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Bonus Focus - The 7 Deadly Mistakes of Coaching

By Eric Kaufmann

You are expected to coach. Coaching, however, is not the end-all-and-be-all of talent development. And, the value of coaching is often diminished due to seven deadly mistakes. These mistakes are common, costly and (typically) invisible to the coach. You can immediately improve your work, and bring out potential in people and teams, when you know when and how to avoid these deadly mistakes.

What follows is a framework to engage, orient, and apply your very best contribution as a coach.

First, let’s frame and define coaching. Coaching accelerates results and learning through trust, curiosity and collaboration.

  • Accelerating results – more, better, faster work – isn’t enough. Learning must accelerate, too – smarter, innovative and more adaptive responses.
  • Collaboration means that the coaching is two-way; working together to improve results and learning.
  • Curiosity is a desire to understand and grow; an uncurious coach is merely a drill sergeant.
  • Trust arises when the coaching content and process are not punitive, but instructive.

Now, the mistakes. The first deadly mistake is Mistiming, and you can avoid it by knowing when not to coach. Performers fall into one of six states: beginning, growing, mastering, slipping, faltering and failing. Coaching is best applied in the growing and mastering states. In the beginning state your job is to teach. In the last three states your task is to counsel or discipline, not coach.

Do Not

• Apply coaching as the solution to every situation

• Be fooled into giving away autonomy

• Coach disciplinary issues

• Coach "green” staffers


• Match coaching to task or role needs

• Hone your discipline skills

• Align your action readiness to theirs

• Set the right context

Straining is the second mistake. Have you had a coaching experience that left you exhausted? Better yet, is there someone that exhausts you when you see their name on your calendar? If you’re straining, then you’re doing all the work; you’re pulling a mule that won’t budge. There’s no coaching without collaboration. Share the work.

Do Not

• Sell, sell, sell

• Heroically solve their problem

• Rush to closure

• Treat coaching as a one-way exchange


• Agree on a common objective

• Require them to bring ideas

• Ask them to state their learning

• Let silence do the heavy lifting

I call the third deadly mistake Windbagging. The coach that goes on and on, sharing their vast knowledge and experience, is making this mistake. This is showboating or storytelling, not collaboration or curiosity. Neglecting to ask the coachee how you can be most helpful immediately derails the conversation. Coaching is not a one-way exchange.

Do Not

• Neglect to ask how you can be most helpful

• Give them the answer

• Give well-meaning advice

• Enthrall them with stories


• Speak less than 50%

• Make quick private notes of your ideas

• Use open ended questions

• Get your personal validation somewhere else

Colluding, mistake number four, is tricky. What do smart, ambitious, driven people have in common? They learn to influence. They even work to influence their coach. Your coaching job is to pry open their thinking and illuminate their blind spots, not get drawn into their beliefs and assumptions. Be the mirror that reflects truth to them.

Do Not

• Avoid saying what needs to be said

• Adopt a ‘Don't Rock the Boat’ mentality

• Prioritize comfort over effort

• Fall into their reality distortion field


• Cultivate your courage

• Build, rebuild, and reinforce trust

• Listen for non-sequiturs

• Challenge assumptions and opinions

Correcting is a cousin of Mistiming. It is a deadly mistake when coaching is code for corrective action. This is not coaching; its counseling and discipline. If all your time is occupied coaching problem performers, you are missing the value of coaching your high performers. Some HiPo’s may even falter just to grab your attention.

Do Not

• Only coach problem performers

• Use coaching as a precursor to termination

• Ignore your top performers!

• Discount the value of training


• Pay more attention to your top performers

• Distinguish attitude from ability

• Continue to train for skills

• Remove chronic underperformers

Releasing is the mistake of wrapping-up a coaching conversation without getting a commitment. It may be forgetfulness, being too nice, lack of process, or being inattentive to accountability. In order to accelerate results and learning, you have to name specific, desirable objectives that can be verified. This is how we learn, by striving for a goal and then receiving specific feedback.

Do Not

• Wrap up without asking for take away

• Only focus on learning

• Finish without a commitment

• Neglect to set a follow up time


• Ask, "What stands out for you?”

• Confirm actionable commitments

• Get them to summarize their insights

• Set a follow up time

Discounting is de-prioritizing, not coaching, when the "real” work becomes urgent. It’s tempting, when the pressure is on, to toss curiosity and collaboration aside and be directive. Urgency, however, brings valuable opportunities for decision making, adaptability, and discipline; a treasure trove of coaching exchanges.

Do Not

• Stop coaching when "real” work becomes urgent

• Fizzle out after a couple of meetings

• Revert to directive behavior when they make a mistake


• Persevere in the process

• Make the time, you won’t find it

• Develop the habit

• Coach more coaches

Finally, consider Inexperience as a bonus mistake. To improve as a coach you must practice. Practice. Practice. Increase your experience, and find a coach who will give you feedback and support.

Eric Kaufman is president of Sagatica (, a San Diego-based leadership development firm. Their work develops a mindset in which McKinsey strategy meets Zen practice. Eric is the author of Leadership as a Hero’s Journey. He consults and coaches leaders in life science and technology on how to make better decisions and achieve better results.


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