— September 12, 2019
“How do you actually work with the people you coach?” asked a senior human resources officer and prospective client. I explained a variety of scenarios based on my current roster of clients. “Everyone is different,” I answered. “People need personally tailored support to grow into their roles and to truly be and do their best. Some clients want business advice, some want mentoring, others want a sounding board.”
I’m an advisory coach, so I adjust my services depending on my clients’ needs. With executives who are eager to develop, we discuss what they’d like to accomplish or what they’ve been told they need to shift, we make plans, and work those plans accordingly. But in many cases, CEOs and other C-Suite executives don’t really want to be coached. They’re content to have me work with their people. Once they see that I understand them and their business, they’re often willing to work with me more directly.
Development Can Mean Self-Regulation
It’s not just business. Even children raised in the same home may behave differently and need different approaches to development. When both my kids were young, we played card and board games: Concentration, Chutes and Ladders, Parcheesi. My son would get frustrated if he was losing, and would look for clever ways to get around the rules.
No five-year-old should have to feel like a loser in order to be “good” or compliant. At that age, they need to learn how to win, and to feel like winners, even more than they need to learn how to lose gracefully. And yet violating the rules couldn’t be tolerated as acceptable behavior. So with all the power of parenthood, I made a new rule, one that meant my son could simultaneously be good and a winner.
“You can change the rules up to three times in any game, no questions asked,” I told him. The shift worked perfectly. For almost a year, he won every game fair and square, even if I had to start over three times or give him all my cards or miss lots of turns. He never tried to change the rules more than three times. He was gleeful about winning, happy to be congratulated, and self-possessed and generous enough to tell me I had played well, too.
Gradually, as he became more self-regulating, he stopped using all of his change options even if I was pulling ahead. At some point, he learned to accept a loss and see it as something that happened in the game, and not so much to him. Eventually, he didn’t need to change the rules at all to follow them and accept their consequences.
Help People Feel (Somewhat) in Control
My daughter was different. She never tried to cheat, and in fact was scrupulous about the truth. For her, cheating would have been beneath her, and would have meant a kind of giving in, as if the game had broken her. Instead, if she didn’t like the way the game was going, she would throw the board over. I tried the rule-change gambit with her but she wouldn’t dignify it.
She didn’t need to win as much as she needed to feel in control of her circumstances. So whenever I could see that she was becoming frustrated or bored, I would ask, “Is it time to stop?” It was a neutral question, which she could answer easily. If the answer was “Yes,” we would put the game away immediately. Of course, she outgrew the need to be shielded from the sense of impending loss.
Carefully Identify Each Individual’s Growth Needs
Of course, neither of those developmental approaches would be legitimate in an organizational environment: You can’t just let frustrated employees change the rules or stop the game completely. But recognizing which lessons they need to learn, and being able to help them sustain focus and demeanor during the discomfort of those lessons is vital. It’s equally crucial to show understanding even when you can’t provide the desired solution.
In my discussion with the HR leader, I pressed for more specifics about the situation. It turned out that the prospective client was not actually interested in being coached. He was an employee with a long history of manipulation and deflecting blame, and was a favorite of the CEO. The CEO had ordered coaching because he saw the problem as one of “communication style” and was not willing to hear about the need for other corrective action.
The HR leader didn’t think coaching would make much difference. She already had a potential coach who was eager to have the assignment, but from what she had read and heard about me, she believed that I would have a better shot at turning the guy around, if it was at all possible to do so. I asked her a few more questions, to be sure I understood the situation deeply enough.
When I declined to be considered, she expressed no surprise, but only ruefulness. Wouldn’t it be better if everyone had their behavior sorted out when they were children?