Research Paper By Chris Keating
(Executive Coach, UNITED STATES)
Marty was the talk of the organization since he joined three months earlier: with a booming voice, a multitude of opinions on every topic, and a larger than life personality, this middle manager took the company by storm. And not in a good way. While a few of the executives appreciated “a fresh face that was shaking things up”, Marty’s peers and subordinates were frustrated and annoyed. He always seemed to suck up the oxygen in the room, talking over people and generally dominating each conversation. Worse yet, he had some particularly bad habits: inappropriate jokes and mean-spirited criticism of his co-workers. And gossiping. Lots of gossiping. His closest friends and allies seemed to be some of the more negatively inclined employees.
One day, Marty’s boss, Calvin, asked me for a meeting. I had started working as an internal coach at the company earlier in the year, and I sometimes received “referrals” from managers and/or executives. Calvin explained that he really liked Marty but had been receiving complaints about his style and his habits. Calvin had already talked to the head of HR about the offensive jokes and comments, and that was being handled on a separate track.
I asked Calvin what he thought the problem was. “He doesn’t understand our culture. He is behaving in a way that worked for him at his last company but that doesn’t work here. But he is the only expert in his area that we could find, and he is doing great work. We really need him to succeed in all areas.” At that point, Calvin asked me to take Marty on as a coaching client. “Have you talked with him about all of this?” I asked. “Well, he didn’t agree with some of the feedback, but he knows that I am serious. He agreed to come to you for coaching. Also, I should mention that I talked to Elizabeth (the head of the company), and she is really wants you to help him.” (This was the not-so-subtle hint that he expected me to take the assignment without any resistance.)
I told Calvin that I would set up an initial meeting with Marty, but that I was going to make my own assessment of his readiness and willingness to accept coaching. Also, I would have to make sure we were all in alignment on what the goals for coaching would be, which Calvin would have to send to me in writing. Calvin agreed and assured me that Marty had heard and understood the feedback and knew that he was being sent to coaching for positive reasons. “Good”, I said. “Because my first question to Marty will be about why we are here”.
Before my first meeting with Marty, I knew I had to check myself. Since I had been hearing all of these stories secondhand about his misbehavior, there was a risk that I was entering the coaching relationship with a preconceived notion of him. (As detailed in my power tool, “Heroes vs. Villains”, there can be a tendency for all of us fragile humans to assign people the role of hero or villain, and I had certainly heard many stories in which he was wearing the proverbial black hat. Also, the coach himself/herself must be aware of the danger of placing their client in the villain’s seat.) I reminded myself to approach this with a clean slate, and I set my intention to coach Marty as I would have coached anyone else.
The First Meeting
In my first meeting with Marty, after covering confidentiality and other standard items, I kicked things off with the question “why are we here”, as I told Calvin I would. Marty’s answer was quite surprising! With a big grin on his face, he said that this was detention, and the principal had sent him here because he’s a bad guy and everyone hates him and that I would tell him what to do to make people like him.
OK, I thought, he is putting me on – let’s try again. “No, seriously, what do you really think?”
He sat back and stopped grinning. After a deep breath, he explained that he does want to succeed here, but he doesn’t buy into what people were saying, and he doesn’t see how coaching will make any difference.
At this point, my head was spinning: should I “sell” the benefits of coaching to him? Is that appropriate, and do I even want to do that? Also, how do I handle the obvious disconnect between what I am hearing and what Calvin told me? And what to make of his odd manner? Are these just defense mechanisms? Could my disarming coaching style put him at ease and get to the heart of the matter? Should I end the session or keep going?
Sensing that a coaching agreement was not forming, I told him that I would have to talk with Calvin before we could go any further, since we were not all on the same page. He bounded out of the room, the big grin back on his face.
Back to the Drawing Board
Calvin didn’t seem happy to see me come to his door. Perhaps my face told the story because he said, “Uh oh, is this bad news?” Yes, I told him, Marty is not on board with the plan and doesn’t want any coaching.
Calvin was rather upset about this and explained that he would talk to Marty again. I recommended that he give Marty all of the feedback plus the rationale for coaching in writing, with me cc’ed on the message, to make sure we were all on the same page.
I added that I was not going to initiate a meeting with Marty; he was going to have to come to me, and I was going to ask the same first question. If it didn’t match the written feedback, then it was going to be a very short meeting! Calvin agreed and apologized for not using my time properly. (This was good to hear; at least I knew that Calvin “got it”.)
The Second Meeting
Marty sent me a meeting invitation the next morning. When he came to my office, he appeared to be a different person. The grin, the bravado, and the big personality were gone. He really did look like he was a kid being sent to detention.
I asked the question: why are we here? This time he gave a much more sober, straightforward answer, one that did indeed match the feedback from Calvin and the desired goals for coaching. I sensed that the defense mechanisms were greatly reduced, and that he had come in earnest. I reflected this back to him, and he admitted that he had taken any of it seriously until he got everything the second time from Calvin, in writing.
At this point, things started proceeding very well, and we went about the normal course of coaching work. The engagement was ultimately a success.
I realized that my process for taking on “referred” clients from their managers was seriously flawed. I implemented a new policy in which there had to be a three-way meeting, facilitated by me, in which the manager had to deliver the feedback in detail and engage in a discussion with their report. The manager also had to give a positive rationale for why they were recommending coaching from me. The report had the opportunity to ask questions and add their own desired goals for coaching into the discussion. As the coach, I could assess whether there was a true 3-way coaching agreement, and I could go over the full scope of confidentiality, roles and responsibilities, and common scenarios. All of this was then documented in writing for all involved.
My initial reason for this new policy was to prevent many of the obvious problems I encountered from the scenario above: wasted time, wasted energy, lack of clarity, etc. But the more amazing thing that resulted was how valuable those facilitated conversations were. For some of those reports and managers, it became one of the best and most candid conversations they would have. It also meant a lot to the reports to hear their managers express their interest in their development, something that managers sometimes forget to say!