Why Coaching is a Waste of Time & Money by Stephen Duneier
A rather odd title given that I now spend a great deal of my time “coaching” clients, but it’s true. Coaching at every level and in every field is, by and large, a farce. I don’t care where they were certified or how many initials come after their name on a business card, the overwhelming majority of coaches and trainers fail their clients. Even worse, they know it.
Let’s look at the role of the fitness trainer, because almost all of us have had some experience with one, making it easily relatable. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 279,100 fitness trainers in the United States, with the ranks swelling by approximately 8% per year, or 10 times faster than the overall population. They typically sport fantastic physiques, have the “hero pose” down pat and throw around terms like transverse abdominis with great confidence. In addition, they often possess at least a cursory understanding of how our bodies process proteins, calories and carbs, as well as which exercises will have an impact on each body part. The reality is, they know what is required for you to get in shape and to shed those pounds. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that a full 70% of Americans meet the qualifications for being overweight or obese. Over the past 7 years alone, the obesity rate is up 10% to include an astounding 28% of the population. The nation’s fitness trainers are failing us and they know it. I say that, because commercial gyms require ten times more members than they can handle just to breakeven. That means they must be ok with signing up new suckers members, because they know we’ll likely only show up a few times before disappearing forever.
Interestingly, even those coaches who know they are failing their clients, don’t necessarily know why. However, one of them, a “fitness coach to the stars” came to me with that very question recently. Following a successful career in finance, she decided to pursue her true passion, fitness, as a profession. Over the past seven years, she has developed a terrific business, catering to a diverse clientele including time-starved CEO’s, entire student bodies at elementary schools, real housewives, high performance athletes, recovering addicts and everyone in between. She has been able to thrive in a field with tremendous turnover and low success rates, and yet even she struggled to understand why it is that so many clients come to trainers for help and leave without realizing their goals. The answer relates to every type of coaching and every industry, including ours. One of the fundamental assumptions made by most coaches is that if they simply transfer their knowledge to the client, the problem will be solved. For example, a fitness trainer typically sees their job as developing an exercise routine specifically suited to help their client achieve their objectives. 15 leg lifts. 20 squats. 20 crunches. 30 minutes on the treadmill … 4 times a week. They help them perfect their form, count down the last few in a set and track their reps on a neatly organized clipboard. A recipe for success, flawlessly executed.
As anyone who has ever attempted to recreate something they saw on Pinterest knows, simply possessing and following a recipe to the letter does not guarantee success. The same goes for coaches. It begins innocently enough with the client needing to skip a session for their child’s school play or to catch up on work. Then it happens again. Before you know it, they’ve joined the ranks of 80% of the trainer’s clients. Just another name in the contact list. The trainer blames the client for the failure, and it’s likely that the client does too. “If they would have just done what I told them, they would have lost the weight.” That’s how they console themselves, and absolve themselves of the blame, but every time they do so, it practically guarantees it will happen again and again.
In a way, it is true that the client is to be blame. The overwhelming majority of clients are liars. We lie to our trainers, but more importantly, we lie to ourselves. We hire a coach because we want to improve the results we’ve achieved on our own. When we reach out for help, we make ourselves vulnerable, admitting that we have had a hand in our shortcomings, and that can be uncomfortable, but empowering. That moment is like drawing a line in the sand. From here on out I will change my ways, do what is necessary to realize my dreams. That is the lie. You’ve said it while praying to the porcelain god too many times to count. You swore it as you wolfed down your sixth slice of pizza on the Sunday night before your tenth diet began. And you’re doing it again now, as you bare your soul to your new trainer. To her detriment, and yours, she believes you and in that moment, you both fail.
To know why that is the case, it’s helpful to understand the key components of a decision. First, there is the outcome. It is what you are attempting to achieve. You don’t directly control the outcome (unless you’re a magical genie). Instead, you must understand the factors that affect your ability to achieve that outcome, but that you also don’t control. These are known as states. For instance, if you’re trying to lose 10 pounds before your college reunion one month from now (outcome), you’ll need to be aware of the fact that consuming fewer calories than you burn is really the only way to accomplish that (state). This information is vital in selecting acts that will provide a high probability of achieving the outcome you desire. Here’s the very tricky part that very few people understand or are willing to acknowledge. Your habits are factors that impact your ability to achieve the outcome you desire AND, for all intents and purposes, they are beyond your control. Therefore, you must account for them when choosing the most appropriate acts. In other words, your own behavior patterns are states.
Getting back to why our trainers fail us, and how we are complicit in that failure, it is because in that moment when we are telling them that we will do whatever it takes to succeed, we are pretending that we are in control of our habits, and they believe us. So they put together a regimen that requires an adjustment to our habits, which assumes we will cease prioritizing our actions in the same way we have been, and reorganize everything in that very moment. It’s a lovely thought, but carries a very low probability of success. Instead of pursuing this time honored tradition of failure, a good coach will take the time to understand not just their client’s goals, but everything relating to their habits, passions, schedule, priorities, and demands on their time and attention, for together, they make up the states. Only then can a coach choose the acts that provide their clients with the greatest odds of success.
The Power of Confronting Fear Roughly one quarter of Bija subscribers and nearly half of our coaching clients pay for our services out of their own pockets. They do so, because they don’t want others to know that they need our help. We are talking about people who, on average, directly manage $1.15 billion in AuM and have been in the business for 16.7 years. In other words, professionals who are well established in the business and have proven themselves to be exceptional at what they do, over many years. They openly take meetings with analysts, subscribe to data and research services, attend conferences and seek guidance from salespeople for structuring ideas. Why then is there a stigma when it comes to seeking help with investment process and decision analysis? Perhaps the belief is that our investment process and ability to make decisions is what defines our expertise. Therefore, as an expert, we shouldn’t need help with those aspects of the job. If we do, maybe our boss or investors will think we aren’t the right person to be guiding the business or portfolio. What’s ironic about this is that almost unanimously, at a minimum, at some point in our discussions, allocator clients float the idea of making it mandatory for managers with whom they invest, to be coached by us. In other words, what some managers fear may be perceived as a weakness, is overwhelmingly viewed as a strength by the very people whose opinion they value.
About the Author For nearly thirty years, Stephen Duneier has applied cognitive science to investment and business management. The result has been the turnaround of numerous institutional trading businesses, career best returns for experienced portfolio managers who have adopted his methods, the development of a $1.25 billion dollar hedge fund and 20.3% average annualized returns as a global macro portfolio manager.
Mr. Duneier teaches graduate courses on Decision Analysis and Behavioral Investing in the College of Engineering at the University of California.
Through Bija Advisors' coaching, workshops and publications, he helps the world's most successful and experienced investment managers improve performance by applying proven, proprietary decision-making methods to their own processes.
Stephen Duneier was formerly Global Head of Currency Option Trading at Bank of America, Managing Director in charge of Emerging Markets at AIG International and founding partner of award winning hedge funds, Grant Capital Partners and Bija Capital Management. As a speaker, Stephen has delivered informative and inspirational talks to audiences around the world for more than 20 years on topics including global macro economic themes, how cognitive science can improve performance and the keys to living a more deliberate life. Each is delivered via highly entertaining stories that inevitably lead to further conversation, and ultimately, better results.
His artwork has been featured in international publications and on television programs around the world, is represented by the renowned gallery, Sullivan Goss and earned him more than 50,000 followers across social media. As Commissioner of the League of Professional Educators, Duneier is using cognitive science to alter the landscape of American K-12 education. He received his master's degree in finance and economics from New York University's Stern School of Business.
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