Key Learning Outcomes

  • Understand that problems and issues are all important to the person who has them.
  • Determine the need to address small problems before they become large and impact performance.
  • Distinguish between the different types of goals, and the ease with which they can be achieved.
  • Recognise that goals should be set by the individual at a level they are comfortable with.


What is the difference between a sore finger and cancer?

It really all depends on your perspective.

It may seem like an extreme comparison but this question was posed to me by a GP recently. She had been asked the question years earlier when completing her medical training to illustrate the point that a person’s problems or issues really come down to their perspective not ours.

Imagine you are a doctor consulting with the patient who has a sore finger, knowing another of your patients who has cancer is sitting in the waiting room. Does this diminish how important the sore finger is? Not to the person who has the sore finger. Will it alter the level of attention you give to the person? It might, but it shouldn’t. This person came to you with a problem that they believed was large enough to be worthy of your attention. It should not be treated as any less important just because it is not as serious as the next patient’s problem – to them it is a serious issue.

It made me think of the parallels when coaching and mentoring. How easy it is to trivialise, dismiss or overlook a concern because we do not think it should be a big issue. In our mind we are thinking that it is no big deal and the person should simply get over it and move on to bigger issues, perhaps just like the doctor who has the patient with a sore finger. Most of us are busy and we want to make those 45 minutes or hour of one-on-one time with the person as productive and valuable as possible; we don’t want to spend it dealing with something that we feel is not worthy of our attention.

There are two key lessons that I now always keep in mind when coaching and mentoring.

A sore finger can spread

Just like a sore finger, a small problem or issue left to fester can become a larger problem over time if left untreated.

I have learnt over the years that when someone brings up something in one of my coaching sessions, it is because it is bothering them. This can often be a problem that is outside of the working environment and at times I have been guilty of thinking that I would rather not know, for example, about John’s marital woes or Mary’s issues with a family member. Experience has shown me that no matter how minor the issue might seem, unless I can help the person deal with it, their performance will be impaired at least for a short period and potentially for the longer term.

It is important to run coaching sessions with an open mindset and to build up a high level of trust with those that you coach and mentor so that they feel comfortable about bringing up issues that are bothering them. I may not always have an instant answer or may not be able to counsel in some areas, but what I can do is listen and guide the person to either find their own solution or urge them to seek professional help. The important thing is to treat the problem and this allows you to then move on to the bigger issues.

One person’s Everest is another person’s base camp

In the past I had been guilty of pushing targets or goals on people either because I believed that they were capable of achieving more or because I needed them to achieve more in line with greater company goals. Either way it was wrong; the most effective goals are those that are set by the individual. I can guide  and advise people, but unless they set and believe in the goal we are potentially fighting a losing battle.

I now know that everyone is different and there is no right or wrong.  Some people like to set outlandish goals and strive hard to achieve them. They are not deterred if they just fall short as the ambitious goal has pushed them to a high level of performance regardless. Others like to set a goal at a very achievable level and like to track how far in front they are, giving them a real confidence boost and spurring them on to achieve more. The rest are a little like me; they like to set a well-considered goal that is ambitious but achievable and they do everything they can to achieve it. Falling short for these people is simply not acceptable.

As a coach, my job is to help the person determine what type of goal will work for them, help them define it and then do everything in my power to help them achieve it. My job is also to challenge each person to get the best out of themselves, not for me to set expectations based on my own beliefs.

Once when coaching a high-performance sales team, my assistant suggested that I should move a psychiatrist’s couch into my office as sometimes it seemed like the sessions were more about keeping the person on track with their life out of work rather than in it. When you are coaching high performers this is often the case as they are usually very focused on work and very good at what they do. Often my job is about dealing with the sore fingers and making sure they do not turn into something more serious.

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