Coaching At Work magazine – Mark on a difficult case

sfwork’s Mark McKergow is featured in the current issue of Coaching At Work magazine ( In the Troubleshooter column, a difficult case is presented and expert responses are sought. Here’s the problem:

A colleague who knows you specialise in career coaching has recommended you to a senior academic in a leading university. The university has a large deficit and will have to retrench. Eight posts are being whittled down to three to form a new executive team and all the current post-holders have been invited to apply. There is no time for a proper ‘chemistry meeting’ but you have a phone call with the client about what he needs to get out of the four sessions. The client becomes distressed and tells you agitatedly about a campaign of personal vilification that he believes has been directed against him and that his newly-appointed boss is a dyed in the wool feminist who ‘can’t tolerate male rivals’. He also describes having applied for three other jobs in the last year, getting shortlisted with no difficulty but failing to get any of the jobs.

The client appears for his first session. He is dishevelled, extremely overweight to the extent that he appears to have some difficulty walking, is wearing clothes that look as if they have been hastily assembled from a charity shop and a strong tobacco odour comes into the room with him. It is immediately obvious to you why he has failed to get any of the jobs he applied for.

Mark’s answer to this challenging situation:

Firstly, I would ignore any fattist and smokerist assumptions – the client has it tough enough without me leaping to conclusions about his shortcomings. He’s a senior academic, not a game show host. I would start by welcoming him and inviting him to tell me a little background – his subject, his academic achievements, what he’s been doing lately, what he is proud of recently in his work. It’s important to listen carefully to his answers – there may be valuable clues about his strengths, what fires him up, what he really enjoys doing. I would also listen for any indication about what he wants to have happen here – it’s not at all obvious from the brief that he wants or needs a post.

I might then muse that he’s clearly facing a tough situation, and ask him about what he wants here. Giving plenty of space and time to think would be important, of course. If he is totally clear that he wants one of the posts, I would ask him to scale his confidence of getting it from 1-10, follow up on whatever helps him be confident – how come he is that high on the scale and the signs he might be a little higher tomorrow. If he’s not sure about wanting the job, I might ask him to elaborate on the kinds of things he’d be doing in a better future.

What do YOU think? Comments welcome below please!


2 responses

  1. Svea van der Hoorn | Reply

    Hi Mark

    Thanks for a useful angle – I’m currently observer to hearing aimed at dismissal and what a dismal affair.

    I like the focus on starting with a conversation he has an interest in rather than with assumptions and judgements based on inside the coach’s mind perceptions.
    I like too your refraining from assuming he wants one of the posts and rather enquiring. Perhaps enquiring about what he hopes to be able to look back on in say a year from now, assuming that he’s made decisions and taken actions that are to his benefit.
    Given that he has come close to being selected, I might pursue some conversation around what are his ideas about how he can improve his chances (what to do differently based on his recent recruitment experiences) and state explicitly something like “given that recruitment is about discrimination but discrimination that should be fair”.

  2. Hi Mark,
    An interesting challenge. I like the way you started out with this client without refering to his appearence but building a relationship of knowing him better and looking for resources. To this I could perhaps add:
    I would probably wonder about his aims when applying for three jobs the past year. What was his best hopes for these applications? What does he think his prospective employers saw in his application that put him on the short list of three? On a scale on 1 to 10 where 10 would be getting the job, where was he in each application? What would take him up that 1 point that could secure him the job? What does he think the prospective employers were looking for that could have secured him the jobs? What would significant others say would be a small step he could take to secure a next job? Is that something that he could do? How confident is he that he could do it? Throughout I would also look for facts, resources, behavior, ets that I could compliment him on.
    These are some of the things I would contemplate asking. Off course all depends on the answers we get from our first question and the subsequent questions and answers.

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