5 Coaching Mistakes Every Leader Should Avoid

As an executive coach, a common question I have to work through at the beginning of a new coaching engagement is

“Am I working with the right person?”

There are two reasons I find myself asking this question:

  1. The person I am working with seems to be just as talented as their supervisor.

  2. The people I coach are really good at what they do. They are technical experts in their field.

It doesn’t take me long to answer my own question. Yes, I am working with the right person. The higher you go in organizations, everyone is talented (for the most part) and the people are experts in their field. However, this does not mean they are experts in leadership.

Most of my coaching is helping to groom people for higher levels of leadership. Often there is some tactical, behavioral development that needs to occur.

It is the idea that Marshall Goldsmith writes about in his book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

I have had over 750 hours of coaching experience in the last 3 years and I have noticed something very interesting.

We all make mistakes.

Not a revelation, I know, but to me it is an interesting observation. Why? Because I wonder where organizations might be if not for the common mistakes I see them making in regard to coaching their leaders.

  • Would turnover decrease?

  • Would we unleash talent?

  • Would customers have more delight?

  • Would we ensure a solid foundation for future generations?

Untitled design (30).png

Enough Philosophy

Here are 5 coaching mistakes I observe. As you reflect on these mistakes, ask yourself what traps you might be falling into.

  1. Confusing your needs with the needs of the person being coached

    Depending on your level of leadership, you are responsible for coaching your team to make one or more of the following connections:

    1. The mission of the organization to the vision

    2. The purpose of the organization to the mission

    3. The values you aspire to the purpose

    4. The guiding principles to the values

    5. The strategy to the guiding principles

    6. The tactics to the strategy

    7. Individual behaviors that implement tactics

    Let’s be honest, most of our coaching focuses on the last one. We are so in the weeds trying to control others that we often lose sight of what the person really needs.

    Rather than focusing always on whether or not they are “doing” things exactly as you want them, perhaps you need to go back and connect them to something that has more depth and meaning.

    I believe that most people get up in the morning and really want to do a good job for the company. Too many of us as leaders can not get out of our own way. We feel if we are not “doing,” we are not working.

    Before you coach someone, step back and ask yourself “What is really going on here? What does this person need from me today?"

  2. You say it (or yell it) and they produce

    I wrote about this one in my book a few years back 7 Secrets of an Emotionally Intelligent Coach.

    We live in such a fast paced world that we lose our sense of time. We have instant access to so many things today that 10 or 20 years ago might have taken weeks or months. I no longer have to go through an administrative assistant or send a letter to see if someone can meet with me. I knock out an email or send a text and have a response, often 5 minutes after I sent it.

    I heard best selling author, John Townsend, (author of Boundaries, and other great books) give a great analogy the other day. He said it is like standing in front of an apple tree and yelling at the fruit to grow faster; all because the leader wants bigger or more fruit.

    Some things just don’t work this way. Some things take time to grow, develop, and mature, no matter how fast you want them.

    I recommend you spend some time doing what psychologists call “attuning” with your folks. The idea is to bring into harmony; to tune. The skill required is to connect with others at a deeper and more vulnerable level. This goes beyond being nice or friendly to really be able to listen well and understand the emotions and motivations that are the foundations for behavior.

    People will do amazing things for leaders they feel connected with.

  3. This is their personality so they will always behave this way

    I have just about had it with personality profiling. All of them. From Myers-Briggs, to Insights, to the Enneagram, PDI, Horoscopes.

    What we are learning about human personality is that it is contextual. No one person is one way all the time.

    Those of you who love personality tests, especially those who are certified on them, will say that your model talks about how we need to be flexible and that this is an important aspect.

    Right. And if we need to flex, then we are not one way all the time.

    The problem is, as leaders, we put people in boxes. We create implicit biases around what people can and can not do based upon their level of introversion or extroversion. We judge, we label, we categorize, and way too often, we are dead wrong.


    According to Adam Grant, a leader in the psychology field out of the University of Pennsylvania, the statistical reliability and validity data around these assessments are just not strong enough to do with them the kinds of things organizations do. If you want to hear more on this topic and from Adam himself, you can click the podcast here (about 55 minute run time).

    As coaches, we need to stop making judgments on personality and understand the context the person is. None of us is always a certain way. Let’s get in and coach people to understand more of what is at the root of what they are doing, not doing, or more likely doing, just not the way you want them too.

  4. The person being coached is a robot

    Just because you run 24/7/365 and are always on, doesn’t mean everyone else is or that it is healthy. We have to start thinking more about corporate health, or better yet, the health of the people who work for us.

    How are you coaching your team to take better care of themselves?

    How are you modeling this behavior?

    If you give someone who already has a full place more to do, how are you helping them prioritize the work? They can not begin to know what is in your mind regarding how they should plan to deliver without your coaching and insights.

    Le’ts remember that the people we are working with are just that: people.

    They have families and other communities outside of work. They have spouses, parents, and kids. They have all kinds of relationships they care about and care for. So, if someone on your team has a family member pass away, they are going to need time to mourn this loss. Just because they are back at work in 3 days (which is a travesty) doesn’t mean they are all the way back. If someone just got a diagnosis of liver cancer, for crying out loud, they are really not thinking about when they will have that report on your desk.

    Sure, you have a job to do. I get it. A lot of people are depending on you to drive results. But really, come on…just have a heart.

  5. Your way is always the best way

    This one is a real mindset shift. It takes:

    1. Self-Awareness - Realize you don’t know what you don’t know. You might be really far removed from reality.

    2. Self-Regulation - Allow yourself the ability to think and not emotionally react.

    3. Humility - You don’t know everything so how can you get curious with others and develop a learn as we go frame of mind.

    4. Trust - Let them experiment with new and different ways and approaches.

    This really is about how you can create a learning organization, one that inspires people to creativity and innovation. At the very least, if there is a prescriptive way for them to work, be open to hearing other ideas on how the work could be done. People they will be more engaged if they know you want to hear their ideas.

As I reflect on this list, I realize it is very relationally focused.

That is because most of the time we hire smart, talented, skilled people who want to do a good job.

Therefore, it is the relationship with the leader that inhibits performance.

Humble thought.