision making for you and turn you into a robot. Under my Coach 2, my results in triathlon immediately improved. I’d found someone who knew more about what I needed to do to succeed than I knew, they told me exactly how to do it and what I needed to sacrifice, and it led to great (short term) results. The trick to maintaining this before it wears you out is compartmentalising their advice into things you listen to them about, and other things you decide to take with a grain of salt.

As for Coach 3, the laissez-faire attitude totally depends on how self motivated you are. I think the truer comparison to the business manager / team leader / account director is the one who is so overworked and caught up in their own projects they don’t make the time to attend to the day-to-day of their team, and only notice how their junior staff are going when a problem arises. For this style, you need to make sure you have your own plan for your day, your account, your career, and feed in to them what you’re doing, dressed up in how it makes their life easier.

So there it is! Three styles of coaching, three styles of management, and how I approach working with each one. If there was a moral (which there isn’t), it would be something along the lines of ‘there are mixes of all the above styles in everyone you work with and will work with, forever’, so don’t get too precious about only wanting to work with one style of person.