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Are You Coachable? If You Aren’t, You Won’t Make It!

by David Brock on November 1st, 2010

My friend, Jim Keenan, considers this a key characteristic of people he hires–are they coachable?  Are they open to being coached, are they willing to listen, considering other points of view.  It’s critical, but we don’t spend a lot of time talking about it.

A friend of mine, a top executive of a large company called me a few months ago.  He was having trouble with one of his people.  This person had been a top performer in past years.  In recent years, he had struggled, he wasn’t making his numbers, every deal seemed to be challenge.  Because of his past performance and his seniority in the sales organization, he tended to be a real opinion leader.  My friend was struggling with how to deal with this individual, not only was his performance terrible, but he was poisoning the rest of the organization.  Morale was declining, results were falling. 

My friend had been spending a lot of time with this sales person.  He was coaching, offering ideas, doing everything he could to get this individual back on track.  Nothing was working, he asked me to spend time with the guy to see if I could do anything.

I sat down with him, I’ll call him Tim.  Tim was immediately defensive, but that’s not unusual, after all I was an outside consultant, hired by the top sales executive to “help” Tim.  It was understandable, so I spent time talking to Tim, learning about him, explaining my role, and how he might leverage me.  We spent some time talking about recent deals—he’d lost most of them.  In talking about these deals, it was always something else that caused the loss—the products “sucked.” the customer was “stupid,” we were “over priced.”  The list of reasons went on.  I would try to push back gently, saying the other sales people seemed to be having much more success.  I hadn’t heard the same things (only every once in a while), he would always respond, “You don’t understand.”

Overtime, the same broken record played over and over.  Whether it was his manager or me talking to him, Tim was always doing the right things.  The reason he was not winning was always something else.  Whatever suggestions we made were always discarded, he would say, “I’ve been your top performer, I know what do do!  Just focus on fixing the problem with the products and the pricing, then I can start closing business!  This company is really screwed up, if you don’t watch out, I’ll quit!”

I went on a few calls with him, perhaps we weren’t seeing the whole picture.  I wanted to see Tim in front of the customer.  You probably can guess what happened.  In these customer meetings, while cordial and friendly, Tim was difficult.  He had trouble listening to the customers.  He’d listen long enough to hear a key word or phrase.  Inevitably, he’d interrupt and start pushing.  Whatever the customer came up with, Tim would bulldoze through, focused on what he knew to be right.  Afterwards in discussing these situations, Tim would sit back, cross his arms and scowl.  He’d say, “You just don’t understand, you are an outside consultant, you know nothing about my customers or our products, you are wasting my time.  As a consultant you should be focusing our management on fixing the products and pricing!”

Over time, we started becoming more directive in our coaching.  Tim’s manager and I sat down, we talked to Tim about his performance.  We talked about his attitude and our observations about the impact on his relationships with customers and the rest of the sales team.  We told him things would have to change.   Through the meeting, we kept trying to elicit his feedback and reactions.  His body language told us everything.  We told him he needed to do certain things, outlining specifically the actions and expected behaviors.  You can guess what happened, he executed some of it–all of it grudgingly and sourly.  He’d come back in subsequent meetings saying, “See I’ve done what you told me to do, it’s not working, it’s wrong.  When will you just leave me alone.  I’m your top sales person, I know how to sell.  Solve the real problems in this company and I’ll start bringing in the orders!’

This went on for about another sixty days, we finally terminated Tim.

You know the problems–you’ve probably seen a similar sales person in your career.  The person that knows everything.  The person that has shut themselves down from learning.  People who live in the glory of their “self perceived success,” not the reality of their current performance.  People who constantly blame everything and everyone else.  These people are not coachable.

Being coachable is important.  Regardless of who we are, we can always improve, we can always learn new things.  World class athletes and others always have a coach.  More importantly, they actively seek the adice of the coach.  Top performers are never distracted by their current performance, they never rest on their laurels.  They constantly look at others, they seek advice, they consider new things and stretch themselves.

Coachable people don’t accept coaching blindly– they challenge their coach, positively and proactively.  They engage, they learn, they develop. 

Are you coachable?Book CoverFor a free peek at Sales Manager Survival Guide, click the picture or link.  You’ll get the Table of Contents, Foreword, and 2 free Chapters.  Free Sample

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  1. Great story here Dave, we have all seen it many times.
    It all comes down to how humble you are. The day you think you know everything is the day you are over the hill.

    We all can improve, always, and we need to remember that.

    • Continuous learning and development is the mark of a professional. Thanks for the comment Daniel!

  2. Dave Olson permalink

    Hi Dave – thanks for a great blog post. I have been in transition to a new job and just getting back to a routine. Learning is a life long sport! Hopefully, Tim’s experience with you and Jim opened his eyes and mind for the next adventure in his career. Dave

    • Dave: thanks for the comment. Good luck in your new role.

      As a follow up on Tim, there was actually an interesting turn around. About 6 months after he was terminated, Tim contacted me. He had gotten a new job. After a period of self examination (sometimes it takes termination), he realized that he had stopped learning, that he had been “trapped” in an image of himself, blaming others and not taking personal responsibility. He viewed the terminaton as a wake up call, and the new job as an opportunity to start fresh.

      It’s a tremendous credit to Tim and his strength of character. Thanks for joining the discussion Dave!

      • Dave Olson permalink

        I love happy endings!! thanks for sharing Tim’s epilogue. I am especially impressed that he reached back out to you. Cheers! Dave

        • Tim, just needed a “jolt” to get him out of bad habits. We all need that every once in a while.

  3. Jim Keenan is spot-on about selecting people that are coachable. Your story paints a vivid picture of the challenges and expense due to one’s lack of humility and the long-term value intelligent hiring practices deliver.

    When things change, which they always do, the desire to learn and improve oneself is a priceless trait that trumps track record.

  4. Dave

    What Dan said about being humble is so true. Humility is the beginning of wisdom. Pride can keep us from recognizing that the world around us is constantly changing.

    Those who rest in their past accomplishments as a guarantee of future success may hide behind them for a while, but eventually change will find them and it will be a rude awakening.

    When we walk with the wise, we will grow wise.

    Don F Perkins

  5. Dave: after reading this blog, I thought of several prominent sports figures who fell off their pedestals for the same reason. Oddly, I think many recruiters look for salespeople who they believe are “at the top of their game.” Those individuals might be harder to coach than those who bring humility by saying, “I’m passionate about what I do, but I acknowledge that I’m still learning.” In the past, for a salesperson, such a comment wasn’t a precursor for getting hired, but it’s time to re-think that. Admitting that there’s more to learn at least indicates some open-mindedness.

    In any event, coaching is a two-way street. I don’t know Tim’s background with his former boss, but it’s possible he became resistant to his or her advice because there wasn’t a trusting relationship. True that successful salespeople should be open-minded to coaching, but at the same time, not every manager has coaching talent–and title alone doesn’t cut it.

    • Andy, continued learning and improvement is the mark of great professionals. Regardless of what we have achieved or what level we are at, we must continue to learn and develop–all of us need coaching.

      In Tim’s case, he had settled into being uncoachable. Your comment about a trusting relationship, however, is interesting. Tim’s “trust” within the organization and within his customers had plummeted. He didn’t trust anyone (for some reasons that were very complex), and over time people didn’t trust him. He got stuck in a terrible downward spiral. As you may have seen in the other comments. While it was personally painful to him, the termination ended up being a great wake up call.

  6. Shane Mooney permalink


    Great post, we have to remember that people can get stale in their positions, thus becoming uncoachable. There are a number of factors, job no longer challanging, going through the motions, needing change, boring routine etc. It is only through coaching, probing and finding out over time that this can be recognised and addressed, as in Tim’s case.

    If an organisation is big enough there is opportunity to move the person to another area where their talents can be used and they are invigorated by the new role. However, with smaller companies this is not possible.

    A key role of the coach is to recognise this and take action- including termination as a final course. as you have shown in the afternotes this was the best result for both the company and Tim!

    • Great points Shane. We all grow stale (or complacent or arrogant) and become uncoachable. Great managers recognize this and are able to overcome it. Sometimes, it’s just not possible. Where we can, moving the individual into a job where they can perform at the highest levels and be coachable is great. When it’s not possible, we have to move them out of the company. Thanks for contributing!

  7. Ivano Concas permalink

    You could be an indoctrinator, you could be a coach, you could be a therapist, ma you’ll never be sure to solve some “complex reasons” or enter in a mind in a particular difficult moment as a big stress.
    Sometimes human mind needs the right moment to accept an interrupt for stop&think.
    And sometimes we just need to wait the inner ringing of a watchdog to reset and start the opening of mind automatically.
    But ofte it depends on time, environments, familiar and social life, maybe the wheater (!).
    Coaching can drive the process, but the most important job is an individual walk.
    That’s why I think there is not a person uncoachable: it’s just a matter of the wrong moment.

    • Great comments Ivano. Sometimes it takes a “wake up call” to recognize we need coaching. Hopefully, we are more open to coaching on an ongoing basis. Regards, Dave

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