Recently, a colleague (“Sam”) asked me to talk with a leader (“James”) about coaching. Sam has worked with James in a consulting capacity. Together, Sam and James determined that coaching may be an additional service that James needed to improve interpersonal relationships with his manager and colleagues and to advance his career. Sam connected James with another professional coach (“Janice”) to explore the possibility of a coaching relationship. After a couple of coaching sessions, Janice determined that she was not able to work with James because he was unwilling to accept feedback or follow through with action plans identified through coaching. I became the third person in this sequence when Sam referred me to James.
Sam provided a bit of background about James. He is very well educated (prestigious schools, doctorate), working in a particular highly technical industry sector. He has moved to a different part of the country (which he does not like) and has received feedback from his manager that she is considered “snarky” by both his manager and teammates. With all prospective coaching clients, I believe in the opportunity to get acquainted, determine coaching focus and priorities, and determine if a working relationship is mutually beneficial. James and I scheduled a virtual meeting to get acquainted and explore the possibility of working together. My assumption was that James wanted to be coached, was seeking to understand how to better work with others, wanted to understand his behaviors and impacts, and was willing to do the work necessary to develop personally and professionally.
During our exploratory meeting, James spoke about a series of poor managers, unsubstantiated feedback from peers and members of his team, and the fact that he had moved into a special advisory role, and then was reassigned to a project team away from his last manager and team. I paused and said, “It sounds like you’ve had a tough time in this organization. Is the negative experience you’ve just shared indicative of other relationships in your life?” James took a deep breath and said, “No. I’m not negative and neither are my other relationships!” After asking only a few questions and listening to James talk about himself, his negative experiences, and his poor working relationships, I asked him if he was willing to make changes in himself to improve these working relationships and achieve his career goals. He replied, “These relationship issues are not my fault, and I don’t see any need to change anything about myself.”
At this point, it was apparent that James was not open to feedback or had the desire to change. I said, “James, as much as I would like to help you. It does not appear that you are open to the help I can offer. I would be happy to help you find another coach; however, I do not believe coaching can be helpful for you at this time.” With that James ended our conversation.
Determining if someone is ready for coaching
There are many factors to consider when determining if someone is ready for coaching. The person must be open to feedback, be willing and able to change, be willing to be open and vulnerable, trust the coach and the coaching process, and feel an intuitive fit between the coach and the person being coached. James did not meet these criteria. Reflecting on the experience with James prompted me to consider how I know when a coaching client is a “right fit for me”.
Here are some questions that I use to guide me:
- Does the focus of the potential client’s coaching match the focus and priorities of my coaching practice? I tend to coach people who want to work on advancing their careers, build professional relationships and networks, develop executive presence and how they can use themselves as instruments in their work, transition into a new leadership role, develop strategic thinking and actions, etc.
- Do they want to learn about themselves? Coaching is a personal development experience. I look for clients who have a significant degree of self-awareness and want to increase it. We do this through stakeholder interviews, assessments, observations, and reflections. This requires clients to be open to feedback from me and others.
- Do they want to grow and develop? Coaching helps people take risks and develop their capacities to learn and is used to develop mindsets and skillset that enable them to develop capabilities, improve performance, and transform personally and professionally.
- Do they have a clear intention for the work we will do together? In coaching, the person being coached establishes the goals for coaching and sets the agenda for coaching conversations. Clients who enter the coaching relationship with goals and who are willing to adjust those as they discover more about themselves tend to gain a great deal from the experience of being coached.
- Do they understand the purpose and focus of coaching versus other helping relationships? I like to make sure people I might coach understand what coaching is and what it is not as well as the ways coaching is like and different from other helping relationships such as mentors, friends, counselors/therapists, and consultants.
- How does my approach to coaching align with their desired coaching relationship? I have been described by coaching clients as caring, direct, informed, insightful, and thoughtful. They tell me that I help them go where they would not go by themselves and help them look at challenges and opportunities from different perspectives. This approach may not fit the needs of some people. If not, then I can help them find another coach with a different approach.
- To what extent am I able to relate to their experiences and goals? For the past 25 years, I have coached people from for-profit, government, and not-for-profit sectors who work in various functions including c-suite leaders, accounting, biotech, construction, human services, human resources, manufacturing, medical/healthcare, sales, technology, transportation, etc. As noted previously, there are many topics or goals for coaching. While this is diverse, it is not all-inclusive, nor do I find some industries, jobs, backgrounds, or areas of focus appealing or interesting. As a coach, it is important to consider how well you are likely to enjoy working with the client.
- Does talking with the prospective coaching client give me energy or drain me? We’ve all had conversations that drained us and those that energize us. Given the fact that a coaching relationship is likely to continue for months or years, I prefer to work with people that energize—not drain—me.
Coaching may not be the best solution for everyone’s situation. The relationship between the coach and person-being-coached is a two-way relationship. While I believe a skilled coach can probably coach anyone wishing to be coached, some coaching relationships might be better than others. Be willing to decline or refer coaching opportunities when the person is not well-suited for coaching, the work does not fit your desired client profile, or the chemistry between you and the prospective client does not fit for you or the other person.
As always, I’m interested in your thoughts and ideas so leave your comments, feedback, and suggestions below.
Photo by Alex Green
© 2023, John L. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
Solid approach, John. I’ve done both consulting and coaching for many years, and am no transitioning more to the later as ‘retirement’ is upon me at 75. The questions you propose work well in both these environments and will serve to minimize misfit attempts at either.
Timothy, thank you for your note. Yes, I agree, many of these points can be applied to management consulting as well as coaching. Best wishes as you continue your transition.