Making Virtual Coaching Work

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Video-conferencing has been used as a medium for information exchange, and as a collaboration tool for quite some time. So, it’s not surprising that some will ask, “What’s new about virtual coaching?”

Its information-exchange uses notwithstanding, there is something new and different about doing coaching over a virtual medium like video-conferencing. It concerns both the purpose (development versus information exchange) and the capacities to realize this purpose via the video-conferencing medium.

I’ve previously addressed the appeal and positive reasons for making virtual coaching work.[1] We can get world-class coaching wherever we might be, and it enables pricing that makes coaching more accessible to all. It can be pursued after business hours, with or without a stipend from your employer.

In this article, I describe what well-trained coaches with extensive experience in face-to-face coaching at the most senior levels of leadership have learned about making virtual coaching work. It’s more than the technologically mediated use of video-conferencing that’s critical.

About Purpose & Capacities

When I say that one big difference in using video-conferencing for coaching is purpose, the purpose I have in mind is twofold: It’s developmental, the focus is on self and one’s personal capacities to learn, grow, and adapt in the face of new roles and challenges. Coach and client meet when the client is at an inflection point[2] and something is at stake. There's a felt sense of urgency.

Thus, coaching engagements are properly framed at the outset as “problem-focused.” What is it that brings you to coaching now? What are you wrestling with or anticipating that you’ll be wrestling with that calls for a deeper, sustained kind of learning? It feels personal because this learning goes to our sense of identity, how we think, feel, act, relate to others, and how we live our values.

That’s different than the rational-instrumental purposes for which video-conferencing is most often used – coordination of work, announcement of new products, information about organizational change. Developmental coaching requires intimacy, confidentiality, trust, and openness for self-disclosure and for “tough-love.” We must read the implicit and explicit levels of client behavior.

It’s a helping relationship. And in helping relationships of this kind the move to a virtual medium must be approached with great care. Professional and ethical concerns cause us to proceed more slowly, to learn from incremental advances that allow us to ascertain when and how it can meet or closely approximate the quality and efficacy of the face-to-face encounter.

Those of us who’ve practiced face-to-face for years, set the bar rather high. We’ve learned that we must consider case by case whether a client engagement is a good fit for the virtual medium. We’ve learned how to adjust our approach and interaction to optimize engagement and quality. We’ve learned about how to best schedule, prepare beforehand, and leverage assessment data.

What we’ve concluded is that the quality of our professional training and experience may even matter more in the virtual context: 1) our skill in mining assessment data for meaning; 2) our ability to use graphical models to bring practical ideas to life; 3) and our use of outside-of-work situations and experiences to promote skill-building.

When it's done well, there are some distinctive benefits of the virtual approach too.

Empowerment & Responsibility

There are unique advantages of the client owning the relationship, it’s purposes and goals, the task of making time for it (often after business hours) and investing the time and effort to make it work. All of this is very important. The client and coach jointly make decisions on goals, priorities, and methods. It’s up to them to make something happen. Clients become the agent of their own development.

The more jointly this work is done, the more the client owns it. A good coach knows this and will not let the client off the hook:

  • You say you want to figure out why you’re struggling with speaking up, commanding respect, and becoming a “go-to” resource? If you’re serious, we’ll need to look at you, the situation, and your key stakeholders objectively, with fresh eyes, without defensiveness.
  • You will need to trust me (your coach): a) my intentions – that I’m not here to judge you, but to help you learn and grow; b) my competence – that my observations, suggestions and recommendations are well-grounded; and c) that I really care about your success.
  • Still, you’re not here to please your coach. When you receive assessment data and feedback, you must neither accept nor reject it too quickly. Your job is to understand how it might be relevant for you, to adopt an attitude of curiosity, to make practical sense of it.
  • You say you want to see change happen, and that you want to have your change make a difference? Then you’ll need to step out of your comfort zone, try some new ways of doing things – you must experiment, persist, and adapt your efforts based on experience.

Both parties need to show up ready to work together. Sometimes there will be a lot to talk about. Other times a client may wonder “what the heck” are we going to talk about. We must trust the process. We are both responsible for making our time valuable. In each meeting we must jointly reaffirm our purpose, take note of where we are. And sometimes we must slow down to speed up!

Summary Advice to the Client

You’ll want to know that there is some sort of overall roadmap and process components to anticipate and benefit from. But be cautious of a “shiny object”, a too-well-structured approach. Best principles are often more important than best practices. There must be room for jointly shaping the relationship and the work you do together. Ask for references and talk with them.


[1] See Virtual Coaching – It’s Your Choice and Coaching After Hours.

[2] See Development at the Inflection Point, a basic summary of our theory of development

Getting Real About Performance & Development

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How well did Jane perform in 2017 or in Q1 of 2018? And what does that tell us about her capabilities and her potential for advancement or for taking the next step in her career?

How to Answer These Questions

I don’t need to tell today’s supervisors or managers that there seems to be precious little time to consider these questions. McKinsey surveys and my own experience as consultant to hundreds of organizations indicates that many managers would like to do more. But the practical imperatives of “getting things done” makes it very challenging.

HR departments can do their best to promote policies and practices to encourage or require attention to performance management and talent development. But all too often the response and execution look like perfunctory completion of an unwelcome task, just another thing to do. Okay, you might say, “No big surprise, but so what? Does it really make a difference?”

This “so what” question merits notice and discussion.

Two “So What’s” to Consider

The first “so what” is represented in a client I recently began working with. She is bright, well-educated, and highly motivated to learn and contribute. And she’s frustrated and disappointed on both counts. After two years, she’s learned the drill. There’s the perfunctory performance review, a bit of talk about what she’d look to do and learn, and then it’s back to the same old same old.

She would like to have better engagement at work. As we know, engagement, at its core, is founded on the quality of associate-supervisor relationship. Am I recognized and understood? Do I get feedback – not just the occasional “well done,” but also some well-informed constructive suggestions for how I can be more effective? Do I get included in things I really want to learn more about?

It’s been two years, and she’s concluded that it’s time for a change. Maybe it is or maybe it is not. She had the good sense to not lower her expectations. Rather, she decided, as an early-career professional, that she needed to take charge. And she’s not alone. A growing number of early-career and mid-career professionals and executives are taking this route.

Most who seek coaching independently are positive and solution-focused. They know their manager may want to be there as a mentor and coach. It just doesn’t happen. So, they’re taking charge. It’s even empowering for them. It’s their development, their coaching relationship.

The second “so what” concerns the fallibility the talent management “system” – the formal or informal efforts to identify and accelerate development of the “best and brightest.” Most organizations try to do something, often on an annual basis and as job openings arise. They may identify a “select” subset of the talent pool. But their judgments about who belongs in this group are flawed.

But there are two kinds of flawed judgment that can cause failures in their selection decisions: False positives are judgments that someone has the capabilities (skill, motivation, experience, potential), when they do not. False negatives conclude people do not have the capabilities when they do.

False positives can be the result of a “halo effect” – they did this well, so they’ll probably do that well. But they can also be the result of bias. Remember, research indicates that the old implicit assumption of “think manager, think male” (especially white male) still holds in many sectors and in many companies across industry sectors. Often, it’s such bias that accounts for false negatives. 

While I can’t address ways to correct for these failures in judgement in this brief article, I can suggest an alternative approach to development that can do more to empower and enable people to take charge of their own development.

A Practical Solution

First, organizations must be realistic about how likely it is that their managers will suddenly find more time for performance management and development. Even when they have the interest and will to play this role, they’ll need help and prompting. Who will provide the assessment data to inform a discussion of development, and how will it be translated into work-relevant action.

Second, even if a company concludes that its high-potential development program is great, what about the rest of their people? How can they mitigate the impact of imperfect judgment? How can they offer an option that gives everyone a chance to show their stuff and accelerate their learning and skill development?[i]

I’d like to make a simple suggestion that addresses the “so what” issues and answers the questions in the two above paragraphs: Provide a stipend for individuals that pays for all or part of the costs of engaging a coach independently. Perhaps it’s a virtual coaching relationship that they pursue after hours, as they prefer to schedule and structure it.

There could be expectations that this investment is intended to help associates to learn how to engage their manager and others in the organization proactively to get what they need. It’s their choice about whether and with whom they might wish to share their assessment-based insights into self, goals for development, and how it all relates to their role and performance at work.

This approach equips the individuals with support for learning more about themselves, their situation and challenges, and what they need to focus on to grow and increase their productive capacity.  Join me in a video-conference (2/27/2018, 2PM ET) to learn more.

[i] Beyond specialized technical skill development, much of what is needed are the so-called “soft skills” that enable people to navigate the organization, cultivate collaboration skills (communications, coordination of action, etc.), and get things done with and through others (making prudent use of relationships and company resources). 

Buddhist Psychology for Leaders

Lesson One: Stuff Happens (dukkha)

You need not trouble yourself with the Sanskrit or Pāli word, which is commonly translated as suffering. Buddhist psychology begins with the observation that life involves suffering. The human condition is one in which we experience pain, suffering, and impermanence (the first of the Four Noble Truths). But “So what?” you may ask. This is where it gets deceptively simple, interesting, and practical for leaders. 

The second of the Truths posits that when we’re able to let go of our cravings – our fierce attachments (emotional, cognitive, and volitional) – we are able to effect an end to our suffering. In the vernacular of my title, stuff happens. Because it's sometimes “bad” stuff, which prevents us from getting what we want, our immediate reaction is to feel displeased and resist accepting this state of affairs.

Attachment to our goal-directed strivings can be so intense that it energizes resistance at the expense of seeing what the impediment is about. But let’s slow down a bit and break this whole thing down a bit.

Our Needs for Control

Our needs for control and our unease when we lose control are understandable, normal, and natural, and even more so in the West where we prize autonomy and action. Me too, and I relish our regard for free agency. But the intensity of our need for control can actually cause us to lose control. That’s the crux of this lesson in Buddhist psychology. Let me explain.

As agents of productive action (compensated by employers or clients), and as leaders of such agents, we feel accountable for results. We can identify deeply (attachment) with our capacity to generate results. And what Buddhist psychology suggests is a small but important “tweak” in our work ethic. It suggests that our virtue as agents and leaders of agents is most manifest in our response when stuff happens.

Do we resist or deny what we're experiencing and pursue a path of ceaseless striving when our actions are repeatedly frustrated and meet with failure? Or do we treat this failure as a wake-up call, a prompt to reconsider the situation and our action strategies?

Two Kinds of Impediment

We learn, grow, and develop by facing challenges and taking on new or different roles in life. (For more on that see my article Leader Identity Development.) But some issues simply require incremental technical changes in execution (technical problems), while others require more than minor technical adjustments. They are adaptive challenges and require sustained experimentation and learning over time.[1]

It is with the latter impediment – adaptive challenges - that letting go, ending our craving and ceaseless striving, is most important. We can become more attuned to the felt presence of our resistance by adopting practices in mindfulness that position us to notice this emotional energy earlier. That, in turn, can become a cue for letting-go techniques that prompt a reflective pause.[2] 

A Practical Tip – “Third Time's a Charm”

Discriminating technical problems from adaptive challenges will help you minimize fruitless, repetitive trials of conventional practices. Here’s how it works:

  1. Notice and discuss the persisting issue and your growing frustration, “It’s just not working.”
  2. Consider the situation, and make technical adjustments using available knowledge and means.
  3. If it does not work, try a second effort at technical adjustments based on feedback from the first.
  4. If neither works, and if the goal/objective is important enough, invoke a reflective pause.

During the reflective pause: 1) consider who the key stakeholders and key contributors are; 2) assess the urgency and importance of resolution; 3) agree with key stakeholders that something new, different, innovative is needed; 4) convene a working meeting to brainstorm solutions strategies and next-step actions; 5) generate a fresh set of data driven facts and information to inform deliberations and test assumptions; and 6) agree on a course of action that includes active experimentation and learning from feedback.


Practical wisdom emerges in the reflective pause. Doing it as a set of stakeholders with a shared or overlapping set of accountabilities is most powerful and empowering. Tamping down the false urgency that arises from anxiety is important for all, and it’s a vital role for leaders. Notice the need to pause within the work session to take stock, build consensus, and muster the practical energy to try a strategy you believe in. Be ready to learn from what you see rather than from you wish to see.

[1] For more on this see Ronald Heifetz’s Adaptive Leadership (2009), Harvard Business Review Press.

[2] See more about how this “reflective pause” functions in Leader Identity Development, an article in which I use a graphical illustration to describe adaptive development.

Coaching After Hours

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Not getting the developmental support you want? You’re not alone. That’s why many early-career professionals – and executives – are pursuing developmental coaching independently and after hours. They’re investing in their careers, and they’re doing it virtually.

For more join our video-conference on Tues., Feb. 27th at 2PM ET

During Business Hours

What you do during business hours, whether you’re in sales, operations, finance, or IT, involves tasks and actions directly linked to your role and objectives. The focus is on doing stuff for others, acting for purposes beyond yourself – it’s why you get paid.

If you’re highly productive and make few demands upon management, you’ll be appreciated as “low maintenance.” If you work cooperatively with others and go above and beyond to ensure success of a group effort, you may be prized, labeled as a “high potential” candidate for advancement.

In most organizations, distinguishing yourself in these ways earns you privileges: mentoring from the boss; recognition and bonuses; and opportunities for promotion and development. Companies are more inclined to invest development dollars in this select few, few of whom are early career people.

Are you among the distinguished few? If not, do you know why? Do you know what you need to do to become a member of this group? Do you feel disadvantaged? What do you tell yourself about not being a member of this group? And what if there were a way to change things for the better?

That’s precisely what coaching after hours is intended to help you do. But it’s often not funded by your employer. Rather, it’s an investment you make in yourself. You thereby privilege yourself and increase the likelihood of distinguishing yourself during business hours.

The Upside of This Approach

Most will face some version of this situation early in their career: They observe that some easily and naturally get noticed, thrive, and advance. They puzzle over how to better their own situation. And they may end up feeling frustrated, “dissed,” marginalized. But then what?

You might take this as a wake-up call and call to action. Perhaps beginning from this starting point can be an advantage. Why? Because it causes us to learn more earlier about controlling our own destiny in life and that we need not do it alone, nor need we depend on our employer to do it for us.  

Some of what we’ll need to learn is technical, but much of it is not. The nontechnical learning concerns how we cultivate relationships, interact with others, and hone skills for getting work done by leveraging the resources around us. These adaptive skills that will serve us well in future challenges. 

So, we only harm ourselves if, upon seeing others getting “unfair” advantage, we become discouraged, resentful, jealous, or cynical. Remember: We are supremely adaptive creatures, and most careers are built upon determined effort as much or more than upon raw aptitude or talent.

Getting Help

The best help for those who are motivate comes in the form of a stimulating coaching relationship. It pairs a developing professional with a highly skilled coach, one who is trained in psychologically-based growth and development. Career growth is personal, it’s identity development and adaptive learning.

Learning and growth of this kind requires disarming our defenses. We must set aside social comparisons, quiet self-defeating thought, and voice our questions, fears, and feelings of inadequacy without fear of judgment. This open, honest self-examination readies us for growth.

We then proceed with in an attitude of practical and reflective curiosity. Practical means “pertaining to practice” (i.e., doing, deciding, taking effective action), and curiosity opens our mind.

Trust and emotional safety are necessary. The coach must help his/her client see what they may not usually notice because it resides out of view, in a blind spot. The coach must be a mirror and reveal patterns of thought, behavior, interest, and striving that help and hinder situation-specific adaptive action. When we feel trust and respect, we can also hear constructive challenge (“tough love”).

Yes, it’s a combination of supportive-encouraging presence (not unlike that which we hope to receive from a caring parent or mentor) and a bit of tough love that is required to promote growth. We will seldom get all of this from a spouse, partner, supervisor, or mentor. A psychologist or someone with equivalent training and skills is the best option in my opinion.

Making Help Accessible

Virtual coaching overcomes geographic constraints and eliminates travel costs. Whether you’re in Manhattan, New York or Manhattan, Kansas, you can work with a world-class coach. The quality of a videoconference connection enables us to closely approximate the feeling of being in the same room.

Being able to meet after hours – just as you may go to the gym after hours to maintain your physical self – allows you to escape the rush of an office environment. It prompts us to experience our interaction as a part of our life as a whole. We’re free to consider how challenges at work and goals for career affect and are affected by our commitments at home and our longer-term personal goals.

Finally, virtual coaching reduces costs for the coach. Travel time and expense are eliminated. This makes it possible to price coaching more reasonably, making it feasible for anyone. The developing professional need not depend on his or her employer to sponsor the coaching. Still, if the employer wants to fund the work, and if the client wishes to involve their manager, that too is possible.

 (To Learn more join a brief videoconference, Tues., Feb. 27, 2PM ET.)

On Being an "Imperfect" Buddhist

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I am part of a yearlong interdisciplinary learning group whose focus is on Buddhist psychology and mindfulness meditation practices. We are about half-way through. We meet weekly, most often with esteemed faculty, for discussion of the Dharma and mindfulness practice. In a recent meeting, there was an episode of conflict that became a learning moment. I share reflections on it here. 

We discover our differences as we become more intimate in our purpose, aims, and aspirations – it’s what we call “storming” in the Tuckman Model. It’s due to that general relevance that I share this experience in hopes that it may be instructive to others. [1]

The Experience Upon Reflection

The other day, I expressed my preference for using the term “client” rather than “patient” in reference to the persons I serve in my consulting and clinical practice. My preference was and is something I am rather attached to insofar as it signifies for me important normative qualities that I try to achieve in my relationship with those I serve.

By expressing my opinion, I excited in others their own attachments to their preferred term, “patient.” A conflictive tension arose as we marked our positions and defended our use of our preferred language. I was left, as others may also have been, feeling hurt, angry, and separated. These are the emotions that function as hindrances to the pursuit of wisdom.

If we had noticed this attachment and tension as signifying heartfelt concerns that merit attention, we might have proceeded in curiosity rather than reacting in judgment. The emotions we felt are not without meaning; they are a call to action, reflective action: “Tell me more about what that term means to you and why it is feels so consequential?”

The emotions themselves, therefore, are not inherently bad. Their virtue consists in calling out to us that something of felt importance is at stake. When we hear this call in this way and change our relationship to the conversation, making thematic the emotions that energize us, our emotions become data, judgment is suspended. Curiosity, listening, and joint inquiry becomes possible.

So far, this could be a phenomenological approach to interpersonal tension or conflict. That’s Western. It’s reliant upon attentional focus to the here-and-now events and experiences in the phenomenal field, a field in which what lies in the foreground and background, and what is most salient or figural (e.g. an emotional spike) is constantly shifting.

What the Buddhist approach adds to this is an embodied state of attentional grounding (pause, breathe, notice) that more concretely punctuates a change in relationship to the field: “Let’s pause, I observe a distinctive change in tone, energy, and feeling in our conversation. Let’s return to the breath.” And then we can resume conversation in a more mindful state.

In some respects, we might call this the group dynamics of sangha. It adds something important to our Western traditions, especially important when seeking to rescue ourselves from the hindrance of contentious emotion. It can help us see the silver lining in our aggressive-defensive emotions, how they can serve as a wake-up call, how they can be transformed into data. 

There is respect, compassion, curiosity, and learning that arises from this. We’re then free to examine moral and normative themes that are dear to us and that motivate us consciously and unconsciously. We can respect the essential virtues of normativity without having it devolve into moralism or moralistic judgment of one another. Mindfulness in this way is an act of care.                                                                          

[1] I am aware of the irony of mentioning perfection in the context of the human condition as conceived in Buddhism.