Coaching Mindset: The Push and the Pull

In my first blog post, published earlier this month on my website, I addressed the question of how I got into the field of coaching in the first place.  This week, I’ll address another question I receive frequently from new and prospective clients.

Question: What is your coaching style?

Answer: I used to think that coaching was all about asking open-ended questions, actively listening, providing behavioral feedback and developing a trusting, open relationship in which a client could safely explore questions large and small, experiment with new ways of being in the world, and look frankly at his or her own contributions to current and future challenges.  I still believe those practices are hugely important in good coaching, and they’re definitely a key part of my own coaching style.  But now I think there’s also got to be a counterbalance to all that feel-good, Rogerian “nonjudgmentalness.”  To borrow a concept from my friend Rob Kaiser, author of the Leadership Versatility Index 360, there’s tremendous value in versatility.  The old adage about all things in moderation, it turns out, applies even to practices as powerful as asking, listening, and caring.  Sometimes, as a coach—and as a leader—what’s called for is taking a position, offering advice, and employing brutal honesty.

Using the simplest terminology, I’ve come to think of these opposed but complementary coaching practices as pushing and pulling.

Let’s refer to the skillful and versatile use of pushing and pulling as coaching mindset.  I believe that both executive coaches and organizational leaders benefit from utilizing a coaching mindset, moving between pushing and pulling, and selecting their behaviors based on the context.  Contextual factors include the experience level, competence and commitment of the person being coached (the coachee), the nature and urgency of the problem being addressed, and the quality and duration of the relationship between the coach and coachee. A great coach, whether external or internal, knows when to push and when to pull.

I’m going to propose here four pairs of coaching mindset practices, one in each pair representing the push of coaching, and the other representing the pull.  I’ll also share an example of each pair of practices using my work with actual clients.  Names and identifying details, of course, have been left out to protect the innocent.

Push-Pull Pair One: Telling and Asking

When I’m pushing, I’m telling.  When I’m pulling, I’m asking.

Peter Senge of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, in his book The Fifth Discipline, used the terms “inquiry” and “advocacy” to describe fundamentally different modes of communication.  When they’re advocating, leaders state their positions and try to influence others to accept those positions.  When they’re inquiring, leaders ask questions to try to understand better the positions and perspectives of others.  Both practices, Senge argues, are important, but most leaders err on the side of advocacy.  Great leaders—and, I believe, great coaches—use a more balanced approach.  They ask and they tell, they push and they pull, they create dialogues in which both parties share their own perspectives and are genuinely open to the experiences and opinions of the other.

Client Example:  One of my goals with my coaching clients is to work myself out of a job.  My hope is that my clients will internalize the questions I ask them, so that they can begin to question themselves, eventually making me entirely unnecessary.  I’m working with a client now who tends to be very hard on himself.  He’s incredibly bright and accomplished, and a genuinely kind person.  But if he’s not careful, his irrational beliefs about his own lack of legitimacy in his high-level leadership role can overwhelm and paralyze him.  We’ve explored and developed some insight into those irrational beliefs, making it easier for him to challenge them when they surface.  Over our months of working together, I’ve both asked him a lot of questions (pulled) and shared suggestions about how he can respond in the face of his fears (pushed).  When we talked the other day, my client mentioned a concern he was having about the effectiveness of his approach in a particular situation.  I was delighted when he followed up with: “And I know you’re going to ask me what evidence there is to support that concern;” he told me that as he reflected upon it, the hard evidence actually supported his effectiveness, rather than the lack thereof, in the situation in question.  So while I both ask and tell with this client (and all of my clients), I was particularly gratified to see that the asking had not only led him to some interesting conclusions, but that he is now capable of asking himself the questions that ultimately lead him to a more confident and comfortable place.

Push-Pull Pair Two: Performance and Development

When I’m pushing, I’m focused on my clients’ performance.  When I’m pulling, I’m focusing on their development.

In my early days as a coach, I focused almost exclusively on my clients’ personal and professional development.  I wanted to help them identify their short- and long-term professional goals, develop their skills and earn promotions, and decide when it was time to look for a new opportunity. Those outcomes are still incredibly important to me.  But now I realize that development and performance are intricately interwoven, and that to fail to ask for performance feedback from clients’ key stakeholders, such as superiors and HR business partners, is to do them a grave disservice.  It would be like asking my children only about how much fun they are having at school and ignoring feedback from their teachers about how (and whether) they are demonstrating their learning.  Performance feedback is crucial to supporting ongoing development.  When I’m being versatile as a coach, and when leaders are being effective internal coaches, we are focusing on both development and performance.

Client Example:  Here’s an example from my early days as a coach.  Warning: this one did not end well for my client.  Thank goodness we can all learn from experience.  I certainly have!  All those many years ago, I had the opportunity to work with an interesting new client who was at a more senior organizational level than the clients I had worked with previously.  This client had initiated the coaching herself and was not interested in having me administer a 360-degree assessment; because I was not experienced (or courageous) enough to push back, our coaching focused on her own perceptions of her leadership gaps.  We had long, meaningful, seemingly productive conversations about her personal history, her professional successes and setbacks, and what she wanted her legacy to be.  I was totally committed to helping her transition into her new leadership role in a way that allowed her to feel effective; I was laser-focused on what she enjoyed or didn’t about the role, and how she could develop the skills she thought she lacked.  What I missed seems obvious now, and even a little embarrassing.  I didn’t solicit feedback from her direct reports, peers or superiors until it was too late, until a time when her performance was—to her shock—seen as so far below expectations that it was too late for her to save her career at that organization.  Now I solicit performance feedback on my clients early and often, and I am very direct with my clients about what I see as the ramifications of not closing any gaps in performance.  I want them to develop their skills and abilities, yes, but I also want them to be considered stellar performers by their colleagues.

Push-Pull Pair Three: Weaknesses and Strengths

When I’m pushing, I’m focusing on my clients’ weaknesses.  When I’m pulling, I’m focusing on their strengths.

Historically, leadership development (and traditional educational approaches) have used a “weakness approach;” the basic idea is that you figure out what someone really stinks at (whether it’s public speaking or math), and then have them spend lots of time and energy trying to get good at it.  Thankfully, the positive psychology movement of the 21st century has led many of us to think differently about development, and to encourage our clients (or direct reports, or students) to focus on their unique strengths, developing and leveraging those in pursuit of important goals.  I’ve been operating from a strengths approach for quite a while, but I now believe that a coach can’t solely focus on strengths, no matter how much more energizing that feels than focusing on weaknesses.  A true coaching mindset involves identifying and addressing both strengths and weaknesses, finding ways to extend and enhance the application of the former while ensuring that the latter do not become fatal flaws.

Client Example:  One of my current coaching clients has an undergraduate engineering degree and an MBA from a top tier school, an impressive and varied resume, with stints both in start-ups and global corporations, and an ability to churn out high-quality work product very quickly.  What he’s not so good at, in my judgment, is putting himself in the shoes of others, especially others who move more slowly or are (in his view) less competent.  He’s able to do it when prompted, but it’s rarely his initial response.  Once he even said to me, without a hint of irony, “Empathy is almost always a waste of time.”  (We laugh about it now, and he even gave me permission to include this anecdote—anonymously, of course—in this blog.)  In my work with this client, I encourage him both to use his significant, natural strengths to find new ways to meet his leadership challenges, and also to move perspective-taking and empathy a little bit higher on his list of go-to reactions when he’s feel frustrated with his colleagues, especially the slow ones.

Push-Pull Pair Four: Candor and Compassion

When I’m pushing, I’m using candor.  When I’m pulling, I’m using compassion.

And of course, as with the other push-pull pairs, when I’m utilizing a coaching mindset, I’m using both.

One of my favorite sayings, usually attributed to communications author John Powell, is this: “The genius of communication is the ability to be both totally honest and totally kind at the same time.”  My friend and colleague Margaret Cooley, Director of the Eckerd College Leadership Institute (LDI), shared that quote with me at least a decade ago, and I just love it.  It’s easy to know what it looks like to demonstrate one of those behaviors at a time.  If I am not worried about being truthful, I can certainly be kind.  (“That was the best presentation I’ve ever heard!)  And if I’m not concerned about being kind, it’s easy to be honest.  (“It was excruciating to sit through your presentation.”)  While it generally requires more effort to blend compassion and candor, I believe that doing so is a key attribute of masterful coaching.

Client Example: Early in my career, I had a client who talked so much that I could barely get a word in edgewise—even in a three-hour session.  My concern was both about what was happening between us – how could I add any value if I couldn’t participate in her thought process? – and what this meant for her interactions in the workplace.  If she dominated conversations with her colleagues, which her 360 feedback suggested she did, I was pretty sure that pattern would have a number of negative impacts on her.  Some of her colleagues would simply avoid her, and others might resort to an aggressive approach simply to get some air time; either way, my client was almost certainly losing access to important information and missing opportunities to develop the kind of strong relationships critical to a leader’s effectiveness.  Because I was a new coach at the time, it took me a while to gather the courage to share with my client the impact on me of her non-stop talking.  While it felt risky to be so honest, it also felt like the compassionate thing to do.  Most others in my client’s life (her professional life, at least) probably weren’t as direct with her, and by the time they did give her feedback, it might not have been very diplomatically worded, thereby harming the relationship and probably diminishing her ability to truly take in the feedback.

Thanks so much for reading to the end of what will likely be the longest blog I ever write.  If you have any feedback or questions, I would love to hear!