Stephen Comments On How To Design the Coaching Relationship

Dragons At Work Weekly Wrap UpIn Chapters 4-6 Dan decides to hire a coach and he interviews three coaches before he makes his choice.

There are multiple outcomes for a first meeting with a potential client. Most important is to provide the richest set of experiences possible, so the client can make an informed decision. Many executives haven’t worked with a coach, so they’re unfamiliar with the interview process. But they are familiar with job interviews, and they may want to interview the coach the way they would a prospective employee. Although they may feel comfortable and in control doing it this way, it won’t give them the information they need to make a good choice.

I believe a coach needs to persuasively invite the client to, as Michele says, roll up his or her sleeves and have a brief working session. There is no substitute for the direct experience of working together.

Of the three coaches, Michele succeeds in engaging Dan. She sidesteps his request for a theoretical conversation and using humor, she gently confronts him: Does he want to work or not?

The first coach makes the mistake of acting like a consultant. It’s helpful to have pertinent technical knowledge, but the real job of the coach is to develop the client. Simply offering technical advice, especially to someone who’s already an expert, is a losing proposition.

The second coach loses control of the meeting. She falls into the trap of answering Dan’s questions. His behavior unmistakably tells her that he doesn’t care about the questions or the answers. Instead of addressing that head on, she talks about what holds interest for neither of them.

To begin their coaching, Michele asks Dan what questions about the project are on his mind. He floods her with questions. Dan becomes frustrated with her when she says, “Those are all good questions.” He wants answers. Of course, Michele would be foolish to provide answers for two reasons. First, she has no answers. Second, even if she had great answers, Dan, who has yet to begin any self reflection, wouldn’t be able to understand or assimilate them. Michele’s job is to provide the framework and act as a catalyst for
Dan’s inquiry so the coaching reveals what he needs to know.

Michele also uses the interview to test if Dan can follow her breathing instructions and calm down. His response tells her that he may be able to take advantage of her expertise in mind-body disciplines.

After a sleepless night, he chooses her over the other two coaches.


For Executives: To choose the best coach for yourself…

  1. Be transparent and hold nothing back in an initial working session. That will allow you to check out the coach’s real competencies.
  2. If you have questions about the process, ask the coach directly, rather than making private assumptions and judgments. The coach’s responses will help you decide whether or not to hire that coach.
  3. Chemistry is important. Trust your gut. You’ll spend a good amount of time together, and the coach has to be someone you can respect and collaborate with.

For Human Resource Executives: In choosing coaches for your executives…

  1. Coaching is a profession without entry barriers and few recognized credentials. Check the coach’s background and experience.
  2. Make sure that your coach knows how to deliver results so that evidence of success is apparent to key stakeholders. It’s even better if the coach is schooled in how to quantify results and offer a business rationale that speaks to your company’s strategic goals.
  3. Make sure there is a true ROI for coaching. Coaching should deliver a return that is worth 10 to 20 times your investment. If that is not the case, consider alternatives.

For Coaches: In choosing clients… (it’s much the same as for the executive choosing you)

  1. Be transparent and hold nothing back in a working session. That will allow you to check out how the client responds to your approach, and it will deepen your connection with them.
  2. If you have questions about the client’s responses, ask the client directly. Your job is to make sure the client gets the best coach, and it may not be you. So, inquire and be ready to refer.
  3. Chemistry is important. Trust your gut. If you don’t think this client is a good fit for how you work, be honest and offer alternatives. You need to coach people who are a great match for you. If you give that value primacy it will best serve your clients and your business.
  4. Make sure you have a strong working partnership with your internal HR partner. S/he can provide you with background and onsite observations you can’t get any other way.

Question for Reflection: If you had the opportunity to work with a wise and skillful coach, what would you tell the coach about yourself and your goals that would lead you to the core of what your coaching would be about?

In the next chapters we’ll see Michele and Dan dive into their coaching work. Intrigue, more tools and useful stories are to come.

Stay tuned.

Did you miss the previous chapter?


CHAPTER 5 – Two Executive Coaches Voted Off the Island

Dragons At Work Chapter 5 - Two Executive Coaches Voted Off the IslandTwo coaches struck out with Dan. The first, a thoughtful man, positioned himself as an Information Technology expert, and presumably a natural fit for Dan’s needs. He offered his own ideas on restructuring the project, but Dan’s careful questioning revealed this coach was out of his depth. “Sounds like you know what you’re doing,” the coach said in summation. “It’s a bear of a project.” No shit, Dan almost said.

Because Dan was in no mood for meeting the second coach, he flooded her with a cascade of questions about the value of coaching, her training, and how coaching actually worked. Did she get paid by the project? By the hour? Would she attend meetings? Shadow him? Had she ever coached someone through a project like this?

The coach launched into what might have been a credible defense had Dan been listening. Instead, he thumbed his Blackberry: Re: Tuesday. No, don’t meet with freddy’s team until I see what u propose. must sync with carla’s team. call me @ 3.

He looked up. She was silent, probably had been that way for a minute or two. “Do you conduct all your meetings this way?” she asked, a vertical line deepening on her brow. Under the table, her foot shook while Dan continued texting: 4’s better.

“Sorry,” Dan finally said. “What were you saying?”

“Tell you what. Obviously, you’re busy. I understand you’re meeting with one more coach. Why don’t you get back to me when you’ve made your decision?”

The third coach was Asian. Jet black hair framed her face in a simple cut – elegant and functional. To Dan, she appeared to be twenty-five, then again she might be forty. She wore tailored black pants and a simple fitted white blouse with an upturned collar.

“Hello, Dan. I’m Michele Wu. I’ll be your coach today,” she said, deadpan.

“I guess you know you’re the last of three,” he said.

“Yes. Did you like the others?”

“I was unimpressed.”

“How come?” said Michele.

“The first guy had his own mediocre ideas about how I should run the project. I can’t remember much about the second coach, and frankly, I don’t have time for this conversation, either.”

“Sounds like you don’t want a coach.”

“Tell me how a coach is supposed to help.” said Dan.

“I can do better than that. You and I can roll up our sleeves and have a brief working session. At the end, you’ll know whether I can help and if it’s worth your time. Want to give it a try?”

Dan looked at Michele. He had dealt with many salespeople in his twenty years in business. Nothing salesy about her.

“Why don’t you tell me about your background first?” he said.

“OK. Blah, blah, blah – Stanford. Blah, blah – MIT. Blah, blah – eighteen years of coaching experience. Now, do you want to work or not?”

Dan smiled. “I’m on unfamiliar ground here,” he said. “You start.”

“All right,” she said. “What questions have occupied your mind lately?”

“What do you mean?”

“This project is important to your company. From what Marcia told me, CSI has a lot riding on it. They chose you to head it up, and it’s not going well. Yes? I imagine you have questions about this.”

Dan nodded.

“Yes, I’ve got a question. Every project I’ve ever been assigned to I delivered the results on time and on spec. This is like a freakin’ hydra. You take care of one problem and five more come at you from out of nowhere. I think I’ve got something solved, and then weeks later I find my solution just won’t work. Every day I get out my hammer and nail a new piece of Jello to the wall.”

“What’s your question?” she said.

“Why is this falling apart? Why can’t I get people to think? Why can’t I get good information from them? Why can’t they just do their freaking jobs? What happened to standards, work ethic? Why am I the first one here every morning and the last one to go? Why is that?”

“Those are all excellent questions,” said Michele.

Dan frowned. “What are you, some kind of consultant?” he said. “I need more than someone telling me I have excellent questions.”

“Yes, you do need more than that.”

Gesturing with both hands and speaking more loudly, he said, “Great. How is this supposed to help? I need results. I need to get control of this project, and get people off my back and stop second guessing me. How am I supposed to – ?”

Michele raised her hand, palm facing him at chest level. “Dan, stop…stop.”

He stared at her.

Notice how you feel right now: Wound up? Frustrated? Do you feel it in your body? In the muscles of your face?”


“That’s part of the problem. You like walking around like a coiled spring?”

“I don’t have to like how I feel. I have to get things done,” he said.

“They’re connected. Take a breath.”

“What’s that going to do?” he asked.

“I don’t know yet, but I do know the way you’re breathing now adds tension which interferes with clear thinking, and it’s bad for your health.”

Frowning, Dan audibly inhaled into his upper chest.

“OK,” she said. “Now exhale…slowly….now, another breath…good, keep breathing this way.”

The red started to fade from his face, and his expression softened slightly.

After a few more breaths, she said, “I want to give you a model to play with and then ask a question.” Sliding her hands apart on the table she said, “Imagine this is a continuum of energy – mental and physical. On one end is low energy – depression, apathy. On the other – a manic, driven, even angry energy. At both extremes of the continuum, people make bad choices. On the low energy end, they may not have enough juice to find alternatives. On the high end, they may seize only one solution and run with it. It’s in the middle zone where the number of intelligent choices goes up. Where do you fall on the continuum?

“Most of the time I’m a high energy guy. But I don’t usually make bad choices. And I’ll tell you this, I’d make better choices if I could get the right information,” said Dan.

“How are you going to get better information?”

“Keep demanding it, I guess. Maybe they’ll catch on.”

“Do you think people sit on bad news before they let you in on it? Do you ever shoot the messenger?”

“That’s been said about me, but it’s inaccurate. Sure, I can get upset. I demand excellence, and I express my frustration. What’s wrong with that? They shouldn’t take it personally. They get over it.”

“What’s your attrition rate?” she said.

“I lost 21% last of my people last year.”

“That’s a lot.”

“People who work for me know I’m not Mister Nice Guy. They know they’re going to get their butts kicked from time to time. But the survivors know how to assess a problem and solve it the way I do.”

“Is that how you learned?” she said.

“I was trained by a boss who should have been a Marine drill sergeant. I hated it, but I learned. I became his go-to guy when everyone else cowered in the corner.”

“Where is he now?”

“Unfortunately, he died a few years ago,” he said.

“Let me guess. A heart attack?”

“As a matter of fact, it was a massive stroke. No one saw it coming.”

“I’m sorry. Were you close?”

“About as close as you can get to a Gila monster. I admired him, though.”

“And did he send emails out at 2:00 AM like you do now?”

“Indeed, he did. He worked harder than I do. Nobody works like he did.”

“Sounds like hard work is a point of pride for you. Dan, I’m not here to ruin your work ethic or tone down your passion for excellence. No one can take that away from you. I can offer you new ways to achieve your goals that will build a smarter organization under you. Your leadership style adds a lot of friction to the machine, and I can help you remove the heat and operate far more efficiently. Are you interested?”

“Let me sleep on it.”

“With the little sleep you get?”

“Yes, with the little sleep I get. And now I have to get to a three o’clock meeting.”

“OK, I’ll wait to hear from you,” said Michele, standing up.

Dan got up and shook Michele’s hand. He grabbed his briefcase, and as he wheeled around to head for the door, his Blackberry, perched atop the briefcase, took to the air. Helplessly, he watched it in its arc toward the floor, hoping it would survive. Instantly, Michelle dropped low, spine straight, and with her left hand plucked it in flight, inches from impact. In one fluid motion she returned upright and handed the Blackberry to Dan.

“Sleep on it,” she said.

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