The three Cs of good coaching

Mike Holley

First Assistant District Attorney in Montgomery County

“A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, who has you see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you have always known you could be.” —Tom Landry1

Mark2 is a new attorney and is eager to prosecute. He’s 26, single, and a year out of law school. Mark wants to do well and work up to be a felony prosecutor and chief of a court someday. The problem is that when Mark is under pressure, he can be very short with the people around him—defense attorneys, court staff, legal assistants, police officers, and fellow prosecutors. Mark snaps at people in ways that makes them either hurt, defensive, or antagonistic. And Mark seemingly is under pressure much of the time.
    Mark’s chief, Donna, has heard from others about the problem, and this morning she witnessed it herself in an exchange between Mark and Vicky, the court coordinator. It’s the end of the day now, and Donna goes into Mark’s office, shuts the door, and sits down. Donna says, “Mark, we need to talk.”
    Donna needs to do some coaching with Mark.
    “Coaching” in this context is the act of observing someone closely and then giving him tailored instructions designed to change his behavior. Coaching is an essential skill for every leader or anyone who wants to positively influence others. But coaching can be difficult. Confrontation is an element in coaching, and if you care about relationships at all, that confrontation can be difficult. Donna knows she needs to speak to Mark, but how best to go about doing so?
    This article seeks to offer the ideal setting for coaching using three Cs, namely, Caring, Challenge, and Candor. I say “ideal” because I know that sometimes the situation does not allow (or require) everything I’ll spell out here. If we start with a good model, however, we can modify our approach from there.
    Let’s start with the first C: Caring.

Caring for employees is absolutely foundational, and good leadership flows from this concept. But what does it mean to care? What would it mean for Donna to care about Mark?
    In the workplace, we should acknowledge that to “care” is not the same as to “like.” Ideally, supervisors would like all their employees, and employees would like their bosses. After all, liking the people we work with can motivate us to serve those people more enthusiastically. Liking our coworkers also makes the office a more positive, enjoyable place. It would be helpful if Donna liked Mark.
    With all that said, supervisors liking their employees can be an obstacle to truly caring for them. For example, when we like someone a great deal, we may find ourselves unable to communicate hard truths (Coach Landry’s “what you don’t want to hear”) because we don’t want to damage the relationship. Supervisors also may be blind to areas that need to be addressed (Coach Landry’s “what you don’t want to see”) because we can’t be objective about the employee or his behavior. Finally, human nature tends to easily morph liking an employee into favoritism where similarly situated employees are treated substantially differently based on the leader’s personal preferences. Favoritism can easily destroy a team’s effectiveness. Liking, then, can be a double-edged sword when it comes to leading people.
    In contrast, caring is a much more robust, intentional, and comprehensive concept. To care about an employee means obtaining the best outcomes for that individual that are 1) within the mission of the organization, and 2) independent of personal feelings about that employee. To care is to undertake what is tantamount to a sacred trust, namely, to accept the responsibility for the welfare of those you directly lead. For Donna to care about Mark, she would:
•    work to help Mark grow and perform at the highest levels;
•    ensure that Mark understands and consistently accomplishes the organization’s mission;
•    avoid wasting his time or creating unnecessary obstacles in his path;
•    share the maximum necessary information possible with him;
•    protect Mark against unjust or unfounded allegations and shield him from unfair or disproportionate blame;3
•    maximize the recognition that Mark receives for work well done;
•    understand his background, strengths, and weaknesses;
•    listen to his personal and professional ideas, concerns, and desired goals;
•    provide Mark with clear expectations, feedback, and encouragement;
•    hold him appropriately and professionally accountable when he falls short of clearly articulated standards;
•    prepare Mark for advancement and promotion; and
•    demonstrate trust in Mark by being appropriately transparent with challenges and shortcomings.
    So caring is a mentality, a system of thinking. To care for an employee is to take a person entrusted to you and then do the very best by him (even, and especially, if you don’t particularly like him). As previously stated, caring is foundational, and good leadership flows from caring. There are many reasons to begin with caring, and here are three:
    First, caring for our employees is the right thing to do. Our profession centers on caring about others, and it makes sense that supervisors would start by caring for those closest to them. Good people take care of others. Moreover, each of us wants our superiors to care for us, so we, in turn, should care for those entrusted to us.4
    Second, caring informs and directs a leader’s coaching. Caring tells leaders what they need to accomplish and why. Caring is also the impetus for the coaching we do. Leaders coach because they want to accomplish an outcome with respect to that particular individual, and caring defines those outcomes in the best and most helpful ways.
     Third, and most importantly, caring is the key to real, meaningful change. A Harvard study demonstrated that negative feedback results in positive behavior only when the recipient feels valued by whoever gave the feedback.5 Let that sink in. That truth should resonate with us. Negative feedback is psychologically challenging, and people (and I’m going to guess lawyers in particular) don’t respond to that psychological challenge with positive change. Feedback without a broader context of caring is therefore usually doomed to failure. Consider the wisdom of the old leadership adage, “No one cares about how much you know until they know how much you care.” Unless employees believe supervisors care about them, coaching has little to no chance of being effective.
    We hope that before Donna begins speaking with Mark, she has treated him in such a way that he knows she genuinely cares for him. Caring provides the foundation for the next C: Challenge.

Leaders should challenge employees. We hope that employees are emotionally supported by a variety of colleagues, friends, and family, but the leader is in the best position to push the employee to higher levels of development and performance. Indeed, the leader has a duty to do so. The leader who allows her employees to plateau, coast, or repeatedly fail without correction is derelict in her position, and she should give her place to another (or, as we sometimes say, “seek excellence elsewhere”). The leader should be about the business of challenging employees, and this occurs in at least three broad, often-overlapping categories: standards, adversity, and potential.
Standards: Most employees, at one point or another, will fail to meet an expected standard. When that happens, coaching is required. Assuming the employee understands what the expectation is because it’s been made explicit (which is sometimes not the case), then the leader must challenge the employee to meet that standard. Mark is not meeting a basic standard, namely, treating others with respect. Now Donna has to address this deficiency. This is coaching at its most fundamental.

Adversity: Our profession is difficult in ways the layperson can’t begin to imagine, but one truth applies to any profession: We are either in adversity, coming out of adversity, or about to move into adversity. That’s the nature of life. And the nature of adversity is that it can destroy a person or potentially strengthen him, and the difference between the two may come down to skillful coaching by a caring leader. Donna may see that Mark is struggling with a number of issues and needs guidance to negotiate those struggles. This is coaching at its most needed.

Potential: Even when things are relatively good, standards are being met, and no particular adverse situation is pressing, coaching is still needed. At this point, the leader should challenge the employee to meet their full potential. One of our court chiefs, Vince Santini, likes to say to his prosecutors, “My job is to make you better at your position than I was when I was in your place.” Our elected District Attorney, Brett Ligon, is constantly pressing his people to reach beyond the point they are comfortable to be the absolute best they can possibly be. Brett likes to say, “We need to be learning in the courtroom, and if we are not learning in the courtroom, we need to be learning in the classroom.” This is challenging employees to reach their full potential. This is a never-ending endeavor, just as leaders seeking their own full potential is a never-ending endeavor. Donna may see an opportunity here to help Mark deal with others on a more sophisticated level—to take a weakness and make it a strength. This is coaching at its highest level.
    Leaders challenge. Donna will have to challenge Mark. Her primary mechanism to affect that challenge is our third C: Candor.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines candor as “unreserved, honest, or sincere expression.” Candor is where the rubber meets the road, the point where real coaching occurs. The leader owes his employee candor, and only candor can create a difference in attitude or behavior. The leader who, for whatever reason, conceals the truth does not serve his employee. Rather, the failure to be candid with an employee fails to challenge and ultimately demonstrates a profound lack of care.6 How best, then, to be candid?
    As many serious leadership books and speakers say, “It depends.” That’s not a cop-out. Humans are so complex and situations are so diverse that there is no one way to coach, or for that matter, to lead. Expressing candor depends heavily on the leader’s personality, the employee’s personality, and the situation’s context. To “get the message,” some employees need the lightest tap with a jeweler’s chasing hammer. Others (and you generally know who they are) may need several blows with the heaviest sledgehammer. Depending on Donna’s relationship with Mark, Mark’s “coachability,” and a host of other factors, Donna may have to press hard to get through to him, or she may only have to offer the most basic of counsel.
    With all that said, here are some basic principles that may be of assistance to use candor effectively. To begin with, the coaching must occur in person and in private. It must be in person because leadership is the most human of undertakings. Texts will not do. Email will not do. We must be present to perceive the complex and oh-so-important nonverbal communications that occur between two people. Leaders have to be ready to adjust the “volume” they use when expressing truth. Absent the most compelling circumstances, this is non-negotiable. (As an example of an exception: Say you are in another town, and coaching is immediately required. A personal phone call may be less than ideal but all that is possible. Still, even a call is preferable to, heaven forbid, an email. At least with a call you can transmit and hear tone of voice.)
    Coaching should also be in private. Challenging a person with truth, sometimes hard truth, inevitably creates an emotional response. The recipient sometimes struggles to hear what his leader is communicating above the noise of that emotional response. When the coaching occurs in public, that noise is turned to “11” and is usually deafening to the point where coaching with candor is impossible. Imagine if Donna were to begin her coaching during the busy docket in front of everyone. How much would Mark really hear? What would you hear or feel if your chief began counseling you in that setting? Privacy is important to reception. There are few exceptions to this principle, but they are rare.7
    When in person and in private, when the timing is appropriate, and when the leader is in emotional control of himself,8 the leader should then:
•    explain why the meeting is taking place, and do so in terms that are factual, accurate, and not emotionally charged;9
•    explain with specific examples why the behavior at issue is a problem. This is very important because without specific examples, the employee —particularly if he is struggling otherwise—will strive to avoid the truth of the matter;
•    explain the consequences of the employee’s behavior to others and to the organization;
•    provide specific examples of how to address the desired behavior. At this point, the leader is providing the absolute best counsel she can to address the issue;
•    invite the employee to provide his own feedback, and then really listen;
•    explain concretely what steps will follow the discussion; and
•    leave the meeting on a positive note, affirming the value of the individual to the organization and the leader’s confidence in a positive outcome.
    Importantly, the leader must accomplish all of this while keeping her own emotions in check. This is essential and sometimes very difficult. The leader who seeks to effectively coach others must first control herself. When dealing with difficult truths, the leader must moderate that truth with sensitivity and empathy, which is not to say she should shrink from candor. The ultimate objective is to benefit the employee because the leader truly cares about him.
    Candor also should not be used as a weapon. Indeed, a definite and clear line exists between being candid and just being a jerk. The former involves truth in the context of a real relationship. The latter is truth without the consideration of how others receive information. (“Hey, I’m just telling it like it is.”) Don’t be a jerk. There are enough jerks already.
    Finally, as I said at the beginning of this article, the steps listed above are the ideal. Time or situation may not permit the entire set of coaching steps, but at a minimum, the leader must be candid with the employee.
    So back to Donna in Mark’s office, door closed.

Coaching Mark
Donna: “Mark, I need to talk to you about how you relate to others when you are under stress. I witnessed you snap at Vicky, the court coordinator, today after the judge granted the continuance in the Jones case. Your tone was disrespectful, and your comment that ‘you keep making mistakes on trial settings’ was not appropriate or helpful. Vicky does not work for me, you, or the defense attorney. She works for the judge. She’s under a lot of pressure herself. When you speak to her in that tone of voice, one that sounds like you are scolding your dog for chewing up your favorite pair of shoes, you are making things worse, not better. Vicky is less likely to help you when you need it. Vicky is much more likely to talk to the judge about your treatment of her, and that is not going to be a favorable report. What the judge thinks of you matters, and her opinion comes from many other things than your performance in court. And frankly, Vicky doesn’t deserve that kind of treatment for any reason. No one does.
    “Mark, that kind of behavior has to change. Has to. You can’t treat people disrespectfully even—especially—when you’re angry. I understand you feel pressure and that you are frustrated in the moment. I appreciate your frustration—it means you care about what you’re doing. But you can’t transfer your anger and frustration into the way you deal with other people. It’s self-defeating in that you’ll experience more, not less, frustration. Others will shy away from working with you and helping you when they can. With defense attorneys, you’ll create an environment where everything is a fight, and Mark, everything need not be a fight. And you’ll build a reputation for yourself that you don’t want but won’t be easy to change.
    “As I said, I understand you are under stress. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. I’m sure your challenges with your landlord right now aren’t helping things, and I’m sorry you’re having to deal with all that. Mark, my guidance to you is that when you feel that intense stress, you stay quiet for the moment. Take a minute to think through what, exactly, is the problem and what, exactly, is causing that anger and frustration. They may not be the same thing. Then think about what action is most helpful to deal with the real problem. If you need to, Mark, it’s OK to completely back off for a moment and walk away from the situation until you can get a handle on your emotions. Controlling our emotions is our secret as prosecutors. We wield a lot of power. If we can’t control our emotions, that power uses us instead.
    “OK, what are you thinking right now?”
    Mark: “Donna, I understand what you are saying. I have to admit that this isn’t the first time someone has said something about this to me. I was just so frustrated when Vicky set Jones on the same date as the Stephenson case after I specifically asked her not to do that! I get it, though, that I can’t talk to Vicky like that. There is a lot going on, not just with these cases but with our upcoming plea docket as well. There’s just a lot going on.”
    Donna: “OK, Mark, that’s a good start, but obviously this is something you’re going to have to work on. I tell you what: The very next step you are going to take is to go see Vicky first thing in the morning. Apologize. Sincerely apologize. I’ll ask Vicky, later, about that apology to see how she took it. You can also explain the problem with the two trial dates. If she changes one or both dates, great. If not, we’ll figure it out together because here’s the thing Mark, it’s going to be OK. It’s going to be OK. Things get worked out. You just have to keep your emotions in check while things are getting worked out.
    “I also want you to go to the 359th’s docket on Thursday afternoon. Watch how our coworker Adam McLane deals with people, even people who are really frustrating. He has some great phrases to defuse tough situations, and you can see how he keeps a calm demeanor regardless of the circumstances.
    “We can talk about your upcoming trials, your dockets, and how to manage that work. You can get through this challenge and you can change the way you react to people around you. I’m confident you can do that—it just may take extra work on your end. But you are a very hard worker, you care about what you are doing, and you have great potential. We’re going to keep working on this together, and I’m confident you’ll improve in this area, just the way you already have with so many other things.”

Repeat, repeat, repeat
When Donna leaves Mark’s office, Mark’s problem will not be magically corrected. Mark, clearly, will have to do some work. Just as importantly, Donna will likely have to have several more conversations with him over time. Coaching is not a one-time event but a consistent pattern that yields results slowly. We would expect Donna and others to repeatedly coach Mark over the weeks, months, and possibly years ahead. Eventually Mark will make a breakthrough and his behavior will improve, or he will get tired of being coached and decide to work somewhere else. If Mark’s behavior does not change and he does not leave on his own, Mark’s boss will ultimately have to decide whether Mark’s difficulties can be tolerated in the office or whether he needs to “seek excellence elsewhere.”

These are the three Cs of coaching—caring, challenge, and candor. None of these concepts is new, novel, or transformative. And all of the above, with a little preparation, are within the reach of any leader. That is exactly the point. Any leader can coach effectively with care, challenge, and candor. Not easy, by any means, but doable. Good luck, Coach!


1  Thomas Wade “Tom” Landry, of Mission, Texas, was a legendary Hall of Fame coach in the National Football League (NFL). He coached the Dallas Cowboys for an NFL record of 29 years with 20 consecutive winning seasons. Landry won two Super Bowl titles, five NFC titles, and 13 divisional titles. His 20 career playoff victories are the second most of any coach in NFL history. More importantly, he was by many accounts a man of great personal character. He once said this: “Even after you’ve just won the Super Bowl—especially after you’ve just won the Super Bowl—there’s always next year. If ‘winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,’ then ‘the only thing’ is nothing—emptiness, the nightmare of life without ultimate meaning.”

2  This situation was taken from a similar one in our office.

3  “A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame and a little less than his share of the credit.” —Arnold Glasow

4  Being able to pour into another person’s life is one of the few instances where we can honestly say, “I made a positive difference there.”

5  From “Negative Feedback Rarely Leads to Improvement” by Scott Berinato, found at That study focused on feedback from peers, but we have reason to believe the same would be true regarding feedback from a supervisor. See “Getting Rid of Performance Ratings: Genius or Folly? A Debate.” Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Volume 9, Issue 2. June 2016, pp. 219-252, found at journals/industrial-and-organizational-psychology/article/getting-rid-of-performance-ratings-genius-or-folly-a-debate/215B47ABDD0DEE3B55BE747B87FFDCBC/core-reader.

6  As Nobel Laureate Elie Weisel said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

7  If an employee has committed a significant mistake in a public setting in a way that might influence others negatively, then it may be appropriate to correct the mistake—not necessarily the person—publicly. There also may be a situation where the leader needs a witness to be present for a meeting with an employee, or there may be a need to have someone present to support the employee, depending on the nature of the coaching.

8  The real “Donna” in this story adds that the most effective coaches are centered and confident in who they are and what they believe. From this confidence, the leader is consistent, and that consistency fosters respect. Major General (Ret.) Clyde J. “Butch” Tate adds that the leader must be him or herself—that you cannot fake who you are and effect a style to coach that is different from who you really are. You cannot coach from a “touchy feely” perspective if that is not who you are as a leader. Be yourself.

9  Several of these points are taken from “Giving Feedback to Even the Most Difficult Employees” by Scott Mautz, found at