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Swiss Consulting Group :: Newsletter :: Coaching Without Demand Is Mere Noise
March 2004

Thomas D. Zweifel

A message from Thomas D. Zweifel, Ph.D.,(excerpted from his forthcoming book on coaching leaders)Thomas Zweifel, Ph.D.
Chief Executive Officer :

Winston Churchill was fond of saying that the higher you rise in an organization, the more you can see the big picture of strategy instead of mere tactics. He also said that "the higher the ape climbs, the more you can see of his bottom" -- but that is another matter.) Today, this is not necessarily true anymore. Essential intelligence is now bound to lie at the organization's bottom and periphery - where the company meets the customer. Imagine a firm with seven reporting levels. If the people at every level report fifty percent of what they know up to the next higher level, the leader at the top will know less than two percent of what is actually going on in the organization. If control resides solely at the top, the consequences of being so out of touch can be disastrous for strategic decision-making. Imagine what happens if the leader bases his or her decisions on the wrong two percent!

The time when a few great leaders guided affairs with a firm hand is coming to an end. Reality has become such a complex jungle that no single leader, no matter how great, can cut through the thicket alone. Even men like Churchill or Gandhi or Kennedy, were they alive today, would be hard-pressed to lead.

For one thing, employees can no longer be treated as mere subordinates. Today, when a company's true assets - its human and intellectual capital - leave the office every night, traditional chains of command are largely irrelevant. One cannot look for leadership only at the top, and bosses cannot simply tell knowledge workers and free agents what to do. The celebrated former Stanford University head coach Bill Walsh says: "Today, in sports as elsewhere, individualism is the general rule. Some of the most talented people are the ones who are the most independent. That has required from management a fundamental change in the art and skill of communication and in organizational development." Ordering people around is simply not good enough anymore - not even in traditional hierarchies like the military. Coaching has become an essential competence.

So how do you coach leaders? It is becoming clear that coaching is a key success factor in exceptional performance, but the coaching process is often badly understood and largely absent from most management. The term "coaching" is often used to mask old-style methods like advice or criticism, or more sinister applications like manipulation or coercion. And unless manager-coaches understand the deep-seated and often subconscious experiences and psychodynamic structures of their team members, they will likely do more damage than help - even with the best of intentions. All too often managers have been promoted to senior management positions because they excelled in a specialized technical skill-set - for example finance or engineering - but never had the opportunity to develop their people skills, let alone their coaching capacities. But unless managers learn leading through coaching, they are unlikely to produce lasting change.

Coaching Without Demand Is Mere Noise

When there is no demand for your coaching, you are everything but a coach. Your coaching will not be recognized as such. Worse, whatever comes out of your mouth is merely noise in the ears of the players. Coaching becomes a virtual impossibility.

I learned about the crucial value of creating a demand for coaching the hard and painful way: by failing to do it. In 1987, when I was assigned to India, the managing director of the organization I was to coach had left town when I arrived in Mumbai (then Bombay), and had sent her second-in-command to pick me up at the airport. Dazed, I stepped out of the plane into the onslaught of humid heat. We took a taxi from the airport into the city of Bombay. Suddenly there was a wall of stench. I was enveloped by rotten smell. Was it old garbage? Was it decomposing flesh? I didn't know, and didn't care. It was like being inside a garbage bag. Worse, after a few minutes I didn't even smell it anymore and I knew that the odor had completely pervaded me. I could feel the decay seeping into me, me becoming the decay, the stench, the death.

Upon arrival at the flat for visiting staff, I interviewed the deputy about the current status of the organization, about finances, recent results and training needs. It was a productive meeting. I felt that the deputy was eager for work, and I myself wanted to waste no time. I myself was keen to demonstrate how committed I was to making things happen immediately. That turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes I ever made. When the managing director returned, she must have felt that I had bypassed her, undermined her authority, questioned her leadership, insulted her, and sabotaged her. So she took the most logical step, given her interpretation of my action: she stalled. Consequently, people questioned every step I took. Nothing was what it seemed to be. I could rely on no one. Nothing I said made any difference. Many of my Indian colleagues saw me as an intruder who was meddling with their operation.

Only months later, after I had already moved on to New York, I could see with 20/20 hindsight that creating a demand for my coaching ahead of time would have made a huge difference. My trip had been set up on a short and perfunctory conference call with my boss, another senior manager at global headquarters in New York, the managing director in Bombay, and me in Munich. The senior executives in New York had announced to the managing director in India that I would come there to work, and asked, "Would you like that?" Put on the spot and confronted with the surprise, the managing director had said the polite thing to say in India: "Great!" I discovered later that she had never really endorsed or owned the trip. What I should have done was to call her alone, well before embarking on the journey, find out what she wanted, and build, or verify, a demand for my coaching. My failure to do so jeopardized the coaching effort even before I got on the plane. I ultimately still got the job done, but my impatience and insensitivity at the outset had thrown an unnecessary wrench into my coaching effort. And I would never forget my lesson: unless the player wants to get coached, it is next to impossible to coach.

I later learned from a colleague of mine who had been on a similar assignment that he had been much smarter. He told me that when he had arrived in India, there had been no meetings set up for him, no reception to welcome him, not even a phone call from the people with whom he had come to work. This had gone on for two weeks. He had kept himself busy reading, settling in, catching up with other work, and learning about India's culture. After two weeks, the phone rang. The managing director called him and asked, "What do you want to do with us?" He said, "Let's meet and see what you want me to do." He made it clear that he had come to be of service, rather than imposing himself and his agenda.

Of course, you don't always have the time my colleague had to wait for demand to build up. When players are not asking for your coaching, you could fall back on the default position - management (assuming you enjoy the organizational authority to do so). In the domain of management, you need no demand whatsoever; you are in control, you can tell people what to do, you can give orders, you can threaten to fire them. But beware of this fallback position: use management only as a last resort, for it may cost you your coaching relationship, and ultimately keep the leaders around you small.

Thomas D. Zweifel

Thomas D. Zweifel, Ph.D., is CEO of Swiss Consulting Group and the author, most recently, of Communicate or Die (SelectBooks 2003) and Culture Clash (SelectBooks 2003), available at major bookstores,, or Dr. Zweifel teaches leadership and cross-cultural management at Columbia University and frequently speaks on leadership to business audiences and in the media, most recently on ABC, Bloomberg and CNN

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