When Coaching Isn’t the Right Solution

A client (let’s call him Bill) called for advice on coaching a new team member.  Bill had been actively coaching his new marketing manager with limited results.  Their initial meetings left Bill feeling as though there was a lack of connection and mutual understanding.

Occasionally, they did seem to understand each other.  Bill felt they ended 1:1s in agreement on next steps for certain projects and activities.  This gave him hope.  Bill asked his new manager to take the lead after those meetings and come to him when help was needed.  His new manager gladly took the reins and thanked him for the opportunity to lead.

Thirty days later, Bill was deflated.  HIs marketing manager hadn’t leaned into building new relationships and after almost 60 days on board, his new hire was trending in the wrong direction.  Bill hadn’t heard from the manager requesting any help.  The manager hadn’t raised any concerns or surfaced any roadblocks.

Bill tried everything: Approaching topics from different angles, asking his new team manager to share their perspective on issues first.  He tried asking his new hire how they felt their onboarding was going.  These conversations led Bill to questioning himself rather than the employee.  Was he missing the mark as a leader? 

Bill’s first questions to me were: “What am I doing wrong?  How would you advise me to coach this person differently?  Everything I’ve tried so far hasn’t worked.”

Listening to Bill describe his efforts over the last 60 days, I was empathetic.  This leader was working overtime on behalf of his new employee.  Within a few minutes, I was clear about what was going on.  I asked:  How self-aware would you say this person is?   

I could sense Bill’s body language shift over the phone.  I heard his shoulders relax as he sat down.  He followed with an audible sigh.  Eureka!  We had quickly gotten to the heart of the matter.  I helped Bill to see that he wasn’t necessarily doing anything wrong.

Bill and I outlined a plan to change his approach. Someone that lacks self-awareness isn’t likely to respond well to coaching.  When faced with this dynamic, our role shifts from coaching to creating self-awareness.  We started with a few questions Bill would ask his new hire in their next 1:1 meeting.

  • How much feedback had this person been given in their career up to this point?
  • What did they recall from prior performance reviews that previous leaders had asked them to work on?
  • When they have reflected on their strengths, opportunities, and accomplishments, what types of things had they self identified they wanted to get better at doing?

With these questions, Bill created an opportunity for his new manager to pause and reflect.  He gained valuable insight into how this person saw themselves.  Now, he could partner with his new hire to co-create a revised onboarding plan, including more opportunities to gain awareness.

I spoke to Bill again recently to see how things were going.  It’s been almost a year since his new marketing manager was hired.  He described these outcomes from our work together.

  1. His marketing manager has taken ownership and responsibility.  It has been a challenging journey.  The manager is growing and improving.
  2. Bill felt relieved that he wasn’t the problem.  After beating himself up for months, this shift enabled him to see coaching isn’t always the solution.
  3. While progress in marketing initiatives has been slower than he originally planned, Bill is feeling a sense of joy and shared purpose with his marketing manager.

As leaders we feel a strong sense of responsibility for the success of our team members.  That’s a good thing.  Feeling responsible is different than rescuing them.  They are responsible for their success at work.  Our role is to give them clarity, direction, the resources they need and our ongoing support.

Paige Boyd is an executive coach and leadership consultant in Nashville, TN.  She coaches and advises leaders and organizations who want to break through barriers and overcome challenges that are holding them back.  If you are ready to achieve significant growth, let’s talk!