What Great Coaching Looks Like

Richard Boyatzis, professor at Case Western Reserve University, says that every professional can benefit from having a coach — and serving as one for someone else. He says that a coaching relationship moves beyond mentoring or sponsoring in that it focuses on long-term values and aspirations. The best coaches encourage a positive mindset and ask probing questions to help people make the best choices, not only in their careers but also in their personal lives. Boyatzis is coauthor of the HBR article “coaching for Change”



ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

Throughout our careers we’ll all need to contemplate big decisions and changes. Maybe it’s picking between two job offers, or considering an international move, or feeling so stagnant in your career that you want to quit. When we’re in these situations we naturally turn to others for advice.

I typically go to a few people: my husband, Scott, my fellow journalist friend Rebecca, and my HBR colleague and work brother, Dan. They’ve steered me pretty straight so far and when I worked on an article with our guest today, I began to understand why. They recognize when I’m struggling or conflicted about something. They understand my core values and what I really want out of my career and personal life. They know my strengths and weaknesses. They ask good questions. They make good suggestions and they are always there.

Richard Boyatzis, a professor at Case Western Reserve University would call them “compassionate coaches.” He’s spent decades studying what really motivates people to make smart, personal and professional decisions that help them change and grow. He’s learned that we’re all much more successful in these efforts if we get help from an effective coach. He says that we should all be looking for that kind of support. But even more importantly, we should all learn how to give it.

Richard is also the co-author of the book, Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth. Richard, thank you so much for being here.

RICHARD BOYATZIS: Thank you Alison.

ALISON BEARD: So, we all need a coach. I seem to have found some good ones in my life. But for listeners who don’t feel like they’re getting the right help from people around them, where do they turn?

RICHARD BOYATZIS: Let me start with the other side of it because in all of our roles, as a parent, or as a manager, as a friend, part of our ethos is to reach out and help someone. The challenge is that most of the time when we do it, we’re trying to fix someone.

What we end up doing is making people feel that we’re imposing on them and it’s an approach which we have now documented both behaviorally and neurologically in terms of fMRI studies, as what we call it, coaching for compliance. You’re really trying to get the other person to do what you want them to do. And as a result of that, most of the time, people don’t learn much, they don’t change, or whatever they do is not sustainable.

What you want to do is turn to someone who could help you with this alternate approach. As you mentioned, we call it coaching with compassion. But it really has to do with helping of any form. They’re caring about you. And then that extends to not just saying, they’re going to tell you how better to dress, or how to accessorize, or how to write. They’re going to talk about what’s important to you and to tie into a person’s dreams and their core values, ends up being much more powerful in helping them open up to new ideas and people.

ALISON BEARD: I’d love to break it down a little bit. We’re talking about change. Is there a difference when you’re trying to do something that’s just completely within you? You know, breaking a bad habit, or just something else that’s in your control versus making a change that requires input from other people, whether it’s getting a promotion, or figuring out how to make a relationship better?

RICHARD BOYATZIS: Actually there isn’t, because in both cases you have to confront a set of obstacles that are keeping you stuck. And what we’ve discovered – I mean back in the 70s, when I was doing therapy with alcoholics and drug addicts, one of the things that was very clear is if people didn’t want to stay sober for a bigger reason than just maintaining sobriety, it didn’t last very long. It had kind of the durability or sustainability of New Year’s Eve resolutions.

But what we now discover is that if the context is larger – what you want out of life, what you want in your sense of where work fits into that – that you really need to start at that level. When it involves other people, then you have to think through how do you go about the process of engaging others in some effort to work on it? And the question is who helps you think those through?

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So, in a career context we often talk about mentors helping you make those decisions. What’s the difference between a coach and a mentor?

RICHARD BOYATZIS: A lot of people have made a big difference in the academic literature about coaching and mentoring. And right now, I mean Kathy Kram is the doyenne of mentoring research and she and Belle Rose Ragins did a fantastic handbook on it a number of years ago. And part of what they talked about was that very often people will characterize mentoring that social and emotional and relational versus instrumental.

And I think an awful lot of coaching associations make a big deal out of well, if you’re giving people tips, or opening doors, that’s mentoring. If you’re working with them about their issues, that’s coaching. But if it’s deep, if it’s psychological then that’s counseling and that’s different too.

And our research is showing that a lot of those differences aren’t differences. That the efficacy of what we’re doing when we’re trying to help somebody depends on how we approach it. We’d probably be better in all of those roles if what we did was spend some time trying to figure out what do people really want to be doing.

I mean I remember in the 90s when we were doing a lot of work in organizations on vision, and a lot of top executives would say to me, “well I don’t like this idea of asking people what their dream is. Suppose their dream isn’t to work here?” And my response was, “well then they don’t now!”

Whether it’s mentoring, or coaching, I would say yes, every manager, every leader is responsible for knowing the dreams and what motivates the people that report to them and their peers.

ALISON BEARD: You talk in the book about coachable moments and the need for leaders to recognize when the people on their teams, even their colleagues are in one of these moments. How do you do that?

RICHARD BOYATZIS: Well, it’s kind of like the challenge as a parent with teenagers. How do you decide when this is a life learning experience or not? Part of it has to do with whether or not you think there’s something important going on that the person can take a slightly different perspective on. Or, feel differently about.

But the other part of it is you have to decide when the person is ready. I mean one of the things that I think is a problem with a lot of attempts to help or teach is that we offer it to people in the wrong doses. That people very often want small doses of caring and when they ask for it, advice. And knowing when and what dose is appropriate ends up being kind of pretty sophisticated talent that some of us develop over time naturally and others need to work on it a little bit.

I mean people start to wonder like does that mean I have to be somebody’s social worker? No. We’re not asking that you care about every person equally the same way, because that would be exhausting. We’re saying, use it judiciously.

ALISON BEARD: Right. So getting the dose right is one way you can be a great coach. Give me a few other examples of what the best coaches do.

RICHARD BOYATZIS: One of them is when a person starts to say, here’s the presenting problem. This is what I’m worried about. While you want to come back to that, because that’s the thing that you need to address, a lot of people think coaching is I should only focus on that. And that I think is as foolish as my internist letting me diagnose myself on the internet and tell him what medicine he should give me.

So, I think a part of any, in any of the forms of helping where we’re trying to use this, what we call coaching with compassion, it’s to stop the person and say, as they share the initial presenting issue and say OK, let me get a context for this.

Now part of the context is if you will, a bigger picture. But if you say to the person, what’s the bigger picture, they’re going to be stuck in the negative feeling very often, or thoughts, so they will give you more about how that other person is a real nasty piece of work instead of, what might be the real underlying issue is they don’t want that job. Or, the nature of the organization got acquired and the culture of the new place isn’t like the old one.

So, helping somebody sort out what we call their personal vision, their dream, what’s their purpose in life? That’s useful. Sometimes we get to that through talking about dreams. So, it’s not just what would you love your life to be like in 15 years. What would you do if you won $80 million after tax? How would it effect your life?

ALISON BEARD: That’s fun to think about.

RICHARD BOYATZIS: Yeah, that’s exactly the point is let a person come up with a larger context. So, there’re a number of these techniques you can use. I mean one of the very effective ones is to ask a person who’s helped you the most become who you are? One of the reasons that works is it pulls on gratitude. And gratitude is one of these emotions that we now know helps activate a part of the body’s hormonal system and neurological networks that make us open to new ideas.

ALISON BEARD: How do you start moving from those more positive conversations to actually solving the problem, taking action, making change?

RICHARD BOYATZIS: That’s very important. My experience is that so many people are so well versed in planning that for most people, I would venture to guess for 80 percent of the people, if you have them clarify the what and the why, they’ll lay out the steps. Because the individual often knows parts of their setting that they’re not sharing with you, or you may not know. So, sensitivity to the holistic aspect of it is a little allusive.

Now, once you do that, I mean I remember in one of my executive MBA students, very successful VP of IT at a company, he had an IT consulting company on the side. And he wrote his personal vision essay all about promise keepers. He was African-American and he was very committed to the movement which is for predominately African-American males to keep their promise to their families and their children. And he didn’t say anything about his work.

And I sat there with him in arranged coaching session we had as a part of the course I was teaching, Darryl Gresham is his name with his permission, and we talk about him in the book. And I said Darryl, what would you really want to be doing? And he said, you know, I don’t know. I said look. Did you not write about work because you have a great trust fund? And he said, he laughed and he said no.

I said, well if you had your druthers, what would you do? And he said, well, drive a truck across country. It was 45 minutes into the conversation where we weren’t making much progress, and I said to him, I said Darryl, you said to me he liked single malt scotches. I said OK. It’s Friday night. You get home from work, you pour yourself one of your favorite single malts and you sit down and you’ve got a smile on your face. And you’re saying yes, this was a great week. What did you just do in that week?

And he went, well I just helped some young people, mostly teenagers realize that computers were their way out of the social challenges they have, not their enemy. And it’s not uncool or anything like that. I said, say more. He leans forward in his seat, now he’s babbling ideas like it’s a fire hose in terms of the water coming out.

So, he lays this whole thing out. And I said, Daryl, how come that’s not a part of what you’re doing? He said, I know it’s embarrassing, but I like all of my accoutrements, like my car and I’m helping my ex-wife and I’m helping my daughter and he said I need money for all those things.

I said, Darryl, just because you want to help people do that doesn’t mean you have to do it. Because he said, I can’t become a secondary school teacher. I said it doesn’t mean you have to do it full-time. So, all I had to do was get him to talk about it and then appreciate the fact that he didn’t have to do it full-time and he went rolling with it.

ALISON BEARD: So, you have studied coaching for most of your career. I also suspect that you’re someone who maybe was intuitively good at it to start with. How do people who don’t do it instinctively get better at it?

RICHARD BOYATZIS: Eat more fiber. No, but it goes back to the very message we’re saying is, you have to think about whether or not it’s important. Do you see the people that you’re working with as ones that you would like to help with learning and change? When people know that you care about them, they care back. When you’re on top of things and you’re able to understand, what’s the shift you’re going to be better at picking up tells, if you will, or unconscious queues that a person’s troubled by something. A lot of times we’re talking about moments that might be all of 10 minutes, or 15 minutes.

ALISON BEARD: So, in your experience, if someone is a natural, let’s fix the problem type, they can be taught to coach with compassion instead.

RICHARD BOYATZIS: Yes. One of my former executive MBA students was a marketing executive at a multinational oil company. And I remember when we got his 360 results back, his subordinates said he wasn’t really high on developing them, which seemed odd. His name is Juan Trebino. I said to Juan, I said, you know, I don’t see you that way. Everybody talks to you all the time and people like you. He said, I think I know what’s going on here. You know me as, I’m in a marketing function. He said, but I’ve spent most of my life as an engineer.

He said when people come to me at work with problems, I don’t see the person, I see the problem. He said actually, I think people are problem bearing platforms. Which is such an engineering way to look at it.

So, here we have the issue of can we help people with a very technical, and we know what drives that in terms of which networks in the brain. And unfortunately, the networks that drive that analytic mindset or financial mindset close or suppress the networks that allow you to be open to new ideas or people.

So, part of it is teaching folks in these fields, or with these dispositions how to interrupt it. We’re not saying you have to find your version of God and have a transformational experience. What we’re saying is you have to learn to mix it up a little bit. And it turns out that some of the activities that can help you interrupt that and shift these different neuro networks are things like talking to people. But talking not in an instrumental sense of well, what are we going to do next, but how’s it going? Or, allowing for humor. Doing something that gives people a break to chat.

And what we find is that if you’re working with folks that are very technical, very analytic, and they want to be an effective leader, of one sort or another, it doesn’t take much for them to realize that they need to have this other set of skills, or capabilities. And interestingly enough, I mean I have this experience all the time, especially with very financially oriented CEO’s, but also I had it with a nephew the other day in the car who’s an IT executive, talking about this stuff I realized that I can give him all the statistics in the world, and it doesn’t matter. So, I stopped and I said, have you ever had somebody as a boss who really brought out the best in you? And this is my nephew. And he said yes. I said, tell me about him. How did he act? What did he say or do? He described him. I said, that’s what I’m talking about.

When I’ve done it with CEOs I’ve said do you have a president of one of your divisions that you would love to clone, they’re so good? And they said yes. I said, no names, just think about the person. I said now, do you have some that you wish would just disappear because you don’t want to do all this stuff to fire them, but they really are a pain, or not doing well? And they said yes. I said, tell me about the difference. As they talked about the emotional difference in their experience, they proved the case.

ALISON BEARD: Right. How can we begin to institutionalize some of this in organizations?

RICHARD BOYATZIS: That’s always more complicated. There are, part of it ends up being willingness to shift the culture, to not be so narrowly focused on just results. I’m not saying results aren’t important. I mean I ran two companies for 11 years. I get it. You want results. You want performance.

But part of it is appreciating the fact that by always focusing on it, you don’t help people get there. So, sometimes to do the innovative thing that makes the breakthrough that gives you the big new product or service requires something else. That something else is what we often refer to as a “culture of development”. Where we don’t see our main purpose in the culture of getting the most out of people. We see it as investing in people and getting the most out of people. And when we balance this aspect of it, we’re more willing to start to think about what we variously called in the book, a culture of coaching, or a culture of caring.

And when you think about development as well as performance, one of the first things you appreciate is the fact that for God’s sakes, don’t drive them at the same time. I mean there are a lot of companies now that are wrestling with dumping big performance reviews. I think they’re making a mistake. Their confusion is most of the time when people do performance reviews, they do the review of how you did on your goals and objectives and the outcomes and then let’s talk about how you can change.

That’s the part that doesn’t work. Because you can’t do those two things together. Nobody goes through a performance review and doesn’t feel defensive. Everyone does. So, you don’t want the person in that state of mind, frame of mind or the development conversation. But both are important. So, I would say just do them at separate times.

ALISON BEARD: And doesn’t there also have to be across the organization, in every manager, A, a willingness to spend the time doing this when there’s so many other things to do. And B, an openness to your employee not moving in the direction you expect them, or need them to?

RICHARD BOYATZIS: I mean of those of us who study organizational change, I mean we used to say rule of thumb was 33 percent of the managers. My guess is it has to do with pockets in an organization. That it’s seldom, you can get the whole organization to change. But if you can get one unit, whether it’s a plant, or a business unit, or a division to start to show a lot of this, other units will start to be attracted to it.

That’s how I think we’ll get sustainable change in organizations. And we’ve seen it. We’ve seen it in some companies that have very, very engaging cultures. I mean what John Chambers was able to orchestrate at Cisco Systems was amazing. I mean they did, what was I told? 12 to 18 acquisitions a year. And 75 percent, I was told by a senior VP, 75 percent of the key executives stayed beyond the payout period.

ALISON BEARD: That’s impressive.

RICHARD BOYATZIS: Then you contrast it to another high tech company of that era, this is a number of years ago before each of these people retired, but Larry Ellison at Oracle, where they made a lot of acquisitions and almost all the key people left before they even signed the documents.

ALISON BEARD: Is there a cultural component to this? Is coaching this way more difficult in some societies than others?

RICHARD BOYATZIS: Yes. Interestingly enough, it’s also easier to do in many societies than others. One of the dilemmas I noticed because up until a couple years ago, I was either in Europe or Asia every month, is that when you try to hold training programs, or classes in many countries of the world that have what in Hofstede’s terms have a high power distance. In other words, if a country has a very distinct notion of hierarchy that people aren’t supposed to say something in front of someone with higher or lower status.

So, you realize Japan, Korea, Saudi Arabia and to a less extent, but still pretty severe, Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal that all of a sudden when you have a high powered distance and a high sensitivity, people don’t want to talk openly in training programs. I remember in the 90s, having these training programs with executives at several corporations in northern Italia, and they wouldn’t say anything in sessions. We’d go out for a coffee break and I couldn’t stop them talking. Or, we’d have lunch or dinner. That’s where they were having their discussions.

In those, all those cultures of the world, coaching allows people to get development, but in the privacy of a one-on-one. So, I actually think for many countries of the world, many cultures in the world I should say, coaching holds more promise than training programs, or formal educational programs, to help people develop as better leaders.

ALISON BEARD: And coaching can go all ways. You mentioned peer-to-peer. We talked about manager to employee. But employees can also coach their managers?

RICHARD BOYATZIS: Upward – yes and peers. Doing these kinds of conversations upward is a little more awkward in the sense that some people are just not open to it. But if they are, they can be very fruitful. I mean one of my best coaches is a former student of mine which in many ways I not only have learned, but I also have learned that even when I’m not in the mood, if she offers something for me to consider that its well worth thinking about. But more often than not, I’ll actually turn to her and say, hey, I’m trying to work on this. What do you think? So, it’s, I think it’s possible. It’s a little more difficult given if the relationships aren’t open.

ALISON BEARD: Well, I feel like I’ve gotten a little bit better at coaching other people after working with you on this article. So, hopefully that will happen for our listeners too. Thank you so much for coming in.

RICHARD BOYATZIS: Thank you for the opportunity.

ALISON BEARD: That’s Richard Boyatzis, professor at Case Western Reserve University. He’s also the coauthor of the book, Helping People Change and the HBR article, “Coaching for Change”. You can find it in the September/October 2019 issue, or at

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.



Alison Beard with Richard Boyatzis

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