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…

Why picky selection is even more important when pickins are slim

Duck, duck, goose: be careful with selection

We’ve been here before. In the late 90s the demand for technical talent was so great that organizations engaged in bidding wars simply to stay in business. Dubbed the War for Talent, management experts warned about the perils of relaxing standards for the selection of talent at such time as when organizations were in the most need. For most, it was too late.

Fierce negotiations and skyrocketing compensation packages were the talent-based equivalent of surging petrol prices during the great oil embargo of the 70s. For some, no amount of money could buy the talent so desperately needed. They were stuck with what they had - and what they didn’t.

Here we go again.

With unemployment rates at historic lows, organizations once again find themselves confronted by the fool’s choice: bad (or, expensive) talent or no talent? (Ironic, isn’t it, that the same organization that matches employees’ contributions to retirement plans and maintains a succession plan for top executives with two “ready” candidates, finds itself overspent and understaffed on talent?)

From a safe distance we can see the folly of hiring at a time of dire need, just like we can see the wisdom of contributing to a compounding savings fund for future financial needs. Nevertheless, the firestorm of desperation hiring burns the fuel for future growth. I see it all the time: buying at the peak of the market and selling at the first sign of a lull.

Regardless of how we got here, we must face reality. Hires must be made. Sticking with reality, that hire is going to cost you more, now that you need them, than they would’ve when you didn’t {seem to} need them so desperately. You have a choice, pay big bucks for some body or paying big bucks for the right body. The difference between the two hangs on the rigor of your hiring practice. Do you have the skill to assess talent well? Do you have the discipline to select only the well qualified?

Selection using proper psychological assessment is like pan-seared salmon; it’s both rare and well done.

Some will claim that I’m out of touch with what really happens on the streets of Poughkeepsie. After all, I am at that “safe distance” from the action. Don’t I know about fundamental economic principles of supply and demand? Don’t I understand the lunacy of forgoing business for lack of workers?

Actually, I do. And it’s still wrong to relax hiring practices or standards – especially when desperate for employees.

Desperation is a symptom, not the cause. When an organization finds itself desperate for employees, for any reason, whether surging sales or shrinking productivity, it’s the result of poor talent management and planning. The organization isn’t ready. And when an organization isn’t ready, it’s missing out on profits. Economics 101.

You don’t have time for bad firemen when Rome is burning.

But here’s why a bad hire in bad markets (sales or labor) is worse than the same hire in kinder markets. You don’t have time for bad firemen when Rome is burning. Moreover, the damage of retaining a bad hire can be seemingly apocalyptic.

Hiring talent is like a setting fishhook; it’s easy to put in but difficult to yank out.

I’ve made my case for “front end” selection, but dealing with the “back end” of desperation hiring is worse. Hiring talent is like a setting fishhook; it’s easy to put in but difficult to yank out. And it creates considerable collateral damage. A bad hire is lame at best; lethal at worst. And that doesn’t include the joys of their removal.

Two large-scale studies I did in an organization comprised of multi-unit restaurants revealed convergent results. The first found that 50% of all employees that quit did so due to their "brow beating, denigrating, micro-managing boss." {My words to approximate the emotional translation} Even if this number is inflated by sore quitters taking a free jab at their boss, it still dwarfs any other reason given for quitting, including pay and promotion opportunity. The second study found that using a validated personality test successfully predicted which new hire restaurant managers became high producers (i.e., greater sales) and better leaders (i.e., well run, low employee turnover).

But there is a limitation in my research. While the results suggest that good leaders get good results and have low team defection, the story may be more truthful centering on bad leaders that get bad results and have high team defection. Either way you look at it the results are in the same ballpark. It is possible that the bad managers pull the lion's share of the results of this study, thus lending stronger support to my argument against hiring questionable talent.

At the end of the day, you have a decision to make. It would be a mistake not to have good selection.

Right vs. Influential: Which would you rather be?

Acceptance vs. Quality

Right vs. Influential?

Is this some kind of word game or a ridiculous question? Who cares? Wouldn’t right and influential be the same – or close enough?

In my humble experience: “Nope.”  And you should care.

Being right is NOT the same as being influential. Understanding this can make a BIG difference. By the end of this read, you may even agree that this quizzical question can make the difference between becoming the president of the United States — or not.

So, what’s the truth? Continue reading “Right vs. Influential: Which would you rather be?”