The August 2011 Leadership Development RoundTable Challenge: A Coaching Dilemma


Welcome to the August Round Table!

How it works: each month, a core member of The Roundtable will introduce a leadership challenge and solicit a 200 word maximum answer from the other core members plus one special guest. Readers can then contribute their own answers and/or vote for their favorite below. Voting results will be published here next week.

A special welcome to Sharlyn Lauby who is joining us as a regular member of the round table.

I’m pleased to introduce our roundtable hosts and this month’s guest:

1. Dan McCarthy, from Great Leadership

2. Art Petty, from Management Excellence

3. Sharlyn Lauby, from HRBartender

4. Jennifer Miller, from The People Equation

5. Scott Eblin, from The Next Level

6. Our guest, Gwyn Teatro, from You’re Not the Boss of Me

7. Mary Jo Asmus, from Mary Jo Asmus

The Challenge: Linda, a department head has contacted you. She would like you to consider coaching one of her direct reports; a long-time manager who for some reason, is not getting the results expected of his team. Linda “likes and respects” this manager but believes he needs to step up his game to be more effective.

You meet with the manager, Rob, who expresses enthusiasm for working with you as his coach. You ask Rob about his challenges at work. He indicates that he has a difficult time getting his team to move ahead on initiatives in the department. He’s anxious but willing to have you interview his team to hear their perspectives on his management and leadership styles.

The interviews with Rob’s team indicate that he is confident and knowledgeable with the credentials to understand problems and provide appropriate solutions quickly. However the feedback also indicates Rob doesn’t respect the ideas of his team or engage them in decisions. His impatience with the team is obvious to them, and they rarely hear a good word from Rob about the work they do.

You and Rob set about to design a development plan for Rob including some goals to increase his listening skills, decrease his impatience, engage the team in problem solving, and be more outwardly appreciative of their efforts. It takes an inordinate amount of time for him to draft his plan because, as he says, “he’s just very busy”. Once the plan is in semi-final form, you both meet with Linda, who feels the development plan is definitely on the right track. She agrees to support Rob with monthly 1:1 meetings throughout the coaching engagement to check in on his progress.

You begin coaching Rob. After a month, nothing much happens. He isn’t meeting his milestones and indicates that he isn’t meeting with his manager. You encourage his engagement, remind him that the behavioral changes will change the level of motivation his team has to complete initiatives on time, and make his life easier. He seems agreeable.

Another month goes by. Rob is still not progressing. He’s obviously not doing between-meeting assignments that he committed to, and hasn’t had a meeting with Linda yet. Your level of discomfort is increasing because as Rob’s coach, you are sworn to protect the confidentiality of your client, preventing you from speaking with Linda about his lack of progress.

As Rob’s coach, what would you do at this point?


From Dan McCarthy: At the risk of stating the obvious, it sounds like Rob’s not committed to:

  • Improve
  • the coaching plan
  • the coaching process
  • the coach,
  • or all of the above!

Coaching and development can’t be jammed down someone’s throat. Well, I suppose it can, but there’s little likelihood of sustained behavioral change. You may as well throw your time and money away.

As for the coaching “oath of confidentiality”, sure, but that only applies to the specifics of conversations between the coach and coachee. The coach, Rob, and Linda should have set up monthly status updates (together) to report on progress against development goals. But they didn’t, so at this point, it’s time to circle back and establish that process.

This challenge asks for advice for the coach – but I’m more inclined to offer up a little advice for Rob’s manager, Linda:

Stop abdicating your job as a manager! It’s your job to establish performance expectations (which includes behavioral) for your employees, help them improve, and hold them accountable.

After you’ve done this, and you’re sure Rob is committed to improve but you both need help, then consider offering the services of a coach. Try this guy.


From Art Petty: This coach clearly missed a critical step in setting up the arrangement. He/she failed to establish clear accountabilities and consequences with BOTH the buyer and the client, setting the stage for the sticky situation. Nonetheless, lacking a time machine, we can only go forward.

In my best mixed metaphor, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t force Rob to participate in the coaching arrangement. My next discussion with Rob would include professional and robust dialogue about his lack of participation to date and his interest in the personal, professional development that comes with coaching. It’s possible he felt like he had to support the idea in front of his manager, while truly not believing that he was the one requiring coaching. It’s also possible that he feels threatened or offended by being told he needs a coach.

I’m coaching the coach to make one more solid attempt at establishing trust with Rob. Our dialogue should focus on understanding Rob’s perspective and concerns and on his ideas to salvage the opportunity. If Rob fails to respond or fails to live up to his new commitments, the coach must resign the assignment out of respect for all parties.


From Sharlyn Lauby: It sounds like something has changed. Rob initially expressed enthusiasm about coaching but now says “he’s very busy.” And Linda, who says she likes and respects Rob, committed to monthly meetings and isn’t keeping her end of the bargain.

The question is what happened. It could be as simple as the company is slammed with business and the coaching priority has changed. I’m not condoning the decision…just facing real business realities. Or this could be an indication of a deterioration in the relationship between Linda and Rob. Or maybe something completely different.

I’d contact Linda to get a status report from her on meetings with Rob. This isn’t breaching any confidence with Rob – Linda is a vested part of Rob’s development plan. And I would keep an open mind. It’s possible Linda will also admit she’s been too busy to meet with Rob. Or it’s possible she might tell you about her meetings – and then you have a whole new situation to deal with.

It’s not unusual to have a curve ball thrown during a coaching assignment. Before deciding that Rob’s lack of progress is all Rob’s fault, I’d ask a few questions.


From Jennifer Miller: Something about the coaching process just isn’t “clicking” for Rob, so he’s finding ways to avoid doing the work. Maybe he’s discouraged. Perhaps he thinks the support from his boss isn’t genuine. Whatever it is, a coach needs to ferret out: what’s the underlying reason for Rob’s inaction?

If I were the coach: at the next check-in meeting, I would ask Rob to evaluate his progress. If Rob thinks he’s progressing on pace, then we could compare his perceptions to the actual work output. If Rob acknowledges that progress is lacking, then together we would uncover the barriers to progress and develop an action plan.

My recommendation: give the current coaching process one more month. If there still isn’t progress, then I would invite Rob into the following conversation: “We seem stuck. How do you recommend we move forward with our coaching agreement?”

If Rob continues to stonewall, I don’t think it’s a breach of confidentiality to engage Linda in a conversation about how she perceives Rob’s progress. If she’s satisfied with the “slow but steady” approach, keep at it. If not, then it’s time to work with Rob and Linda on exiting the coaching agreement.


From Scott Eblin: In coaching, as in life, less is usually more. If I was Rob’s coach, I’d start by simplifying the plan. If Rob was capable of writing up and executing his own multi point plan he would have already done so. My job as a coach is to make it easier for him to succeed.

He needs to start with his listening skills and put everything else on the back burner. If he builds his skills there, he’ll likely get a lot of indirect lift on the other opportunities.

The coaching plan needs to get his team engaged with helping him identify action steps that he could take that are easy to do and likely to make a difference in his listening skills. The goal is to get some quick wins that will build momentum.

Another next step is to set up a three way meeting with Rob and Linda to tell her of the tighter focus and recruit her as an onsite coach along with members of Rob’s team. They’re all going to help him get better at listening. After 30 to 45 days of coaching Rob on listening, we’d identify the gains made and then determine which aspect of the original plan to take on next.


From Gwyn Teatro: It seems to me that what started out as an objective to help a manager “step up his game” and achieve expected results has morphed into a program called “fix Rob“.

When things are not going well for a team it seems reasonable that the first place to start is with its leader. To me, that means exploring with him not only his behaviour but also the team dynamic and other relationships that can affect its operation.

While Rob may have been initially enthusiastic about working with a coach, there appears to be a discrepancy between what he expected and what he is experiencing.

Here’s what I’d do:

  1. Have a frank talk with Rob to clarify and/or restate the purpose of the coaching relationship. Come to agreement about what will have been achieved when the purpose is fulfilled.
  2. Re-design the development plan accordingly including Rob’s goals for self-development and those that involve his team.
  3. Volunteer to play a more active role in supporting him as he works with his team.

While Linda is not my client, I would remind her of her commitment to meet with Rob regularly and to provide him with her promised support.


From Mary Jo Asmus (composed before I read the other comments): This is a real scenario (names and other identifying information have been changed). Since I dealt with it in real life, I’m excusing my response from the voting.

The problem described is a fairly common issue, but in this case, the foot dragging was severe.

I follow an ethical code more strictly than most, and will not speak to a client’s manager unless the client is present.

I had a serious conversation with this client after the events described and respectfully requested him to show visible and specific progress on his development plan over the next month. He again committed to it but none of the promised actions had taken place at the agreed upon date.

We discussed the lack of progress again and I simply asked him, “How can I help you prepare to tell your manager that you don’t have time to work with a coach and you won’t be working with me any longer?”. I was prepared to fire him.

He suddenly kicked into gear. I reminded his manager of her responsibility to meet regularly with my client, which she did. The coaching engagement wasn’t a roaring success, but good progress was made.



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Mary Jo Asmus is the founder and President of Aspire Collaborative Services LLC, an executive coach, writer, internationally recognized thought leader, and a consultant who partners with organizations of all kinds to develop and administer coaching programs. She has “walked in your shoes” as a former leader in a Fortune company.


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