How to tell if someone should NOT be your coach

Unhappy male coachee listening to an executive coach give advice. Frustrated client holding a hand to his face.

Coaching has become very popular as organizations face an increasing need for individuals (or groups) to learn and grow more substantially and quickly than ever. Based on favorable if scarce evidence supporting the effectiveness of coaching not presented here, coaching should be given serious consideration as a key component of any organization’s talent management strategy. But, as is the case with anything powerful, you have to be careful with coaching engagements, or you can get hurt – badly. Because there is no "one best way" to coaching, there’s considerable risk of engaging the wrong person as a coach. And I'll be the first to say you can’t judge a coach by their title (or solely based on published credentials). The best of well-intended sponsors/buyers/users of coaching services are at risk of making a mistake before the coach even gets started. Here, I share some of the key ways for you to know when someone should NOT be your coach.

  1. They overlook ethical matters. This may seem obvious, but it’s much more complicated -- and risky -- than most think. Ethical issues abound in any situation where personal assessments are made, but they’re especially prevalent in coaching. Key questions must be addressed: What’s in-bounds/out-of-bounds? How will data be collected and shared? What happens next?

Coaching is extraordinarily powerful with rightfully high expectations since it isn’t cheap. There’s a lot of pressure that can lead to shortcuts or, kindly put, bad judgment. But individual and organizational “lives” are at stake. You need to engage someone well-versed in the substantial ethical issues that are a part of all coaching engagements – however formal.

  1. They get the role wrong. An executive coach is NOT;

a. Colleague – Your coach (by “your coach,” I mean the coach you engage) may be someone from within your organization, but they shouldn’t work directly with the coachee. It’s hard for a coachee to confide in someone that’s already close enough to have preconceptions or may affect the coachee’s fate “back on the job.” Using a colleague as coach has its place, but I advise against it for the majority of situations. A number of bad outcomes can occur for both coach and coachee when the two already work together.

b. Vendor – Assessment tools, for example, are a big part of coaching. Your coach shouldn’t be indefensibly partial about what assessments or other “coachware” they use. There’s more than one personality test, believe me. Check twice if the coach markets their tools exclusively. You want someone who knows a range of tools and how they work (i.e., their psychometrics).

c. TrainerCorporate trainers are specifically skilled at building and transferring new skills. While this may be a part of what an effective coach does, it’s rarely the “main course.” The coaching context simply isn’t right for a blog-standard training approach. For example, coaches build closer (i.e., deeper trusting) relationships based on coachee-centered discourse and need. (But note mistake 2d, immediately below)

d. Friend – Your coach isn’t meant to be or become the coachee’s friend, but this is a significant risk in with considerable “gray area.” A coach is expected to be friendly (i.e., “nice”), in fact this is key to building a trusting relationship, but boundaries MUST BE established and maintained between the two. Beyond the professional conflict that can arise when coach and coachee become close friends, the potential exists for much more serious ethical conflicts with life-changing psychological and legal consequences. Because of the highly sensitive interpersonal dynamic that emerges when self-disclosure to an authority figure is involved, the stage is set for transference. This is a catastrophic – about as bad as it gets. Any inappropriate relations must be managed swiftly and surely. If there’s any suspicion that an inappropriate relationship is forming, you should end the coaching engagement. Immediately! Full stop. This is no time to be bashful. {Respecting all caution, it is okay, even expected, for your coach to use friendly behavior. But they must not cross ethical boundaries that are much more critical for a coach than they are for others, e.g., a colleague (but they are important here, too.}

e. Boss – Again, bosses (possibly, you) aren’t excluded from coaching, they’re actually expected to coach. But bosses need to “stay in their lane.” In all likelihood the boss has had a role in the calling for the need of a coach in the first place. Boss’ never get the same story that an outsider can. I hope the reasons are obvious.

f. Short-order cook – Your coach shouldn’t be overly concerned with accommodating the coachee’s every need. Here again, the temptation of the coach is to give what is asked for, after all, that’s service, right? Wrong. What a coachee wants isn’t always what they need, in fact it’s exceptional when it is. A good coach knows when to accommodate, when to resist and when to suggest otherwise. They must maintain control of the relationship.

g. Subject matter expert (SME) – A coach is not an expert in the specific, technical/functional aspects of the coachee’s current or future job. That’s what a mentor is, and the skillsets are very different. Mentors impart organizational wisdom and job-related instruction. Coaches work with the coachee to evoke more general insights and lay plans for action and follow-up.

h. Messenger – This is a BIG one. (and shouldn't be 'h') It’s imperative that the coach not only be able to make an accurate assessment, they must be permitted to do so. Using a coach to provide feedback is cowardly and ineffective. On a personally relevant note, coaching as a profession and trade is tainted by this unsavory tactic. Don’t do this. At minimum, it will destroy trust.

  1. They didn’t adequately address objectivity.

A common challenge when engaging a coach is insuring objectivity. A good coach can’t be influenced by demands, information or circumstances. Being objective isn’t necessarily about having unrelated, or no prior involvement with the coaching party (i.e., coachee, sponsor, others involved) – it’s about being able to set aside circumstantial information when necessary for the good of a professional engagement. It’s being a trusted expert.

Beyond being objective, the coach must be perceived as objective. As I’ve mentioned, it isn’t impossible, but it is rare, to find a coach- and role-appropriate level of objectivity when considering internal coaches. But internal coaches frequently have too much history with the coachee for to be adequately insulated from the organization’s dynamics. The type of relationship an internal coach builds is almost always different from that of an external coach; the reason is objectivity.

When I have worked as an internal consultant, I’ve never taken on the role of executive coach – with one exception. That was a job in which I practically worked as an outside consultant and had no exposure to the coachee. The likelihood of a conflict of interest jeopardizing objectivity is especially risky for folks in HR. You can’t expect a coachee to share their deepest work-related concerns when they know, or think, that their “confidante” is about to run off and determine their pay. Even though conflicts are a risk for external coaches, handling deeply sensitive and personal discussions is one of the main tasks of the coach and vital to building trust.

{Oftentimes a coach does have a say in the coachee’s fate. In these cases, it’s imperative to respect boundaries and to have a comprehensive coaching agreement in place. The coachee needs to know and formally agree what they’re getting into.}

  1. They didn’t engage an expert in coaching. Coaching requires a plethora of specialized skills. SOME of these include:
    • Executive assessment
    • Psychometrics
    • Individual counseling
    • Leadership development
    • Ethical matters of individual assessment, specifically in organizations
    • Learning and development
    • Organization behavior
    • Organization development and effectiveness
    • Succession planning

This is just a partial list and doctoral degrees are conferred for each of these requirements. Every coaching engagement is unique and requires the coach to adapt in ways that optimize the engagement. True experts are more than a “one horse show” and can adjust seamlessly and effectively.

All of these mistakes need to be avoided in order for a professional and trusted coach-coachee engagement to exist. Without any one of these, it may be more than a professional lapse of judgment - you could have a real crisis on your hands.

...Thought you should know…

The top 5 reasons succession planning goes wrong and how to fix them

Succession planning org chart with person icons

Succession planning may be – no – it IS the most important job of executive leadership. The critical aim of this work is to ensure leadership continuity by identifying individuals with the highest potential to fill key positions in an organization. This is work that affects more than just the future of individuals’ careers, it affects the fate of the entire organization. I have literally seen a company’s stock price swing more than 10% in a day when news about executive position replacements gets out. Even in moderately large organizations billions of dollars can be at stake when it comes to answering the question, who will lead? As such, succession planning represents possibly the highest stakes of all executive assessment. Unfortunately, most organizations are really bad at succession planning. And more often than not, those stock prices swing lower rather than higher based on news of new leadership. Maybe the investors are right.

Succession planning is typically construed as good defense. In order to ensure leadership continuity, a list of individuals most ready to backfill a given job is prepared so that in the event of an open position (typically unanticipated) a succession of leadership changes can be made. Backfills are made not just for the open position but for the “domino effect” that cascades through the organization based on even one or two key moves. While this may be a good replacement plan for key executives, it’s bad for true, strategic organizational succession planning. It’s like looking in the rearview mirror in order to go forward – you might just run over someone and you won’t get where you want to go.

Let’s examine some of the most challenging realities that plague most succession planning efforts.

Succession Planning - Done Wrong

  1. It’s based on backwards thinking.

The typical exercise involves identifying the next in line, i.e., "backfill," for a job that opens up, usually due to an executive departure from the organization. While this may be a good way to stay where you are as an organization, your competition is going forward at full speed. The error here is replicating what you’ve had versus positioning what you’ll need.

  1. It’s driven by those who need a successor.

This problem applies more broadly than succession planning. From a personal point of view, the assumption here is that if I win the lottery, then my groomed successor will replace me. Wrong. If you leave the organization, you most definitely won’t be the one making key executive moves – you’re not even around. The most likely person to make any backfill is the person to whom that position needing a backfill reports, not the one in the position. For this reason, it’s imperative that executives know not just their direct reports, they need to know the employee population at least two levels beneath them.

Guess what? I have facilitated numerous succession planning efforts where executives have no idea who reports to their direct reports. Photos don’t even jar their memory (and can be controversial in this context). “You rode up on the elevator with them.” Still don’t know them.

  1. It’s based on the strongest of psychological biases.

Too many positions are filled based on the “like me” method. Naturally, we’re wired to think that we are exactly what “my” position needs, therefore I am looking for a “mini-me.” Well, you may think you’re at the center of the universe (face it, we all do), but if you ask others, you’ll get a very different point of view. Others in the organization may not want your backfill to be a mini you. That’s a good perspective to cultivate but it’s almost impossible when you’re in the room. This is why politics play such a strong role in most succession planning.

  1. It’s personal, not organizational.

This is another bias that inserts itself in the succession planning process. Leaders are VERY sensitive about “their people.” In fact, a leader oftentimes acts as though “their people” are just like family members – and sometimes THEY ARE, but this is a whole other concern not to be addressed here. Regardless, they aren’t “you’re people,” they’re the organization’s people.

  1. It’s based on flawed judgement.

Even for the few occasions that I have someone tell me they’re a poor judge of people, guess who weighs in on talent to fill open positions? Yep, everyone has a point of view when it comes to selection. And the closer that selection is to the individual, the stronger their judgement gets.

Studies consistently find human judgement to be a bad predictor of actual talent. If only those who are right when they admit that they’re a poor judge of talent actually deferred to more objective, scientific means of assessment. But they don’t. Sometimes the best you can do is to present decision makers with well-designed psychometric instruments that do make accurate assessments and hope that reasoned, versus inferred judgement prevails. This works best when the judge knows a bit about how the given psychometric tools work. In many cases, science will make an impact. You’ve got to take the magic out of the assessment and encourage those who “lean in” to a better way.

Succession Planning - Done Right

  1. Think of succession planning as progression planning.

Instead of priming defensive and myopic mindsets with terms like “succession,” “my successor” and “backfill” use terms like “progression,” “strategic,” “organization,” and “future fill.” This can even help with the personal biases as you and history are intrinsically bound. (See #s 2, 3, 4 and 5) Good succession planning isn’t possible without good strategic planning. Your talent for the future should look like what you need in the future, not what you’ve had in the past.

  1. Have leaders discuss talent at least two levels below them.

The first time you do this you may find yourself in a circular loop, “we can’t talk about the talent because we don’t know this talent” meets, “we don’t know this talent because we’ve never talked about this talent.”

That’s actually a good start. When leaders admit they need deeper insight you have the opportunity to improve on those shallow evaluations. Ignorance can be your saving grace! I’d much rather work with a leader that “doesn’t know everything” and is right about that than one who’s confident in their wrongful thinking. Now’s a good time to introduce better assessments and more strategic thinking.

  1. Train leaders in good assessment and talent management.

This is a big deal. You have to take the “like me” person out of assessment. Otherwise you have the old cliché, “when you’re a hammer, the world looks like a nail.” And since diversity and inclusion are nowhere near where they need to be in organizations – especially at the senior most levels, you need the seasoned group of executives to really recognize and know talent that isn’t at all like them. But good, accurate, assessment is hard and typically counter intuitive. Still, it’s not impossible to have a leader acknowledge that their best replacement won’t look like them.

  1. Ensure leaders discuss not only “their” function, make them responsible for all of the organization's functions.

Leaders think in their silos and don’t want others messing with their kingdom. That’s all wrong. You need to open up and break personal “myndsets” and create organizational mindsets. After all, these are individuals entrusted with the future of the organization – not just one function or group. By getting leaders to talk about talent in other groups you also improve the likelihood of cross-functional moves. These are critical to effective succession planning as they work to create organization leaders versus expert leaders. Well-rounded talent knows more than accounting.

  1. Use properly validated assessments.

Study after study show that good psychometrics beat good assessors. While there are exceptions, you aren’t one of them. Moreover, research finds that “good assessors” primarily are good at assessing specific characteristics or traits – but not all. A comprehensive set of psychological assessments used by an expert in workplace psychology should be mandatory for proper succession planning. Furthermore, studies show that training assessors with the framing reference of properly validated psychometrics actually improves their personal evaluations.

Good succession planning shouldn’t be a blind date. Open leadership’s eyes to the talents of new, unknown talent and give them the tools to truly know that talent. Only by clarifying what’s needed in the future for the organization can you break some of psychology’s strongest biases to truly ensure organization continuity AND progress.

Stop thanking your team

Notebook with handwriting to suggest that the leader stop thanking the team so much

Most leaders don’t know it, but the way they’re thanking their team is actually self- and team-defeating. Before making an error that is at best as useful as watering the ocean, or at worst as appreciated as making a “tiny correction” to the Mona Lisa, stop thanking your team.

Here’s why.

People want to make a difference. It’s what defines and realizes us. To everyone besides your mom, you are what you do. Even in a team people want to know that they, personally, are making a meaningful contribution. It’s not just the most motivation a person can have – it’s the only true motivation there is (Hertzberg, 1959). One of the biggest problems leaders have is thanking their team too much.

You have this problem, too.

When you thank someone for their work, you think you’re expressing genuine appreciation. But “genuine” is in the eye of the beholder. And for 90% of the “thanks” out there, you’re not doing it right (authentically). In fact, you’re actually making things worse.

To be a great leader you’ve got to stop thanking your team – at least the way most do. Most feel an irrepressible need to add on to “thanks” with some thoughts of their own.

Bad move.

stop at "thanks."

If anything more than gratitude is expressed, all they’ll hear is “BUT.” Just stop at “thanks.”

With one exception.

Your thanks will be most impactful if you are able to fully subordinate yourself to the other’s act or idea.

Your thanks will be most impactful if you are able to fully subordinate yourself to the other’s act or idea. The best way to do this is with a simple nod that says “tell me more.” (Or you can actually say the words).

Next to making a difference, and actually a form of it, people need to feel a sense of power. Not necessarily via pure dominance, but yes, by some means of rising above others. High potential workers are especially motivated by power. The power to make a difference through others.

So, why does thanking your team actually demotivate them?

First – You’re recognizing the obvious

You demote and demean the high potential by thanking them for something that they feel is their normal order of business. It’s like telling someone, “Thanks, Mary. You’re very articulate.” To most this is a “left-handed” compliment at best, judgement in disguise. To some it’s an outright slap in the face.

NEVER thank someone for something that the target of thanks believes is an innate capability of theirs. I use the word, “thank” but the general act is one of praise. Be very careful that when you allocate praise that it is for something truly extraordinary. Something you REALLY appreciate, as in, “you really saved my @ss”.

Second – You’re improving "good enough"

You hijack – or “seize and one up” the individual’s contribution. Yep, by thanking someone you are basically saying, “I know that was a valuable contribution because I already know {have done, etc), ….”

Have you ever edited someone else’s email? (you know what I'm talking about then)

This may be a bit of a stretch presented as is. Let me offer another example to illustrate the harm in “blessing” another’s work.

TEAM MEMBER:  “We should put gears on the engine.”

LEADER:  “That's a great idea {because I gave it to you}. Thanks. That will also help us to make more ground rutabaga.”

TM to Self: {“I know it’s a great idea, Jughead, that’s what I deliver. Why can’t you leave it alone?”}

This power move takes (seizes) Team Member’s idea by acknowledging (“You’re right”) and taking it where it wasn’t going (hijacks it).

Don’t think you do this? Have you ever edited someone else’s email?

Moving on.

Third – You don’t really mean it

Some people are inveterate "Thankers." They thank someone for stepping on their toe. Over thanking is dilutive. The more you thank someone, the less they hear it or appreciate it (and you).

Did you know that you can stop your squawk box, I mean, “Alexa”, from repeating everything you tell it? Google it. I bet you will because you get sick of hearing your echo every time you give an order?

YOU:      “Alexa, turn on the lights.”

ALEXA: “Sure, I’ve turned on the lights.”

YOU:      “No duh. I can see that.”

ALEXA: “Sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”

Alexa’s no good-natured woman, she’s a heartless hockey puck.

You get sick of hearing the same words. You get sick of hearing the same intonation. You realize Alexa’s no good-natured woman, she’s a heartless hockey puck. (AI still has a long way to go).

Yep. This is what over thanking sounds like to your team – a hockey puck. Enough already!

The science of motivation (simple version of Victor Vroom's Expectancy Theory)

In Physics, Work = Force x Displacement.

In Psychology, Valued Work = Quality x Instrumentality. (this is a 3rd person derivative of V. Vroom, 1964)

People want to deliver value at work. Let them do it.

Properly motivated, most deliver a quality product that makes a difference. People want to deliver value at work. Let them do it. Don’t stick your finger in a humming machine. Save your gratitude for the truly unexpected result and avoid over engineering another's pride.

Oh. And thanks for being a good reader.


Google can’t solve all problems. For hands on expertise, get in touch with me at Talentlift. (You can click the word. It won’t send an email or make a call).

A good mood is better than being happy

Cheerleader jumping high in the air to raise crowd's mood

Whether you’re at work designing plastic wrap that never wrinkles or at home washing dishes after the family reunion, your mood matters. I’m not talking about the obvious pleasure of a “good mood.” Your mood is WAY more powerful, more than you think.*

You probably know this. “I’m not in the mood right now.” Sound familiar? Sure it does. But I bet you’ve never heard it at work. Telling your boss that you can’t send out that customer email because you’re “not in the mood,” wouldn’t go over very well, would it?

Maybe it should.

Inspiration is more important than direction.

Creating a positive mood for your employees actually WOULD make them “work smarter, not harder.”

Inspiration is more important than direction. But which do you think there’s more of in the average workplace? Which do you do more? (If you answer, “inspiration,” ask one of your co-workers to tell you the truth.)

Excitement (i.e., inspiration) is magic. It stimulates creativity. Individuals are more than twice as innovative when they receive a good report (vs. a bad report) prior to a test of creativity. It even makes people smarter. Another study showed that by inducing excitement prior to a difficult math test, scores increased 8%. (If that sounds trivial to you, I’ll be happy to manage your money.)

Home teams have an advantage in sports. Gaming apps sell more than productivity apps. Advertisements feature smiling models and red sports-cars on the open road. (Ever wonder why there’s NEVER any traffic? It makes you anxious.)

Work.

Just the word makes you sigh. Know why? Because work causes anxiety, “I’ve got no time…” and sacks excitement, “I get to do it again?”

Warning: The following content contains explicit language and adult content. (Now I know you’ll keep reading.)

Sex sells. Need I say more?

You can open your eyes now. No joke. Open your eyes to see why approximately 87% of employees are less than engaged. (If you’re reading this while you’re at work, count yourself among the 87/100.)

Work isn’t exciting – at least not for 87% of all workers surveyed by Gallup. As a result, the biggest waste in any organization is what people don’t do that they could.

If excitement is magic, fear is poison.

Want to see someone work hard but get nothing done? (No, but I’m making a point here.) Make them scared. A study showed that by inducing fear, activity that was once fun and frequent, stops.

Fear, stress, anxiety, burnout, frustration, etc. They’re all bad and all related to lost productivity, a lack of creativity, unethical behavior and even physiological health.

Once again, you probably aren’t surprised.

So why do you over-instruct, or worse, take over when someone isn’t doing their job perfectly? (i.e., micro-manage) Why do you keep others working even when they’re on vacation? (“Smart” phones? Give me a break — literally.) These well-intended, but imposing behaviors are so prevalent they’re probably an instinct. (BTW: Telling someone to “calm down” actually makes them MORE anxious.)

If excitement is magic, fear is poison. It stifles good behavior, stimulates bad behavior and absolutely crushes creativity to dust.

Piling on the facts, the flames of fear can be lit in an instant but can take forever to put out.

In summary:

  1. Excitement improves productivity, intellect and innovation.
  2. Fear extinguishes productivity, intellect and innovation.
  3. The benefit/detriment of excitement vs. fear WILL transform an organization.

Key question:

What do you do to stimulate people’s excitement at work?

If you don’t see this as your job, it very well could mean your job. (Hope I didn’t scare you.)

  • In a related post, I describe a simple task to create positive moods.

Who Cares? Presenting without presenting

You’re invited to make a presentation to a group for the purpose of enhancing some aspect of their knowledge or skill. By participating, attendees will receive credits required by their professional trade organization. Sound like an exciting opportunity? I wouldn’t expect folks to be lining up ahead of time to get a front row seat.

But you’ve prepared and agonized over (and over) what you’ll present for days and finally have your act together. As you assume the center of attention, you look out over the 100 or so individuals assembled. You get a sinking feeling. What are the real chances of making a difference with your presentation? “Why can’t all audiences look like the students in ‘Dead Poet’s Society” or the fans at a rock concert, or a football game?”

So what do most individuals do in this situation? Most press on with their prepared agenda. Sure, these presentations turn out to be ‘OK,’ but not the stuff that will go viral on the web. Some, however, do something different that truly makes the session stand out.

They don’t present.

Continue reading “Who Cares? Presenting without presenting”

What vs How: Which is more important and why we don’t act accordingly.

Little boy playing violin

If you really want to know who a person is, would you rather know what they’ve accomplished, or how they’ve performed?

You may already have an answer in mind, but how sure are you?

Two stories from my childhood may shed a bit of light on the controversial issue of knowing what vs how.

Childhood Example #1 : “Sour notes”

When I was in third grade I picked up my Dad’s violin and began playing a few simple songs. Noting that I could make the ole fiddle produce recognizable tunes, and desperate to find something I was good at (neither academia nor sports were my thing in grade school), my folks signed me into violin lessons.

By my fourth year of lessons it was time to demonstrate my virtuosity to the rest of the school. For this grand debut, my instructor suggested I play a duet — WITH MY MOTHER! Had smartphones been around, this would have warranted a classic, “OMG” text — or worse. But I’m committed to keeping these posts at or below a PG-13 rating. {Note: That isn’t me in the picture — but that’s how I felt.}

My mother was an accomplished pianist — and she can still play — but some of the virtuosity of her material has ‘frayed’ a bit with disuse. Nevertheless, her part was easy for her (even today). As for me, despite the fact that I’d be: playing a violin, in front of my classmates, with my mother — my part was a real stretch for my skill level.

Continue reading “What vs How: Which is more important and why we don’t act accordingly.”

Using Best Practices in Different Organizations

Best Practices Stamp

Very early in any engagement, or discussion I have with individuals representing an organization, I hear the same declaration:

We’re different.

True. Anyone who’s been associated with more than one organization (which means you’ve been working more than five years) can testify that no organization is like another. In fact, if you think of two organizations typically considered close competitors, you’re probably thinking that they’re not only different, they’re complete opposites. (We have a tendency to accentuate differences and diminish similarities – but that’s for another time.)

Based on the fact that all organizations are different, the logic of implementing a “carbon copy” (for you Millennials and late era Boomers, “mirror image”) practice that was done in another organization is flawed.

If no two organizations are alike, then why does it make any sense to pursue “best practices”?

There are a few reasons why organizations frequently seek best practices:

  1. As social organizations we continuously compare ourselves to others.
  2. As social organizations we continuously seek to exceed others.
  3. As commercial organizations we continuously seek maximum effectiveness at minimum effort.

Quite simply, we want to know how we compare, compete and function relative to others. The same motivations drive individuals.

Despite the self-evident reality that all organizations are different, “best practices” are alluring because they feed our needs for comparing, competing and functioning at optimal levels.

Beyond allure, there are legitimate reasons why a quest for best practices makes sense.

Best practices can legitimately inform similar efforts in other organizations.

Note especially the terms, “inform” and “similar.”

The key to making best practices work across organizations is to extract the key principles, actions and lessons and then adapt them to fit in other organizations.

Implications for Best Practices:

  1. Replication is not the goal. It has to work in the new organization.
  2. HOW is more important than WHAT. It’s all about execution.

When pursuing “best practices” be sure to take time to consider HOW a given practice can be, or is implemented in a different organization. It’s much more important to know how (or why) a given practice adds value than to precisely replicate said practice step-by-step.