Tips for Coaching the Uncoachable

Sadly, when speaking on the topic of The Leader as Coach, the first question I usually hear is not, “What’s the most potent thing I can do to improve my effectiveness as a coach?” but rather, “What can I do with all the people on my team who are uncoachable?” The honest answer is one that most leaders don’t want to hear: “It’s not that they don’t want coaching; they just don’t want coaching from you.“

How do I know this to be true? I have asked the following question of thousands of leaders: “If you were unknowingly doing something that was significantly impeding your performance, something that was turning off those around you, something that would likely drive your career toward a ditch, while someone that you really trusted and was completely committed to your success knew about this, would you want this person to come to you, privately, and share this information with you?” Virtually 100 percent of the audience raises their hand every time. Think about how directly this parallels coaching. If the vast majority of us would readily invite such tough-to-hear feedback, why would we ever resist coaching? The answer: It’s not the coaching we resist. We are simply very picky about those we will welcome into something as profoundly personal as coaching.

Coaching requires a special relationship and an extraordinary conversation in which people explore ways they can create significant change in their work, careers or lives. At its best, it can only be described as intimate.

The idea that some people are uncoachable emanates from the myth that coaching is something we do to others. It’s not. It’s a powerful performance- and career-changing process that we do with others. We may call ourselves coaches. We may offer ourselves as coaches. We may encourage others to avail themselves of our coaching. But we can’t unilaterally impose ourselves on others as coaches. No matter how senior we are, no matter how interpersonally skilled we are, no matter how experienced we are, we still have to earn the right to coach.

Unfortunately, the myth that coaching is something we do to others is propagated by a plethora of coaching books and training programs that naively assert that leaders simply need to engage in what really amounts to a series of interpersonal tricks designed to entice others into coaching conversations. State your intentions, express confidence in the person, listen actively, provide balanced feedback, co-create an action plan…the list goes on. These are good leadership practices, but they will not get us invited into the coaching relationship.

We don’t have to read the latest coaching best seller to get this. We know this from our own experiences with those who have been our own best coaches. When deciding if we will welcome someone as our coach, all we really want to know is the answer to three simple questions:

• Do you really care about me? (Are you committed to my success?)
• Can I trust you? (Will you tell me the truth?)
• Do you have something of value for me? (Will you share your best to help me become my best?)

Great coaching often involves exposing our most treasured aspirations, exploring the scary territory of unfulfilled expectations, claiming all of the talents we have kept hidden, owning up to the ways we are selling ourselves short, making bold new promises to ourselves and charting risky new courses of action. These are not things we will do with just anyone. These are things we only will do with someone who we believe truly cares about us, is trustworthy and has something important to offer.

Have you seen the light? Now the hard part is figuring out what you can do to engage with those you previously considered uncoachable. Here is a suggestion: Make sure you have a positive response to the three questions above and then speak to each of your “uncoachables.” Let them know you would be honored to serve as their coach, and ask them what you need to do to earn the right to do so. This will likely be one of the most difficult things you will ever do as a leader, and the most valuable.


About the author: Gregg Thompson is a facilitator, coach, author and speaker with a passion for developing the greatness in individuals and organizations. As president of Bluepoint Leadership Development he leads a talented group of worldwide professionals who design and deliver challenging educational experiences that accelerate the natural development of leaders.

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