Sometimes, Coaching Isn’t All That…Useful

[Insert name of famous athlete] has a coach.  If you want to be at the top of your game, you’d better get one, too.


Do you need a coach?  Let’s get to that in about 30 seconds.  First, some history, as I understand it.

Executive coaching arose around 40-ish years ago — the idea that you might receive formal coaching from someone other than your boss.

Some of the first coaches were therapists, who found themselves working with executives who did not have standard therapeutic issues – they had business issues.

Early coaching clients were people at the top of the large and established corporations.  It was very rarefied stuff.

Around the turn of the century, coaching expanded, as a field.  Among other things:

  • Mid-career executives were being cut loose from Corporate America, and were not particularly welcome to return.  People who weren’t therapists started to become coaches, and the supply of coaches expanded.
  • Universities started to run coach-training programs, as did experienced coaches; organizations arose to certify and train coaches.  This continued to grow the supply of coaches.
  • Investors started funding more ventures led by people who didn’t have significant  experience leading organizations.  Larger organizations increasingly used coaching with people outside of the C-suite.  This grew the demand for coaches.


  • Emotional intelligence came to be seen as a key leadership attribute.  Respected coaches began to emphasize EQ and its components, like “self awareness.”

Coaching for EQ is valid.  That said, EQ is not a patch for the software at the interface between your personality and your behavior.

It. Takes. Time.

(I recently described myself, early in my career, as having had the EQ of a potato.  Working on it.)

When you’re running a startup, you’re building an invisible airplane at the same time you’re trying to fly it.

EQ is not a ticket to a smoothly running organization; it’s a piece of the puzzle that enables you to see that things aren’t smooth.

Fixing the bumps in the road requires a separate set of actions, more than just EQ.

There’s a lot about organizational intelligence (OQ, lol) that’s non-intuitive.  It’s wisdom around structure, process, and how people behave when they’re in a group.

This wisdom doesn’t naturally arise from self awareness.  You can level up by surrounding yourself with people who have relevant expertise, and by listening to them.  With time and practice, EQ and self awareness will enable you to listen well.

Do you need a coach?  I don’t know.  If you’re new to leading people, EQ and OQ are both important.

Will you get that from coaching?  I don’t know.  Coaching is not a silver bullet.

It’s a process.  Coaching engagements must include goals, and ways to measure progress.  Your coach should talk with your team members and other stakeholders.

The engagement and the coach should fit you, and what you need.

And being coached is work — work you have to do yourself.   You’ve got to want to put in that work.   (Also, while many coaches are therapists, coaching is not therapy.)

If you’re being coached and not making progress, you should take a hard look at what you’re doing.  And why.

Very few people will talk about negative experiences with coaching.  I’ve seen the aftermath of a few coaching engagements that didn’t go well.

It’s a real waste of time.  And heart.

Photo:  wocintech stock – 64, via WOCinTechChat, via Flickr under CC2.0 license

(This is the last of my follow ups to What You Disregard, You Accept: Red Flags for CEOs.  It’s also cross-posted at Medium.  The series:

Big Empathy

9198798785_df14769549_zEmpathy is not a leadership skill.   It’s not a brand attribute.   It’s not a software design principle.

It’s a natural human quality that enables us to imagine walking in another person’s shoes.

It comes up at work powerfully when we need to have a tough conversation.  When someone is failing, disrupting relationships, or in the wrong role.

Everyone wants to perform well, and to be part of the team.  (If you think otherwise, leading people might not be your strong suit.)

When someone is not doing well at work, they’re not burnishing their resume — they’re burning career time.  Time that they’ll never get back.

The person who’s underperforming usually knows that something’s not right.  Even if he don’t know what it is, or what to do about it.

When this goes on for long enough, other people pick up on it, too.   Sometimes they tiptoe around it.   Or they snipe, gossip and and grumble.   It becomes the elephant in the room.

This is both inefficient and ineffective.

For everyone.

If one of your team members is underperforming, don’t let him flounder because you don’t want him to feel upset when you talk about it.

That’s so much smaller than empathy.

Clear, direct feedback that will help him to improve is the best demonstration of your empathy.

If you don’t know how to deliver the feedback, script it out.   Practice it with your manager, a trusted peer, or your HR lead.

When it comes to managing people, and being a leader at work, you need to enact the largest empathy you can see.

Either help your team member to do a better job, or help him to to move along.  That shows empathy for your team member, their teammates, and the organization’s stakeholders.

And if your future plans involve continuing to lead people, “having a difficult conversation” will come up again and again.

There’s no time like now to build this critical muscle.

Managers, want some basic best practices on performance management and feedback?   I’ve got resources:

Photo: Elephant Close-up by the Wildlife Alliance, via Flickr, under Creative Commons license 2.0.