In 2010, I returned home from a 13-month combat deployment to Afghanistan — and hit a wall.
For the previous 4 years, I’d leapfrogged from one Army challenge to the next. Conditions were tough and always changing — but I always had a next step and clear endstate in mind. Peak performance was my North Star.
But now I found myself muddling through my days — exercising less, eating worse, and getting less sleep. Maintaining focus on post-deployment tasks became increasingly difficult as I found myself “going through the motions” each day. I was not broken, but I had lost my edge.
I know now that I was experiencing what Adam Grant calls languishing — a type of malaise — as if looking at life through a foggy windshield.
Fast forward 11 years, and I know now there is a science-based, preventive tool to help our military service members maintain their edge.
For the past 3 years, I’ve had the benefit of working closely with a professional coach at BetterUp, and it’s become apparent to me that professional coaching can have a profound and measurable impact on the readiness of our military.
What is a “professional coach”?
Professional coaching is results-oriented, based on science and dialed-in to what is most effective for the individual.
By the term “professional coach” or “expert coach” I am referring to individuals who have received a coaching accreditation from a recognized authority such as the Internal Coaching Federation (ICF). At BetterUp, our coaches all have ICF or equivalent certifications and undergo additional rigorous training on our proprietary, evidence-based coaching approach.
Coaching has received mixed reviews in some corners due to a lot of self-appointed gurus, offering you a system, and claiming to have all the answers. An expert coach doesn’t give you answers — they give you the tools and help you develop the practices to find the answers in yourself. Expert coaches know that personal growth isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition.
What separates a professional coach from an informal coach or mentor is a deep understanding of the science of behavior change coupled with a substantial amount of real-life coaching experience. Professional coaching is also not psychotherapy. With a focus on performance rather than “fixing” something broken, professional coaching is designed to achieve an optimal state of functioning, both personally and professionally. Evidence, and data like we have at BetterUp, help take the guesswork out of which tools and exercises can move the needle for that type of growth.
How can professional coaches serve as a force multiplier for the military?
- A confidential safe space outside the chain of command to navigate difficult decisions or challenging situations
There were countless times in my Army career where I could have benefited from confidential conversations with a coach. Challenging bosses, combating burnout, maintaining focus on the mission amid competing personal and professional priorities, just to name a few.
- Positive, forward-looking ownership and agency in individuals
Coaching empowers service members to own their own growth and development. Unlike cyclical counseling and backward-looking performance evaluations, coaching provides an ongoing touchpoint to help individuals set goals, identify a path to move toward them, and commit to taking action.
- Near real-time pulse on the state of the Force for leaders
Enterprise-wide coaching programs provide military senior leaders with real-time visibility into behavioral trends across the force, in a way that protects individual anonymity. With near real-time coaching analytics, commanders no longer have to wait for command climate surveys to get a pulse of their organizations. BetterUp provides 24/7 access to reporting dashboards, enabling leaders to make more timely, informed command decisions regarding their personnel.
- A proven tool to achieve performance across all industries, including the military
Used by world-class performers – from Fortune 500 CEOs to professional athletes — professional coaching works. BetterUp has conducted more than 1 million coaching sessions and has ample evidence to demonstrate that coaching moves the needle in key military skills related to readiness such as focus, peak performance, and stress management.
- Infusion of private sector innovation into DoD and exposure to tools of the trade from elite coaches
One key benefit a professional coach can bring to military members is outside perspective. And since coaches themselves frequently coach elite private sector performers, this outside perspective is infused with the tricks of the trade of the private sector, a novel and beneficial perspective not traditionally available to the members of the military.
Supporting military leaders for more effective leadership
In order to more effectively lead and inspire their teams, our nation’s military leaders (at all levels) must first look to their own growth, development, and well-being. Exposing our military to professional coaching is a critical step toward that end. In a force where leadership is necessarily distributed and decision-making happens on the ground, coaching can be the force-multiplier that supports leaders to support their teams. I am confident that working with a coach can profoundly impact the effectiveness of our military, just as it has for me.
Alex Haig completed multiple deployments to Afghanistan as an Army Infantry Officer. He is currently BetterUp’s Head of Government Programs and RVP. He leads BetterUp's Military Veteran Employee Resource Group.