Why Your Boss Is a Lousy Coach

MG Thinkers 50 Blog

September 29, 2014

by Marshall Goldsmith

Your boss is a lousy coach. It culminates in your boss not helping you grow. There are three key reasons:

1. You are smart. You know more than the boss: You are a knowledge worker, who already knows ten times more about what you are doing than the executive does.

2. Your boss is too busy. The reason your boss may avoid coaching is that she is too busy and she thinks you are busy too!

3. Your boss is afraid. He may avoid coaching because is he is afraid of alienating you.

It adds up to your boss being a poor coach.

In fact, the most common complaint I hear from direct reports about their leaders is that they do a poor job of providing coaching. I have this documented in thousands of in-depth assessments of executives. Direct reports find the leaders do not “provide effective coaching when needed.” In fact, this item consistently scores in the bottom 10 of all items when direct reports evaluate their leaders.

So, what can you do about this? How do you get the help you need from your boss? How do you turn him or her into your coach?

To answer the question of how to turn your boss into your coach, you can try the Six-Question process I have outlined here. I’ve seen it work for countless teams across the world, and I bet it can work for you too.

The Six-Question process for coaching is a one-on-one dialogue you have with your boss approximately once each quarter, answering the questions outlined below.

1. Where are we going?

The first question deals with the “big picture”. Your boss outlines where the larger organization is going in terms of vision, goals, and priorities, then asks you where you think the larger organization should be going. By involving you in this ongoing dialogue, your boss can build alignment and commitment to the larger organizational vision.

2. Where are you going?

Question two deals with your vision, goals and priorities for your part of the organization. You tell your boss where your part of the organization is going. Then he gives his view on where he thinks this part of the organization should be going. By the end of this discussion two types of alignment should have been achieved: 1) the vision, goals and priorities of your part of the organization should be aligned with your leader’s vision of the larger organization and 2) the individual goals and priorities of you and your leader should be aligned.

3. What is going well?

One key element of effective coaching is providing positive recognition for achievement. Your leader provides an assessment of what you and the organizations are doing well. Then she asks you a question that is seldom asked, “What do you think that you and your part of the organization are doing well?” By asking this question she may learn about “good news” that may have otherwise been missed.

4. What are key suggestions for improvement?

Your leader gives you constructive suggestions for the future. These suggestions should be limited to key “opportunities for improvement”. Then he should ask another (seldom-asked) great coaching question, “If you were your own coach, what suggestions would you have for yourself?” By listening to you, your leader may learn that his original coaching suggestions need to be modified.

5. How can I help?

A key to effective coaching is asking the right questions. One of the greatest coaching questions a leader can ask is, “How can I help?”

6. What suggestions do you have for me?

By asking this question, your boss changes the dynamics of the coaching process. Traditional coaching is sometimes thought of as a one-way monologue that focuses on, “Let me tell you what you can do to improve.” The Six-Question approach creates a two-way dialogue that focuses on, “Let’s try to help each other.” You will be much more willing to be coached by your boss, if your boss is willing to be coached by you!

As implied in the final question of this process, a key to effective two-way coaching is mutual responsibility. The organizational survey in one of my clients pointed out an interesting dilemma. Direct reports criticized their leaders for not providing help when it was needed. Executives said that direct reports never asked for help! If you take the responsibility to ask for coaching (when needed) and your boss takes the responsibility to be responsive and helpful, there is a high probability that the entire process will work!

If the process does not work and your boss won’t engage, it is a sign that you should engage a new job with a new boss who will help you, help the organization, and help him or herself.