Has my coachee got what it takes? Have I? by Alan Robertson


This is a case about creating the conditions for engagement

‘H’ approached coaching reluctantly.

Actually, that’s a massive under-statement. He had already cancelled twice before he finally turned up for his re-scheduled session. Even then he didn’t come straight into the room. He stood in the open doorway, filling it with his physical presence. He was well over six feet tall. He glowered at me.

‘You’ll never get close to me,’ he announced.

It’s the best opening line I’ve ever heard in coaching. This promised to be interesting.

‘Good morning,’ I replied brightly. ‘Would you like to come in?'

‘You don’t catch me like that,’ he retorted, not moving.

There was a pause while I wondered what to do. They say you should work with what’s in the room, but we hadn’t even got that far yet.

I couldn’t think of anything else, so I said, ‘Well, I’m about to have a coffee. You’re very welcome to join me.’ I got to my feet and turned away towards the coffee flask that my client had provided. When I turned back, ‘H’ was sitting at the table. He’d chosen a seat directly opposite mine with the table between us.

It’s natural to be apprehensive about coaching, about receiving feedback, or even about the suggestion that you might need these things. I could understand that ‘H’ might be reluctant. It was his extreme way of expressing it that was intriguing. He was unusually open about being closed; most people would probably do more to mask their resistance with some pretence of participation.

Coaching had been his boss’ idea. He wanted it for himself and had decided that the whole of his senior team should have some. ‘H’ was one of the functional Directors in the team. He was also the least enthusiastic member of the senior management team about the Managing Director’s insistence that they should each have an individual coaching session and then a half-day team development workshop together.

‘I’ve told him I think this is a complete waste of time and money,’ ‘H’ told me matter-of-factly, as he stirred the coffee I’d brought to the table for him.

‘Your colleagues generally seem to have found their one-to-one sessions valuable,’ I countered. ‘At least that’s what they said at the end of their sessions. Of course, it may be they were just being polite.’

‘Huh.’ His grunt was dismissive, whether of my comment or his colleagues wasn’t clear, but at least  he was still in the room.

Tacitly negotiating our rapport

I pressed on. I thanked him for making the time to complete the psychometric battery that I was using to provide a source of potential insights for the coaching and the team work. I didn’t mention that it had been a pain in the butt, having to chase him repeatedly to get him to complete it. I glanced again at his scores: several markers of high dominance, low scores on many, although not all, of the working-with-others dimensions, low openness, a tendency to distrust others. That was all congruent, I thought, with the combative display that he had put on in the doorway.

Other indicators offered more of a prospect that we would be able to have a conversation.  He had a constellation of high scores suggesting an outgoing personality: extraverted, interested in influencing others and an activist learning style. He also had high creative interest and yet a low score on ingenuity. I could ask him how that unusual combination played out in practice. But I chose an easier starting place.

‘The problem with any psychometrics,’ I explained, sliding his score sheet across the table so that he could see and have it for himself, ‘is that they can only provide clues and indications. They don’t give you answers as such. So we need to figure out what they might signify in your particular case, and then we need decide which, if any, of these results are relevant and important. And we need to do all that before we can even start to discuss what you might do with them.’

It’s an explanation I’ve given hundreds, or even thousands, of times. It’s one form of the speech that I’d expect any thoughtful user of psychometrics to employ. It puts the owner of the psychometric profile in the pilot’s seat. It acknowledges that the psychologist is only the co-pilot, a collaborator rather than a judge, an expert resource made available to the person who is centre stage. I regard it as an essential step, when using diagnostics in coaching, because coaching cannot be done without conversation, and conversation cannot be done without at least some willingness, on both parts, to open up.

I couldn’t call ‘H’ a coachee at this stage. All that had happened up to this point was that he’d thrown a couple of provocative remarks ahead of him into the room, rather like stun grenades, and I’d poured us coffee and offered some introductory explanation in exchange. But at some level he’d heard enough to feel ready to join in. So when I invited him to talk, not about himself or his personality, but to give me some context by telling me about his job and the sort of demands it made, he promptly did so, freely and energetically.

It was a turning point in the conversation, but the real pivots were still to come.

Getting to know the real person sitting in front of you from all the available clues

I listened to him. He spoke well. He was lucid and informative. He drew on a wide vocabulary and used it to communicate precisely but at the same time fluidly and easily. I started to ask more questions. He developed and elaborated what he was saying. More strikingly, he showed that he could readily infer where my lines of inquiry were heading, anticipating questions and answering them proactively. He clearly had a quick mind.

As he was doing this, I was staring at the reasoning scores in his psychometric profile. They looked upside down, not because I was sitting on the wrong side of the table but because they reported both his abstract and verbal reasoning abilities to be at the low end of the scale. They didn’t fit with what I was hearing.

I interrupted his flow.

‘I’ve got a puzzle, and I need you to help me make sense of it. I’m listening to you talk. You talk well and it sounds as if you think well too. You’re clearly more capable than your scores on these reasoning tests would suggest. So, help me, please. What are these low scores about?’

Experience had already taught me that while it’s very hard to get a high score on a reasoning test by accident, it’s very easy to get a low one. Perhaps his activist approach had caused him to rush into the questionnaires without reading the instructions carefully, or maybe he’d become bored or distracted while doing them, or possibly he hadn’t even attempted to answer them, for fear of doing badly, preferring the sanctuary offered by declaring the whole process a waste of time. I wasn’t, however, prepared for what happened next. There was a long pause. He moved his chair round the table so that he was sitting close beside me. He lowered his voice and he said, very quietly…

‘I’m dyslexic.’

My reaction was immediate, spontaneous and hopefully made up with compassion what it lacked in deliberation.

‘Good grief! How do you cope with that?’

His answer threw light on the comments that his Managing Director had previously shared with me. ‘H’ was very good at his job with clients, and his subordinates worshipped him. They thought he was a wonderful, involving manager. His difficulties were with his fellow directors, who found him prickly and difficult, especially in senior management team meetings, where he tended to be short, belligerent and obstructive.

This made a lot more sense when ‘H’ confided how he dealt with his dyslexia. Talking was not a problem. It was one of his strengths. But things became very difficult for him, if a paper or a slide presentation was put forward without having been circulated beforehand. In that situation he struggled to pick up the details, or to keep up with the discussion. He hated that. He felt it made him look slow and as if he had nothing to offer. His coping strategy was to raise objections, refuse to agree to anything on the spot, insist on taking issues away to think about them more deeply. Outside the meeting what he actually did was to share the documents in confidence with selected members of his own team. ‘Read this carefully,’ he’d say. ‘Then talk me through it, give me your views and we’ll have a discussion about it.’ His subordinates relished the trust that he was placing in them. For his part, ‘H’ got his briefings in a form that worked for him – the spoken word rather than the written.

‘Have you ever thought about sharing the fact that you’re dyslexic with your senior team colleagues?’  I ventured.

He looked at me as if, far from being usefully thought-provoking, I was probably insane.

‘You don’t understand,’ he said. ‘They would destroy me. You’ve got no idea what it’s like to be from a minority background ethnically, educationally  and socially,  sitting in a room full of guys  who’ve all been to posh universities.’

I pointed out that he was making an assumption, that he might be worrying unduly, that personal development entailed taking some risks, but he remained unconvinced.

We talked about other things instead. He was most interested in how he could develop his ingenuity. He was attracted to open-minded environments and enjoyed the company of creative people. He wondered if he could learn some creative techniques. I talked him through a couple and recommended some audio tapes.

Our one and only coaching conversation ended much more convivially and positively than it had begun. Even so, I didn’t feel that I’d been as much help to him as I would have wished. Instinctively I gave him one final provocation as he again stood in the doorway, this time on his way out.

‘By the way,’ I asked, returning directly to his opening remark from two hours earlier, ‘how close did I get?’

He stalked wordlessly back into the room and towered over me. He was several inches taller than me and I was beginning to question the wisdom or usefulness of my inquiry. He leaned down and spoke very softly into my ear.

‘Only my wife knows me as well as you do!’

Then he grinned, turned on his heel and left the room.

The real results – my coachee has got what it takes!

But the real turning point in H’s case came, not in our coaching session, but two weeks later, when the whole senior management team had gathered to discuss how they might use the work I’d been doing with them. I’d set the usual ground rule in place beforehand; the individual alone could decide whether, when and how much of their psychometric profile and their coaching session to share. ‘H’ arrived at the very last moment. I’d almost concluded he wasn’t going to turn up at all. He looked fierce and unapproachable. He offered no words of greeting.

The Managing Director called the group together and everyone except ‘H’ sat down. As the MD started to introduce the session, ‘H’ interrupted him.

‘Just before we start, there’s something I want to say…’

I braced myself for the announcement that this whole thing was a waste of time and we should all go and do some real work instead. But what he actually said was…

‘I’d just like you all to know that I’m dyslexic.’

It was a breath-taking disclosure and the reflex reaction from his six colleagues was equally wonderful.

‘Goodness!’ they gasped. (There were some unprintable variations in the exact phrase used). ‘How on earth do you cope with that,’ they chorused.

This was the real turning point for ‘H’, for his interactions with his fellow directors and for the improved trust, openness and quality that characterised subsequent meetings.

And the credit belongs to ‘H’ and to him alone. I’d assumed he didn’t have it in him.

So the conclusions I draw from this case are simply stated, but I think profoundly important to keep in mind. It takes courage to be a successful coachee, coupled with a willingness to experience vulnerability. And if these are qualities of a good coachee, they also need to be qualities in a good coach.

To connect with Alan Robertson

Alan Robertson is Director of Business Cognition Ltd, co-creator of VoicePrint and a senior visiting teaching fellow at both Cranfield University and the Cass Business School in London.