Three ways to coach clients who struggle while making decisions

Sometimes our clients struggle making decisions. Following are three areas in which I see clients struggle, one focused on career coaching and two focused on executive coaching, with some high-level tips for coaching clients to success in these scenarios.

1. What should I do next as the next step in my career?

Some of our clients are blessed with having so many career options that they simply can’t make a choice. I often see this with graduates of the more elite universities and business school programs. The experience of coaching these clients can be frustrating. The client knows their values and talents. Nonetheless, they go back and forth about each possible career option, noting the pros and cons of each, hoping that some ideal opportunity will emerge. Often their expectations about their first job out of school are much higher than the realities of the market. At the same time, parents sometimes create a dynamic that allows them to stay at home, live comfortably, and not have to make a decision at all. This raises the question of whether you want to coach this market at all — especially if there is a family dynamic at play that supports the client in staying stuck.

But let’s say that the client is motivated to make a decision, and you believe that coaching can help. What I have found works is to help the client realize that this one decision is not what a mentor of mine called ‘die on the vine.’ A career is a marathon and not a sprint. Life takes place over a long span of time. We don’t live it out in a single decision or moment. Too often, clients seem to conflate their next decision with their entire identity and mortality, and this makes the pressure too intense. They act like they are going to fall through the ground into oblivion if they make a poor choice, when the fact is that there are very few decisions from which we can’t recover. When I can help them see that their next move is only one of many moves, it takes the pressure off.

The starting point is to develop an overall vision for the client’s long term career. Then we can work together on a number of potential paths to get there. Not just one point, but a number of potential paths; that’s the only way to think in today’s fast-moving economy. From there we can look at the client’s current options and determine which ones best fit those paths and give the client the best chance to open the most doors towards his or her long-term vision. By doing this exercise, the client gets a sense of the span of time of his or her career, sees many possible positive paths, and can relax a bit about the decisions in front of them.

The coaching also can help the client reframe some limiting perceptions they might have about steps in a career, including:

– One step in a career, especially early on, is not make or break.
– There is always something to learn in a new job, even if that job isn’t the perfect fit.
– Early on it is more about learning than it is about status, salary, or titles.
– There is no perfect career or job. Each has pros and cons.

2. Should I go for a really big, make-or-break vision or stick with incremental changes?

It is a lot of fun to coach clients about Big Hairy Audacious Goals, disruptive strategies, and bold visions. However,when it comes to making these ideas and visions happen, I have found that very few clients, or their organizations, have the guts to move forward.

The exception seems to be when a disruptive competitor, most recently Amazon but it can also be some little-known technology upstart that seems to come from nowhere, starts killing them in the market. By then they have no choice. It’s change or die. Even then, they sometimes still get paralyzed — by what it will really take to shift their organizations.

The times I’ve had success coaching clients about these decisions, what has worked has been playing out different ways of implementing their visions. Any time we could come up with some way to create an external division — outside the company structure — that could create/buy/outsource a prototype and test new technology and processes at low cost, the client seemed on board. That way, they didn’t have to scrap their existing legacy business. They could eventually roll their current business into the new venture if it proved worthy.

3. How do I get out of analysis paralysis and perfectionist thinking for the more typical executive decisions that come up?

This last example is the one that comes up most often for coaches and clients. Some clients take a long time to process and make decisions.

I can’t take credit for the coaching suggestion that follows, because I read it in a publication a long time ago and can’t even remember the source. I hope that’s okay with you that I mention it here, and if anyone knows the source of this great idea please email me at so that I can give credit where due.

The author suggested a thought experiment. Suppose that out of any ten possible solutions to a problem, five are acceptable solutions, and five are bad. Any leader can separate the first five from the second five. What poor leaders do is obsess over the remaining five good solutions, and often decide long after it is too late, if ever. Meanwhile, the good leaders realize that there is not, and never will be, enough information to separate precisely which of the five good solutions will be the best. They don’t spend too much time on analyzing each of the remaining five good solutions, because they know that any of them will work; they also know that they can’t predict exactly which one will work best. They are all acceptable! Therefore, they do a bit of analysis based on available information plus use their gut instinct to make a quick decision.

As coaches, we can help our clients separate out the good choices from the bad, and then make a quick decision from among the remaining good choices. A pro/con approach works really well here once we work together to figure out which choices make the cut and which ones don’t.

When fear is at the root of indecision…

Often fear is at the root of indecision, in all of the examples noted above. Some clients won’t decide because they are afraid and hesitant. When fear is present, we can explore taking small steps and look at the risks and rewards of taking action vs. not taking action. The coach can be a source of support, for instance by helping the client find their own sources of strength. Every so often, if the client doesn’t mind, I like to share one of my favorite quotes, from W.H. Murray and the Scottish Himalayan Expedition. It helps me when I am uncertain and have trouble moving forward, and it is a good way to end this article, too:

“Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative or creation, there is one elementary truth…that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would otherwise never have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man would have believed would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:

Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it.
Action has magic, grace, and power in it.”

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