The Art of Strengths Coaching

A is for Aiming To Achieve An A Grade In The Arena

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Great workers aim to achieve their version of an A Grade in their chosen arena. They aim to do their best when encouraging another person, playing a sport, leading a project or whatever.

Different people have different versions of what it means to deliver an A Grade. Some sports people, for example, focus on aiming to be the best they can be, rather than beat the opposition.

Pete Carroll, the American Football coach, explained this approach in his book, Win Forever. He was strongly influenced by Abraham Maslow, plus coaches John Wooden and Bill Walsh. Tim Galwey, who pioneered ideas about ‘the inner game’, was another influence.

Pete was particularly attracted to Tim’s view that athletes perform best when they have a ‘quieted mind’. This approach helped him to define his own philosophy of excellence. Below is Pete’s view of being competitive. You can discover more via the following link.

Competition for me it not about beating your opponent. It is about doing your best; it is about striving to reach your potential; and it is about being in relentless pursuit of a competitive edge in everything you do.

The essence of my message about competing has nothing to do with the opponent. My competitive approach is that “it’s all about us.” If we’ve really done the preparation to elevate ourselves to our full potential, it shouldn’t matter whom we are playing.

Once I understood that we were competing with ourselves, it changed my view of future opponents. Many people confuse ‘opponent’ with ‘enemy,’ but in my experience, that is extremely unproductive.

My opponents are the people who offer me the opportunity to succeed. The tougher my opponents, the more they present me with an opportunity to live up to my full potential and play my best.

Clarifying Your Version
of Achieving An A Grade

Benjamin Zander offers a similar view of success. A conductor with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, he is also a popular performer on the business speaking circuit.

During his lectures Benjamin draws parallels between his role as a conductor and the leader’s role in business. One concept he describes is the idea of getting an A grade.

Benjamin tutors hundreds of students who travel from around the world to pursue their musical studies in America. They are often financially supported by families who have saved to provide the necessary funding.

Naturally enough, the students feel nervous on their first day in college. Anxious not to disappoint their parents, they are worried about passing their final exams.

Benjamin greets the assembled students by saying something like the following.


You Have An A Grade 

Let me put your minds at rest. You already have an A grade. But this is dependent on several things.

First, write me a letter dated May next year – the end of your time in college – titled My A Grade.

Imagine you are writing the letter after completing the course. Start with the words:

‘The reason I deserve an A Grade is because I have done the following things over the last year: …’

Describe the specific things you will have done to deserve the A Grade.

Second, you and I will meet to discuss your proposed achievements and whether these deserve an A. If not, we will agree on what you must do to get your desired grade.

Third, it is then up to you to reach the agreed grade.

You can discover more about Benjamin’s work at:

Looking at your own life and work, can you think of specific situation where you would like to aim for your version of an A Grade?

In my own life, for example, many of my aims have focused around the theme of encouragement. This has often involved asking the question:

“How can I help people to achieve their picture of success?”

If I am doing a mentoring session with somebody, for example, I want to make the person feel welcome. After clarifying their picture of success, I then aim to offer practical tools they can use to achieve their goals. Bearing this in mind, here is my goal.

My A Grade

My aim is that after session the person will, in
their own words, say something like the following.

The session was enjoyable. It was:

Personal – It related to me and my agenda.

Practical – It provided practical tools that I can use in my life and work. 

Profitable – It was, in the widest sense, profitable and helped me to achieve my goals.

You will have your own view of what might constitute success. If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe the specific arena in which you would like to achieve your version of an A Grade.

Describe your definition of achieving an A Grade in this arena.

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Achieving Your
Version of An A Grade

Imagine you have defined your version of an A Grade. How can you achieve it in your chosen arena?

The word ‘arena’ is chosen deliberately. It signifies the place where you want to do your best and it also has elements of being on-stage.

It is about delivering the goods when it matters. Some athletes are good on the training field, for example, but may have difficulty in performing well in more challenging situations.

Your arena may be facilitating a counselling session, running a workshop, giving a keynote speech, singing in a choir, managing a crisis, solving a tough problem or whatever.

Different people have different approaches to doing their best. Great workers often start by clarifying their purpose and then do the necessary preparation. Going into the arena, they aim to follow their chosen principles and achieve peak performance.

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Peak performers spend many hours mentally rehearsing ways to achieve success. This is in addition to the fabled 10,000 hours spent doing purposeful practice.

Different people prepare in different ways. You may go through some of the following steps to prepare properly.

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Great workers follow their own individual rituals to snap into action when entering the arena. They then aim to follow their chosen principles to achieve the picture of success.

Sports coaches often encourage athletes to keep pursuing the agreed strategies in a professional way, for example, rather than worry about the results. Paradoxically, the athletes that do this properly are more likely to lift the prizes.

Let’s return to the situation where you want to achieve your version of an A Grade. You will do the preparation and follow the principles in your own way. How can you then do your best in the arena?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe the specific arena in which you want to achieve your version of an A Grade. 

Describe the specific things you can do to aim to achieve an A Grade in this arena.

Describe the specific benefits – for yourself and other people – of achieving an A Grade in this arena.

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    P is for Being Proactive

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    Looking back, can you think of a situation when you were proactive? You may have taken the initiative to find a job, build a relationship, lead a project, tackle a challenge, solve a problem or whatever.

    What did you do right then? You may have said to yourself, for example: “I can make things happen, rather than wait for things to happen.” How did you translate your wishes into action?

    Sports teams are sometimes proactive. One soccer manager, for example, encouraged his team to go out onto the field and take control of the game. Sounds obvious, but the hard part was translating this it action.

    The players began with a positive attitude. They started on the front foot, kept winning the ball and and implemented the attacking strategy. They then continued to dominate the play.

    If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

    Describe a specific situation in the past when you chose to be proactive. 

    Describe the specific things you did then to be proactive. 

    Describe the specific things that happened as a result of taking these steps.

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    People who are proactive have an internal locus of control. They believe they can play a large part in shaping their futures. They are positive yet realistic.

    Such a person focuses on what they can control in life, rather than worries about what they can’t control. They say things like:

    “I can take responsibility … I can make things happen … I can recover from setbacks.”

    People with an external locus of control believe that things happen to them. They often feel that their happiness depends on external events and how the world treats them

    Proactive people constantly scan situations to see what is happening and what they want to make happen. Such people often focus on the following themes.

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    The Picture Of Success

    Proactive people constantly think about possibilities in their personal or professional lives. They then translate these ideas into a clear picture of success.

    Peak performers see the destination quickly. When entering the situation in which they excel, they quickly see the potential picture of success. They go ‘A, B … and then leap to … Z’.

    The architect walks onto a site and visualises the finished house. The footballer sees the defence-splitting pass that will create a goal. The counsellor greets the troubled child and knows how they want the child to be feeling after their conversation.

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    You will do this naturally in certain activities. It is also possible to use such strategic intuition in other areas of life. You can ask the following questions when setting a goal, tackling a challenge or doing a project.

    What is my goal? What are the real results I want to achieve? What are the actual words I would like to hear the various stakeholders saying? What is the picture of success?

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    The Potential Strategies

    Proactive people continually focus on the potential strategies for achieving their goal. They then rehearse these strategies in their heads. Such a person may keep asking:

    What are the key strategies I can follow to give myself the greatest chance of success? How can I implement these strategies successfully? How can I get some early successes?

    Arie de Geus, author of The Living Company, found that peak performing individuals and teams develop a memory of the future. They constantly envisage what might happen in their chosen field. This means they are several steps ahead of other people when these situations occur.

    You will, of course, do this in your own way. It may well be that you also focus on the next theme.

    The Potential Challenges

    Proactive people continually scan situations for potential problems. They scan things close to them and also things on the horizon.

    Alive and alert, they have personal radar in their chosen field. They seem able to envisage what will happen before it happens. Such a person keeps asking the following questions.

    What are the potential difficulties I will face? What can I do to prevent some of these difficulties happening? What can I do if they do happen? How can I stay calm and find creative solutions to the challenges? 

    The Practical Action Plan

    Proactive people have elements of OCD in their chosen field. Such people live by lists. They often get a kick from crossing off items from these lists.

    Starting from the outcomes to achieve, they clarify the key strategies they can follow to achieve these aims. Translating these into specific action plans and lists, they then focus on the next step.

    The Physical Steps To Take

    Proactive people do something to get a quick success. This often means doing something physical, even if this is simply sending an email to get things moving.

    People who want to recover after a setback, for example, often do something physical to retake charge of their lives. They may start exercising, eat healthier food, walk to work, begin cycling, lose weight or whatever.

    They change the physical things to change the psychological things. This gives them more strength to tackle the particular challenge.

    Let’s return to your own life and work. Is there anything you would like to do to be proactive? You may want to encourage another person, take more charge of your health, get a health check, get more satisfying work, start a specific project, tackle a particular challenge or whatever.

    How can you be proactive and start the ball rolling? How can you get a quick success? How can you then maintain the momentum?

    If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

    Describe a specific situation now or in the future when you may want to be proactive.

    Describe the specific things you can do to be proactive.

    Describe the specific things that may happen as a result of being proactive in this situation.

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