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Why a Senior Minister/Executive Director Should NOT Coach an Employee

It happened again last week. A minister spoke bitterly about a former senior minister (the same situation could have described an executive director of a non-profit). The employee needed some coaching and his supervisor said, “I’ll just coach you!” The supervisor had served as a “coach” to some ministers in other churches, and so this seemed to be a natural fit.

It was a disaster.

The employee eventually left, a long-time friendship was shattered and the supervisor felt misunderstood and confused.

There were two problems

The first was “Hat Confusion”. We all wear different “hats” in our lives: boss, friend, husband, wife, coach, etc. And there are times when we are in a relationship with someone on several levels. What happens is that it is impossible (at best, extremely difficult) for both sides to understand what hat each is wearing at any specific time. Intent and perception can greatly differ.

In the case cited above, the senior minister was also friends with this church staff person. You had each wearing three hats. One wore friend, pastoral shepherd, and supervisor hats, the other wore friend and member of congregation and employee hats. The senior minister tried to add a fourth hat (coach) and put the coachee hat on his friend/employee.

It is too easy for the supervisor to slip from one hat to the other or for the employee to think that the supervisor is wearing one hat when he/she intended to be wearing another.

Second, this was added to the problem that this senior minister saw “coaching” as telling rather than asking (a common but dangerous misunderstanding) and a wall of resentment and anger was built.

In talking with the (former) employee lights went off in his head when I described how what his Supervisor had done was Consulting…not Coaching. We talked about the difference:

· Consulting is coming along side someone and telling them what they should do in a situation or how to solve a problem. The hope is that the employee will learn the task or the lesson and be able to perform it on his/her own in the future.

· Coaching is basically about asking questions—drawing the answers out of the coachee to help them solve the problem for themselves. (You are building people, not simply accomplishing a task).

Here are some reasons why a supervisor should NOT coach an employee:

· The employee will likely come up with only those ideas that he or she knows his supervisor will approve of. Creativity is stifled. Brainstorming depends on coming up with lots of ideas—good and bad–in order to come up with the best idea.

· The employee will be hampered in what he/she says because the supervisor (usually) holds the power to hire/fire and promote/demote. What is said by the employee will be calculated to make sure that nothing comes up that will jeopardize his/her position.

· If the supervisor is the problem, it is highly unlikely that the employee will bring up that fact…and the problem continues to go unaddressed.

· Coaching is much slower than directing/managing. Many supervisors get exasperated with the time it takes and just slip back into “tell mode”. Tony Stolzfus tells the story of leading a workshop where he demonstrated a coaching situation with a church employee. A few senior ministers walked out of the session. When he followed up with them later, they said, “I don’t have time for that. I know what they should do and so I would just tell them!” Coaching is much more time intensive and most senior ministers/execs of non-profits don’t have that kind of time and so they will “cut to the chase.”

What is the answer? To have an outside coach who works with the employees. Whoever pays for the coaching gets the right to set some of the desired results of coaching. Depending on the situation, the coach gives periodic reports to the group “sponsoring” (paying for) the coaching. Initial guidelines are established about what may and what may not be shared with the sponsor/employer. (It is very common for me to send reports bi-monthly or quarterly to a board or elders or a pastor relations board describing where we are in the process. This is, of course, balanced by my commitment to confidentiality for the client).

While not a minister or non-profit leader, John Russell, Managing Director of Harley-Davidson Europe Ltd. has said: “I never cease to be amazed at the power of the coaching process to draw out the skills or talent that was previously hidden within an individual, and which invariably finds a way to solve a problem previously thought unsolvable.”


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