Coaching Case Study: The right way to set up a coaching engagement

Here is a case study that comes up a lot with newer executive coaches, followed by advice about how to handle it. It's "Coaching 101" but I hope it gives you a sense of what it takes to be successful in leadership-level coaching.

If you like what you read, perhaps we should have a conversation to confirm whether you might be a good fit for the Center for Executive Coaching. Call me anytime on my personal cell at 941-539-9623 to discuss, after you have reviewed our site.

The case: A coach is asked to coach a manager who has some issues in her style. For instance, instead of focusing on outcomes, she focuses more on politics and looking good. She spends more time talking about her need for the team to speak positively about the project and to be of one mind (hers!) in meetings and in public. She comes across as defensive, generally negative, and not exactly a strong people developer. She has a number of strengths, and has potential to grow in the company, but also has some clear needs for improvement.

The coach is scheduled to meet with this manager in 24 hours, and has asked how she should best set up this first meeting for a solid engagement. The coach was invited in by this manager's boss.

So, how would you answer the coach's question? What additional information would you want to know?

Here are two additional facts before you decide:

– No one has told the manager in direct terms that she has these behavioral issues or what it might be costing her career. That is part of the coach's job…to build that awareness.

– The manager's boss has some issues with conflict and direct communication. That's partly why she is bringing the coach in.

Now what advice would you offer to this new coach?

Here is my take, based on almost two decades of experience. Early on in my career, I would have walked right into this meeting with my best personality and tried to get to know the manager and build rapport. I'd ask what she wanted to achieve in her career, where she saw opportunities to grow, and how we could make this coaching relationship the most valuable experience of her career. I figured my winning personality and charm would win the day and eventually everything would work out.

It took one or two experiences with this approach to learn that this is not a smart way to go, for two reasons (aside from the fact that perhaps my personality is not quite as "winning" or charming as I have always wanted it to be):

Reason One: You can't coach someone who isn't coachable. This manager is not yet coachable. She doesn't know there is a problem that she has to solve, and has no sense of need or urgency. No one has even told her she has a performance gap that she needs to address. She does not value coaching or my expertise.

Reason Two: You can't coach someone in an organization unless you are set up for success. Right now the coach is going in blind, about to step on a landmine.

Here is what I would advise the coach to do:

1. Postpone the meeting with the manager.

2. Set up an immediate meeting with the manager's boss.

3. At the meeting, clearly understand how the manager's boss wants the manager to change and improve performance. Ideally the manager's boss will agree to give some tough feedback to the manager and encourage her to accept coaching as a way to continue to grow. Never do a boss's dirty work! Get the boss to take responsibility and accountability.

4. Insist that the manager's boss set you up for success. This means that the manager's boss has to have a conversation with the manager about her performance, expectations for improvement, and how coaching might be beneficial. You might have to coach the manager's boss to do this, because in this case she seems to lack these skills. (In fact, you might end up with an engagement to coach the manager's boss, either now or as the engagement progresses. That happens a lot in my practice. First the boss points the finger at others, and then realizes the benefits of coaching and the fact that they might be part of the issue, too.). 

5. Next, I suggest a first meeting with both the manager's boss and the manager. That way, you can be sure that everyone is on the same page, answer questions, and discuss what everyone wants to get out of a coaching relationship. You can also observe the dynamic between the boss and manager, and facilitate if needed. Again, if needed, coach the manager's boss to make sure she is prepared for this meeting.

6. Set clear groundrules about scope and confidentiality. The manager needs to know that what is said during coaching will not get back to the boss or anyone else. The results will show up in how she performs on the job. (Before I was a coach, I had an executive coach who violated confidentiality. It stung me and I will never, ever violate confidentiality with a client, even if it means losing the engagement).

7. Assuming everyone is on board, now the coach can meet one-on-one with the client. Suddenly this first meeting is easy, because the hard work has been done. Coachability is in place, and the coach is set up to succeed.

This is a long discussion about a rookie coaching situation. Regardless, it shows how tricky it can be to establish a solid client relationship and set up coaching for success. Coaches face all sorts of traps, especially in complex and politically charged organizations.

I hope you found this case study to be useful. Again, if you seek a practical, high impact approach to coaching,
call me anytime to discuss fit: 941-539-9623.

Best regards,
Andrew Neitlich
Founder and Director
Center for Executive Coaching
Co-Author: Guerrilla Marketing for Coaches
Personal Cell: 941-539-9623

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