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For the Greater Good

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The best coaching client I’ve ever had, a big call after nearly 20 years, but I think I’ve met him!

Early in my career as a coach, I received some coaching advice from an older, much more experienced colleague… “Coaching works best when someone’s up for it”. Simple words I’ve found to be true time and time again.

I thought of all the time and effort I’d put into working with clients who were there because their manager was unwilling to have a frank conversation about someone’s performance or behaviour issues. I remembered when I’d called people on their disengagement to coaching, unwillingness to commit to any concrete actions between sessions, or serially failing to follow through, “You know, I’m not prepared to work harder on your career than you are Fred, you’ve got to help me out here”.

So perhaps that’s what made Rick such an exceptional client.

When I met Rick he was a long serving Senior Manager in a global business, running a national team, achieving great results and highly respected for his deep technical expertise and peerless, commercial smarts.

That said, Rick’s challenges were by no means insignificant. He had a reputation for a volatile temper, a decent guy prone to infrequent but unacceptably aggressive outbursts. On more than one occasion this had led to formal complaints and had put him on the wrong side of some very senior leaders. In the words of one of them “It’s like a switch goes off in his head, and he sees red” and while Rick would willingly accept responsibility for his behaviour and apologise, eventually, when something triggered it (later we identified which core values were being trampled, triggering such an outburst) it would happen again. This single factor had seen Rick passed over for promotion to an executive role, when on all other counts he was a very good choice.

Rick’s manager was very earnest in his reasons for wanting to support him “This guy is someone that I worked alongside for years, he’s taught me an enormous amount, he’s a close friend and the truth is, I wouldn’t be where I am today without Rick”. Fortunately Rick’s manager cared for his friend enough to level with him and he’d had the hard conversations required to frame and set up such a coaching engagement for success.

When I met with them both to launch the coaching process, there were no surprises, when I asked, “Why are we here, what’s the focus and outcomes we’re tracking for?” the answers they gave were perfectly in synch.

I guess what stood out was the utterly undefended way in which Rick had taken the feedback he’d received and the palpable intention in what he said and how he said it, this was the real deal. I’d worked with leaders who’d acknowledged the areas where they needed to change behaviour, cognitively “got it”. In fact for some “owning up” to their challenge can be in itself a defensive technique “Yes you’re right, I do have to become a better listener, less autocratic, more empowering, yes indeed”, as if acknowledging it, will in and of itself, change anything.

In contrast, I don’t think I’ve ever sat at a table with a coaching client with such an authentic and singular focus as Rick, a fire in the belly to change his impact on those around him. “I only wish I’d realised this 10 years ago, but no regrets, I have the opportunity now and that’s all that matters” he assured me, “It makes me sick to think that I could have this impact on people, I can’t change the past but I can do something different in the future, that’s why I’m here”.

Rick was equally forthcoming about his motivations “You know, this behaviour has cost me promotions and you know, that’s not what matters. I could take one more step up before I retire and that’d be great, but that’s not that what’s important to me. What I’d like is to have a choice, to know that I succeeded in addressing this and was considered for an Exec role, whether or not I ever achieve it is not the main game.”

This was the kind of intrinsic motivation coaches dream about, pure self-actualisation, learning and growth, not because he has to, but just because he can and the outcome will benefit him and others. And as if I wasn’t sold (this guy was going to get my A-Game, pull out all stops, 110%) he concluded “You know this is about how I manage relationships, I’m not doing this for my career, I’m doing it for my boys, so they can see the man I want them to grow up to be”.

The moral of the story, you tell me. When did you last lay yourself open and ask someone to support you in your own learning and growth? How transparent have you been prepared to be, how willing to let go of what you know and try to think and act in new, unfamiliar ways, even when you know it’s going to be hard and “clunky” for quite a while? When have you so clearly prioritised learning and growing over looking good and being right?

And how did things work out for Rick?

Stay tuned, that’s a work in progress, it’s early days, but he’s got an ally in his corner now and together, we’re working it out.


Author, Marshall Cowley, Senior Consultant Dattner Group