Is Everyone Coachable? [The Answer Might Surprise You]

This is a guest post in response to my coaching post a week ago.  While writing the post I asked my friend Matt if everyone was coachable.  He said yes. I didn’t believe him, so I asked him to convince me and write a post supporting his claim.  

What follows is one of the best breakdowns of coaching and what coaching means you will read in a blog.  Matt’s position is substantive and comprehensive. 

If you’ve ever wondered if everyone was coachable, Matt will give you plenty to work with in drafting your opinion. 


Keenan asked me a question the other day, “Is everyone coachable?” I said, “Of course!” And he said, “I knew you were going to say it, but I don’t believe it. Prove it.” So, we agreed I’d write this blog post.

I’ve been coaching professionally since 2002. I was coaching internally in organizations five years before I went a got a coaching certification though the Coaches Training Institute. My very first coaching client was a Vice President who had allegedly “spit” at one of her directors in a heated argument, most likely just spittle, but HR didn’t know what to make of it and so tossed it to me. Since then I’ve have over hundreds of coaching clients and stopped counting hours when I crossed the 10K mark back in 2011. My bona fides are there and I can confidently tell you that everyone is coachable.

But what does that mean exactly? Does that mean that everyone can be a rock-star in your organization? That everyone is cut out for Sales? That everyone can master all parts of the sales cycle from first contact to close?


Let me rewind and digress for a moment…

When I first started coaching I was a wild man, untrammeled by the loss and divorce that has marked me as an adult, and I was and still am heart centered. I had just finished my master’s degree and Kurt Lewin (founder of social psychology) was my idol.

My background includes cultural anthropology, ecopyschology, biology, developmental psychology, instructional design, organizational development, and coaching. From the very beginning I’ve been fascinated and have worked with systems and so everything is system related to my mind.

I don’t see the individual as separate from the system from within which they’re operating.

You look at the United States military and how instructional design and organizational development function and you see a system that can take young men and women, with different socio and economic backgrounds from all over the country, and turn them into a single fighting force.

That’s impressive!

Kurt Lewin’s equation: B = f (P+E) is Behavior is a Function of the Person + Their Environment

We’re relational by nature.

It’s why I’m leery of organizations that seem to think potential hires either fit or don’t fit their organizational culture. People are adaptable. We have a deep fear of this in the West, but the reality is that out personality, values, behaviors, and principles are all very fluid.

In fact, that’s why leadership is so damn important. It’s why organizational cultures are so damn important.

I’ve seen plenty of shitty organizations chew up and spit out talented individuals, just as I’ve seen great organizations take mediocre people a turn them into rock stars.

This is why Top Grading and Forced Ranking are such awful performance management systems. Everyone is a potential star or a potential fuck up.

I remember I had a boss once say derisively to the team in a meeting, “Matt thinks everyone can be saved!” She thought she was being wise and that I was just a sweet summer child, but jadedness isn’t wisdom.

Everyone can be coached.

You’re skeptical, I can see that… But evaluate how coaching is approached in your organization and see if it allows for and holds to these principles:

1.     People Hate Change — As hard as it is to accept people prefer dysfunction, pain, and the collapse of their integrity over facing the unknown that change and growth inevitably brings. It’s built in genetically (from a long line of scary pants ancestors) that we fight to maintain the status quo, maintain it at all costs, even if it sucks, because the unknown is just that You can tell people if they just cross the street all their life dreams will come true and the bucket of shit they’re holding onto can be let go (and we all know the shit we carrying for ourselves and others) and heck you can even show them, but they won’t cross the street. The familiar, even when it breeds contempt, is more powerful than the unknown. With the unknown comes risk and people are generally risk adverse. Every client you meet in coaching has found a way to survive in the current system and they’re unlikely to want to change unless you help them.
2.     Begin Where The Client Is — I now start all coaching sessions with a simple question, “What do you want right now? or the similarly worded, “What are you seeking in this moment?” as it’s the very best (and very gestalt way) of checking in to see where the client is. Why leaders often make for lousy coaches is that they begin with the end in mind. They have a place they’d like to see their direct report get to and so are always impatient and pushing their direct report to that end. Coaching doesn’t work that way. You have to walk side-by-side with a client and see the world through their eyes. Empathy is the basis for all emotional intelligence and is the foundation of successful coaching

3.     Check Readiness — My mentor is always harping on me to do this and has been for 20 years. I love the work. I love growth and development. I’m always ready to spring off the cliff into the pool below but that’s just me. I’ve dropped acid in the middle of a forest, I’ve fasted for forty days, I’ve sat in T-Groups in Bethal, Maine, I’ve had ferocious therapists over the years who confront as much as love. It’s second nature to me to open the kimono and look within. But I’m scared of actual diving boards. I don’t like them. They’re not fun to me. I see people at the pool have a blast with them and I take that image with me into any session. Just because I’m comfortable doesn’t mean other people are. I’ve had to learn the hard way that the quickest way to lose a client is to be too truthful up front. You constantly need to check people’s tolerance for growth and development. I have a friend who’s a professional dominatrix and her axiom is, “People’s pain thresholds are changing constantly. From moment to moment!” Same is true in coaching. Two steps forward, one step back. Life’s a cha-cha!
4.     Systems Are More Powerful Than People —  99% of the time when people are in conflict with each other it’s because a system is broken underneath. If someone isn’t making numbers or closing deals, I’d first look to the system. Sometimes the leads are weak. That’s just reality.
5.     Leadership Matters — The post postmodern corporation is a pyramid scheme, there’s only so many spaces at the top, and until that changes leadership will continue to matter. Leaders set the culture. I think every leader should read Brene Brown’s book, “Daring Greatly” to understand how shame functions in organizations. Most organizations are shame driven and shame is a growth and development killer. Leaders set the culture up unto the point where an organization can survive without any one particular leader.
6.     Culture Matters — When an organization can survive without its founder, it then has a culture that’s not dependent upon leadership. Think GE, Siemens, U.S. military. At that point culture is king. Organizational cultures that can survive at this level of development do so because their successful in their environment plain and simple. McDonald’s may have to adapt in order to survive because the operational environment has changed, but you can’t deny that for 50 years they’ve been tremendously successful. I hate to burst your bubble, but organization cultures aren’t made up of just catching sayings, values, or even beliefs. Organizational culture is simply: 1. Shared language 2. Shared space 3. Shared tools. Cultures who do these three things efficiently, effectively, and affectionally survive and thrive.

So, do you ever give up and fire someone?

You bet.

Failure is an option.

Just as all divorce is a failure of imagination and cowardliness, so too is all failure at work. While everyone can be coached, it doesn’t mean that every relationship, work or otherwise, ends in success. With every new level of depth, every moment you have courage and grow there are new challenges, new responsibilities, and new opportunities. Sometimes we chicken out. Sometimes we’re not ready. Sometimes we believe ourselves incapable of the consequences of our impending success. So we collapse and fail.

I get that.

I think the interesting thing about The New York Times article on Amazon’s culture and Jeff’s response this past week is that it exposes a truth about all organizational cultures: there are some people who are truly enjoying and thriving in your organizational culture and others who are not. Both truths can coexist. And neither is wholly correct. All relationships ebb and flow and the mark of a great organizational culture is how it handles those who are in ebb due to maternity leave, illness, bereavement or other major life challenges.

I have a .500 mark when coaching “turn around” clients. These are clients that the organization would like to keep but are close to firing. So, half find a way back into the organization with new ideas on how to confront the broken system and/or poor relationship with (customers, clients, peers, direct reports, leadership) and thrive and the other half make another choice.

Either way, they’ve been coached, and have made a choice.

Clients get a big smile on their face then they realize they’re not broken, the system is, and they have a choice about what to do next. I love that part of coaching.

Some of you might be thinking, “But Matt where is personal accountability in this? Some people avoid taking responsibility of any kind!” Yes, but only in shame driven systems.

An old trick of mine was to sit down next to leaders and have them write a list of all their direct reports and star their exemplars and but a check mark by the ones they wound’t fight for if they found out they were thinking of leaving.

This gets back to the old “halo” and Theory X and Theory Y management, but the reality is everyone wants to succeed. If someone has taken the time to shower and show up for work, they want to be successful. They may need help in that endeavor, but they’ve done their part.

It’s now up to you.


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Matt is founding parter of Morava + Graham working with organizations in CEO Succession and executive vetting.  You can find him on LinkedIn where he’s waxing some of the most robust writing you’ll ever experience.