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Effective coaching: Your staff aren't morons

Jan 12th 2011
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By Guy Gage, LPC, CPT

One of the delights of my work is to spend time with bright, capable CPA partners who are interested in becoming more effective in what they do. One of my clients attended a seminar on performance coaching--how to guide people to improve their performance. While you don't know her, you know people like her. In fact, you might even be her.

Mary is attractive, smart and very capable. Her rise to partnership in her firm has her interacting with staff more frequently in the area of performance coaching. The problem is they don't understand her. "Unapproachable" is the word others use to describe Mary, which is unfortunate because she's actually very engaging.

"So, Mary", I asked",how do you coach your staff to increase their performance?" She answered",I tell them what to do and then I expect them to do it." The class had a nice chuckle, much to Mary's surprise. I followed with",And what are your results?" She half grinned and responded",They're morons." The class roared. Not only did they find it amusing, they knew of her experience first hand.

As I regained order in the group, it occurred to me that Mary didn't understand the impact of her approach on her staff. I explained to Mary and to the class that with some people, you need to be tactful; with others, like Mary, being direct is best. "Mary, who's the moron here?" It was her turn to laugh at herself.

This is the kind of teachable moment I look for to explain some fundamental principles to coaching others. In short, they go like this.

  1. People are motivated by their goals, not yours. Even if you can persuade them to adopt your ideas, they will soon lose interest and pursue them half-heartedly, if they remember them at all.
  2. People respond favorably when they have a coach who is an advocate for them and their goals. Coaches who demand their staffs' compliance and performance may be obeyed, but only minimally.
  3. Coaches who ask the right questions to guide people to discover what they should do are much more effective than coaches who shortcut the process by telling them what to do.

It was time for Mary to redeem herself. I invited her to the front of the class to participate in a demonstration where she could apply these principles in a role play. Having been given a scenario, Mary was to coach a fellow participant who played the role of a newly promoted, but ineffective supervisor. His workers came to Mary, the partner, accusing him of being harsh, demanding and arrogant. With that information, she was to coach him to discover how he could be more effective.

"Mary, before you came here today, how would you have handled this situation?"

"You mean besides calling him a moron? (laughter) I probably would have told him to communicate with his workers better. You know, let them know what he expected and why."  "That's all?" I asked. "That's all", she responded. With a little coaxing, she conceded that it probably wasn't enough. She even gave an actual situation to confirm her ineffectiveness in coaching her new supervisor.

I suggested to Mary that she try a different approach. I coached her to think about the questions she could ask him to tap into his motives and goals. With Mary and the class working together, they came up with some questions she could ask the new supervisor that would to help him increase his ability to affect change. I recorded them on newsprint.

Determine the supervisor's intent by asking these questions:

  • Are you trying to be harsh, demanding and arrogant?
  • If not, what are you doing that leads others to view you this way?
  • If you don't know, how could you find out?

Explore the supervisor's goal by asking these questions:

  • After it's all said and done, what do you want to have happen?
  • What do you want your staff to experience from their interactions with you?
  • How do you want your staff to view you?

Using the questions above, she engaged in the coaching roleplay. The supervisor answered her questions and "discovered" that he could be more effective if he approached things more thoughtfully and tactfully. In the end, the class saw that when the supervisor was given the chance to reflect on his intent and goals, he would be more likely to get the performance he wanted from his staff.

I asked Mary what she learned. "When you're dealing with morons, ask questions." (more laughter). But she also learned how to guide people to understand their intent and goals to increase their effectiveness. As much as Mary hated to admit it, she now had a more effective way to approach a coaching situation. And I feel sure she will discover they weren't morons after all.

About the author:

As a licensed counselor, Guy Gage has spent the last two decades applying the principles of human and organizational behavior to CPA firms. His writing, speaking, training, and consulting address the human factors preventing firms from effectively dealing with internal conflict and underperformance, as well as accelerating partner development. You can read more at or receive a weekly message by signing up at You may contact Gage at [email protected].


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