Separating Good from Bad Coaches

While the word “coach” often brings to mind a sports context, it is a role that extends far beyond the playing fields and sports arenas. It is not just a classic sports coach who coaches. All of us in business who hire and develop young talent are coaches. Anyone who mentors another is a coach. Coaches abound through many facets of life and play a critical role in personal development.

It is an honor to be someone’s coach, not the other way around. Coaches have a huge responsibility. They hold a person’s future in their hands. It is certainly not something to be taken lightly. Coaching is serious business because human lives, dreams and aspirations are involved.

Having great coaches in any organization, be it a sports team or a business, is crucial for success. Nobody in life attains a high level of performance without the help of a coach. Nobody. Coaches help bring out the best in others, whether they’re running in a race or developing into an outstanding executive. We all need coaches.

Whether it is in sports or life in general, there are three kinds of coaches. And unfortunately, not all of them are viewed in a positive light.

The first are the great coaches. These are people who take the rawest of talent and make it into something. In simple terms, they make people better. They take an individual, and through coaching they move them a great distance from point “A” to point “B.” The athlete or individual can look back and say. During my time with Coach X, I really grew and improved and learned valuable lessons I can apply going forward. Life with a great coach, no matter the context, is not always rosy. Great coaches know they must selectively use both the carrot and the stick. Sometimes a pat on the back is what is needed.  Sometimes the coach has to bury their size-11 shoe right up the rear end of the individual! No, it is not always easy and individual growth can be painful. But at the end of the day, the person grows by leaps and bounds. And can look at the coach as playing a pivotal, life-altering role.

I was once a 22-year-old psychology and physiology graduate from the University of Cincinnati competing against Harvard and Wharton MBAs when I joined P&G in 1985. I really had no business being there. But I was blessed by having three great coaches early in my career: Tom Handley, Mark Weaver, and Darryl Mobley. These guys took that kid with pimples and hair parted down the middle — a mere track coach and fitness trainer — and molded him into something that led to a now 31-year career leading global businesses.

There were days I went home hating them. Days I went home loving them. But when I look back, I could not have asked for three better coaches at such a stage of my career. They made me who I am today. I did not achieve it alone. And this is what the truly great coaches do. They take the raw talent, they see that spark nobody else can, and they develop it. They take the lump of coal and end up transforming it into a diamond.

The second group are the mediocre coaches. They are not necessarily bad.  The people they coach kind of muddle along, and make small improvements, primarily due to “life lessons” or just by learning through doing. But as coaches they play a very limited role in development. They are more or less spectators.

Coaching is hard work. And often, the mediocre coaches are unwilling to expend the effort to really train and develop people. It is simply just too hard! But they are smart and realize that people are key to success in any endeavor in life. So they want talent on their team, and what they frequently do is take a shortcut. They won’t invest effort to grow talent, but they will invest energy in poaching talent from elsewhere! So instead of developing the next Michael Jordan, these coaches wait until someone is playing at a Michael Jordan level — a product of another coach’s investment — and then try to poach the player. Mediocre coaches don’t build talent, they merely steal it from others and then try to take credit.

The third kind of coach is the worst of all. These are the coaches that actually hurt people. Physically or emotionally. They take a person and make them worse performers. They take a runner of a given performance level and coach them to run slower! Or, in a business context, they take enthusiastic and passionate talent and wear them down into mere shadows of their former selves.

About a decade ago I was working in Europe and I had a coach working for me, leading and mentoring the junior members of the marketing staff. It was both raised and came to my attention that this coach was hurting their people. By being mean, manipulative, and downright controlling, this coach destroyed the confidence of his/her charges and ended up transforming prodigious talent into scared puppies too terrified to propose new ideas, pursue projects with passion, or drive their businesses forward.

As a coach, I wanted to try and “coach the coach,” so I let this situation perpetuate for about 18 months while I tried to coach the coach out of the issues. I felt I owed this person the chance. But in this period of time, several young talents working for this coach, were destroyed emotionally and ended up leaving their jobs. I eventually realized I could not coach someone who refused to see reality and take feedback and let the coach go.

In the aftermath, several of my peers commented that “I had waited too long and several young people paid the price of being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong coach.” After much reflection, accompanied by a great deal of guilt, I had to agree. I was too slow to move. I allowed a toxic coach to persist and perpetuate and several people paid for this with their careers and psyches damaged. It was a mistake I would learn from and never allow a second time. Toxic coaches, those who harm their people, can destroy not only people but teams and organizations. They have no business being coaches. Being a coach is an honor, not a right.

Unfortunately, these kinds of coaches persist. Even among our national athletes’ pool, I know of coaches who over-train their athletes. Who have them running far too many races and destroying the career longevity a well-kept athlete should enjoy.  I know of athletes who have been severely injured due to a lack of sound rigor in training and preparation from their coach. Young lives ruined and dreams shattered. And yet these coaches persist, only to damage more young people in the years to come. As leaders we have a moral obligation to weed these people out of the coaching profession. The mistake I made over a decade ago should never be repeated.

The good news is, any coach with any kind of history can be easily evaluated. And this is an evaluation all of us should make before we put our kids with a coach, or hire a coach for ourselves, or join any organization, for that matter.  What is their track record? When did they take raw talent and make something of it? What kinds of roles are their former “mentees” in today? And this is a simple test that people like Tom Handley, Mark Weaver, and Darryl Mobley pass with flying colors. They took a fitness instructor, making $5/hour teaching executives how to get fit, and transformed him into a global CEO. And that is a textbook case of great coaching.