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…

Psychways is owned and produced by Talentlift, LLC.

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.

Psychways is owned and produced by Talentlift, LLC.

Why Personality Inventories Don’t Tell the Whole Story

Self Check - Personality Inventories

The vast majority of personality inventories rely on “self report” for their input. Quite simply, individuals assess themselves on what I’ll call the “first level.” Since I refer to a “first level,” there obviously must be at least one more level. There is, and it’s a level of assessment that individuals can NOT provide by themselves no matter how good the inventory nor how “truthfully” the individuals respond to it. Therefore, personality assessments don’t tell the whole story.

You don't know yourself as well as you think you do. How can we assume that even the best personality inventory completed by oneself would know you any better?

This doesn’t mean personality assessments aren’t useful (or ‘valid’ in scientific terms), it simply means that there’s more to a person’s story than they can reveal via any series of questions in a personality inventory. This goes for ALL personality inventories, some, more than others, but none can overcome the limitations of self-assessment. In short, you don’t know yourself as well as you think you do. How can we assume that even the best personality inventory completed by oneself would know you any better? This is where an expert in psychology comes in handy. To get the best understanding of an individual, an expert in psychology and psychological assessment can help to ‘fill in the gaps’ that we ALL leave in our own account of our personality.

Although many psychologists would agree and offer varying degrees of scientific proof, Sigmund Freud developed a theory of personality that serves my point. Freud’s theory is grounded in the way he described the structure of the human psyche. This structure includes three components; the Id, Ego and Superego. Without going into the details of each of these components, Freud also developed the concepts of Consciousness and Unconsciousness (although he wasn’t the first to describe them). Almost everyone has some familiarity with these terms – even if not exactly in the way that Freud defined them.

Consciousness has to do with one’s direct awareness of their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. We can fairly accurately describe things that we experience while we are in a conscious state. Unconsciousness is the other ‘side’ of ourselves; the side to which we do not have direct access and therefore do not readily understand nor recognize. As such, we are unable to describe things that exist in our unconscious mind – even though it is constantly at work.

I could stop here and have a pretty good case for why self-report assessments don’t tell the whole story. They don’t include our unconscious self and our unconscious self has a big impact on who we are.

But there’s more.

Freud also described how the conscious and unconscious aspects of our personality work together. I’m not going to go into great detail here except to say that the unconscious mind significantly influences our thinking, feeling and behavior. And it's far more influential than most think.

Here’s a simple example of how unconscious behavior reveals itself in our daily lives: Tying your shoes. This is an activity that we perform virtually every day – but odds are you can’t tell me how you do it. We’ve done it so much that it’s become “automatic.” Basically, we do it without thinking. There are many other examples. Sticking with the shoe example, behaviors that we do repetitively oftentimes become “automatic.” Automatic behaviors require very little (if any) thought, and true to unconscious behavior, we have a hard time recalling or describing them. (A nice benefit to automatic behavior is that it uses almost no mental resources. This means that we have plenty of resources to attend to other matters – aka, multi-tasking.)

Automatic behavior is just one way in which unconsciousness affects who we are. Unconsciousness also affects our thinking and feeling. In short, we are very significantly influenced by psychological processes that we aren’t even aware of. Others may note these influences (or outcomes in our behavior) but we don’t. Things we say may be very apparent to others, but pass completely unnoticed by ourselves. For example, some individuals have a habit of repeating various phrases (usually “filler” words) without any awareness. You may know someone who repeatedly says, “at the end of the day”, or “you know what I mean?”, “um”, “actually”, or any of a cast of phrases that are “thrown in” to the conversation but add no value. Even if they are partially aware that they say these things, they have no idea how frequently they do it – unless you record them and show it back to them. In addition, people are very poor judges of how much they talk (vs. listen). You can test this with a friend, but I must warn that you this is almost never appreciated. Test at your own risk.

These are some simple ways in which our unconscious mind affects our behavior without our awareness. But that’s not all. There are even more “active” ways that our unconscious mind affects us that can be very confusing, or even misleading to an accurate assessment of ourselves (as actors) AND others (as observers).

Freud also developed the concept of “defense mechanisms.” In short, these are ways of thinking and behaving that counteract a thought or memory that is bothering us at an unconscious level. One such example is called, “reaction formation.”

Reaction formation is the term Freud used to describe the unconscious -- and extreme -- change of thought and behavior resulting from one’s unconscious need to (over)compensate for previous behavior that the individual now considers offensive. By way of “reaction formation” the individual unconsciously undergoes a radical transformation wherein the behavior or attitude they once held, suddenly becomes hyper offensive and disgustingly deplorable -- in others! Smoking is often given as an example. Former smokers sometimes become the loudest and most assertive critics of those who smoke. Freud’s theorizing is that by engaging in overcompensating behavior, one is clearing up or avoiding the unconscious tension they experience by virtue of having been a former transgressor.

Other forms of defense mechanisms include denial (unwilling or unable to accept the truth because of the psychological harm it causes), projection (attributing one’s own intolerable thoughts or problems to another so as to ‘shift blame’), repression (a less extreme variant of denial that involves pushing one’s hurtful thoughts or feelings into the unconscious self so as not to deal with them directly). And there are others.

Scores on personality assessments may be radically different from what an objective assessment would reveal.

The point is, not only are we largely unaware of our most frequent behaviors (automatic behavior), but our psyche is constantly at work trying to protect ourselves from threatening thoughts, feelings or behaviors (defense mechanisms). As a result, scores on personality assessments may be radically different from what an objective assessment would reveal. And this isn’t because the respondent is lying, they really believe that they are accurately describing themselves. There are many other factors that distort our valid understanding of ourselves, these are just two of the most common.

An expert in psychology and psychological assessment can identify these, and other unconscious influences on behavior, and consequently, scores on a self-report personality inventory. Sometimes this can be done merely by noting unusual or telling patterns in the individual’s responses to a reputable personality assessment, but frequently it requires the collection of data beyond the single assessment. Psychological interviews are among the best ways to spot potentially misleading information as taken straight from the personality inventory. The content of these interviews can be designed specifically to test questions raised by the instrument.

It’s very important to stress that these types of advanced interpretation of any psychometric assessment are complex. They need to be left to experts who have a thorough understanding of psychology as well as tests and measures used as tools to predict behavior.

In sum: Solid psychological assessments offer great value over less scientifically constructed measures (e.g., typical unstructured interviews). But, as with any other tool, it’s important to know the true strengths and limits of what they offer in the complex task of psychological assessment. As anyone who’s made a regrettable hire can agree, what you see in the interview isn’t always what you get on the job.

Psychology at work: It really makes a difference.

Psychways is owned and produced by Talentlift, LLC.