Once in a while you get a client who is so together it seems they cannot really benefit from coaching. This is a client who is self-aware, organized, moving forward on important projects and goals, and has healthy relationships. Sounds great, right? But what do you coach on when everything is rainbows and sunshine?
I recall one client from a few years back who very much fit this description. He was the pastor of a growing church. He and his wife had 3 wonderful children. He willingly drove a minivan most of the time. His staff was competent and on board with the vision of the church. He wrote books on how to follow Jesus and he actually practiced what he preached. I wondered if I should send him some anonymous hate mail just so we could have a pressing coaching topic!
So what do you do with such a problematically perfect client?
First, embrace the good life they are experiencing. When a client has it all (or mostly) together, consider how coaching can support celebration, gratitude, and/or growth. My client once described life as “hitting on all cylinders.” He followed up by saying he didn’t have a pressing matter today and actually thought about cancelling the session. I assured him that cancelling the session was never a good idea (!) and proceeded to explore his metaphor. Since his engine was hitting on all cylinders, I asked him who were the mechanics who’d contributed to such a smooth-running life. In other words, who did he have to thank? Once he identified the giants on whose shoulders he was standing, we focused on translating this new awareness into meaningful action.
Second, don’t let above average create a low expectation. A client may appear to be beyond coaching because their level of excellence makes them stand out in a crowd. In such cases, it’s helpful to find a new crowd, so to speak. When compared to other young pastors, my client was much more disciplined, intentional, and humble. But when compared to his mentors, he was average. Comparison is not always an appropriate motivator, but it can sometimes serve to demonstrate just how far a person’s potential can take them. I invited my client to consider whether he was satisfied with his level of success (professionally and personally) or whether he felt the itch to play life at a higher level. He wasn’t sure, so we explored what it would mean to be average when compared to the 20 pastors he respected and admired the most. What is their life like? What is the good and the bad? What is the impact they have? My client wasn’t sure, so he embarked on a journey to find out. He researched them, he reached out to them, he found ways to network with them, and he peeked behind the curtains as much as he could to get a feel for what life was like when played at that level. He eventually decided to strive to be average among the most excellent.
Third, adjust the tolerances for you and for the client. When is good enough good enough? Every building, whether it’s a one-story house or a hundred-story skyscraper, needs to be plumb. But the tolerance for the two buildings is not the same. A one-story house can be slightly off and it’s no big deal. But when a building is hundreds of feet tall, even the slightest variation can be catastrophic. The tolerance for error is much greater when the consequences matter greatly. Such is the case when coaching a high performer. My client had grown tolerant of some things that needed to be dialed in if he were to perform at a higher level. A big example was his schedule. He had too much slack in his average day. The slack was the result mostly of the team surrounding him. They were not as punctual as they could be. They bogged him down with imprecise language and half-baked ideas. My client discovered that to be his best he had to shrink his tolerance for slack in his day, which required shrinking his tolerance for team members’ inefficiencies.
Fourth, use a framework to prompt coachable topics. The oft-repeated mantra in coaching “the client is the expert” can lead some coaches to think the coach can never bring content or training. This is not the case, especially when it comes to frameworks. A framework is a collection of principles, truths, or practices that, when applied, will result in success in a specific area. My client was quite successful in both his vocational life and his personal life, but when I introduced a coaching framework based on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, new areas for growth opened. As fundamental as the lessons in that material are, the process of going through them and looking for evidence of need in my client’s life brought forth much new awareness and growth. The framework allowed him to systematically investigate key aspects of his beliefs and behaviors and to find room for improvement.
Finally, don’t assume everything is as good as it appears. Everyone has blind spots, even our most perfect clients. Most of us can easily spot a person who is in denial of weaknesses or is oblivious to obvious faults. But when we have a genuinely mature, strong, successful client, we can get seduced by their seeming success and fail to probe more deeply. On the surface, my client was living a great life. Beneath the surface, he was strong, godly, and good. But once we dug a bit deeper, we discovered some dark corners. The main one concerned his growing resentment with his church and some of the norms and mores of his community. He lived in a very high-priced real estate market and was able to afford only a very modest apartment for his growing family. And it seemed the church didn’t notice or didn’t care. It was a cultural norm for people in his community to stress over cramped living spaces before moving out of the city and stressing over an hourlong commute. My client didn’t want to give himself permission to feel what he was feeling, but that did not stop him from feeling it! He could explain it away, rationalize it away, and even theologize it away, but it would not actually go away. It needed to be dealt with and that’s where our coaching focused for several sessions.
Can coaching benefit anyone? If the concern is a client being so perfect they can no longer gain value, the answer is yes, coaching can benefit anyone. Sometimes it’s a bit more challenging for a coach to support a high-performing client in identifying areas for change and growth, but the impact of a strong person becoming even stronger is worth the effort.