The Coaching Dilemma Introduction

A short (8 min) extra cast where Mark introduces the Coaching Dilemma and solicits YOUR responses. What do you think is the correct answer to the dilemma?

  [Play in Popup]

Answer to the question

Your dilemma is contrary to the guidance you gave in the old Coaching Podcast that you can always easily coach a lot of people  :-)

Another problem is that picking just one would be considered favouritism by the rest.

But let's make a gedankenexperiment that for some very unusual reason you have to focus on just one.

I think there are two answers depending on the job they do:

1. They are knowledge workers

Referring to your podcast on firing people you would have to focus on the weak (D) performer just to be able to justly fire him if he does not improve.

I would also focus on D if there are high retention benefits and losing him would be very costly in terms of finding and training a new employee.

2. They are easy to replace

[I will not go into a discussion whether this kind of call centre/foxconn work is good or evil. It is a reality for example in European broadsheet newspapers even for journalists.]

I would just focus on the star A performer to upgrade her to a permanent position. The rest is expandable.

Hmm, my answer would be C.

I think you should focus on C.  They have the shortest distance to travel to get above the average line.   Alpha needs little or no coaching.  Bravo could benefit but two exceptional performers are offset by two below average performers.  Bringing Charlie to above average tips the scale to 3 above average to one unacceptable.  Delta is too far below the line or has too much to improve to bring to above average in a timely manner.

The answer to me is clearly C.   That's a high C's take on it.


I'd coach Alpha

If I had to choose just one, it would be to coach Alpha.


- (the selfish reason) If I want to be promoted, I need a successor, and would want the best person around to fill my position. (ala 150 percent rule podcast).

- (the selfless reason, but in a sense the same) If the company as a whole wants to grow, innovate, get more done, and win, we need top performers. Not just those who meet the standard but those who RAISE the standards higher. Top talent attracts more top talent, and inspire those close behind to keep up. As a bonus when the standard standards are raised it helps the bottom performers drop out: either quitting because they can't relate to what's going on around them, or being let go because they can't keep up. It's a setting your organisation up for a virtuous cycle.

oh, and I've been hanging out for another Juggling Koan type of  podcast for a long time. It's one of my all time favourites. Thanks guys!

I would coach B and delegate coaching C to A

I would coach B so that he rises to the level of A. That leaves me with two top performers who really contribute to the company. A would benefit the least from my coaching because he is almost at my level. But he wants a promotion and could be prepared for his new tasks (i.e. managing -> coaching his directs) by coaching C. That way, A gets prepared for his new job (which may be my current job after I get promoted -> he then already knows how to coach his direct) and transfers his skills to C who will benefit more from this constellation than D who will probably get fired anytime soon. D is the worst performer and has yet to learn the basics of his job, so if I delegate coaching D to C, C will be able to help D and may even feel good about the new coaching task he was assigned while getting coached himself (it shows trust and belief in the skills he has to develop).

This way I can show my boss that I am able to delegate (even important tasks like coaching) and develop my directs. Nobody gets left behind and is coached by an appropriate partner who is above his current skill level but not too far above so that the two can really benefit from each other.


The Coaching Dilemma breaks with reality a bit. In reality, I'd be giving coaching to each while maybe focusing on one or two. In the dilemma, I can only focus on one. My reflex is to coach C but as I ponder it more maybe it should be B.

I wouldn't bother with A since s/he'll probably continue excellence and be the first promoted. It would be great to coach excellence to even loftier heights but I have a company's performance to worry about not just star performances. Similarly, D is already qualified for an exit -- minimal effort should be applied. Sorry, it's been great having you here but we're moving in a different direction. Up.

This leaves C or B. If I put all my effort into C there's a good chance I can help C rise into at least B category. This will be better for the company as there will be fewer project failures. Three performers above average may compensate well for the soon-to-be-gone D. But...

B has already proven a twinkling of exceptional performance. Presumably, B has the greatest potential of moving permanently into A's category. Having two exceptional performers will compensate for the slower C (D being gone). And when A gets promoted, I still have an exceptional worker as a nucleus for the future. And, who knows, surrounded by all this excellence, maybe C will rise by osmosis.

Tell 'em what you told 'em: B

Coach A - focus on strengths not weaknesses

If I had to coach just one direct I would coach A.  I agree with a lot of what Paul_F said, both the selfish and selfless reasons. 

I believe MT has indicated in the past that given the choice between spending time with either your best or worst performer, time spent with your best is time better spent.

Thanks for everything you (MT) do.  What you've done for me as a manager and for my career is nothing short of amazing.  Thank you!

My answer is: Coach C.

Why? Because I need to make my team better than already is. 

A will not decrease, B is good and can improve alone and D has not chance to improve, so in order to make the team better and reduce the variance in its perfomance; coaching C is the best option.

I would coach A.

I will be able to spend less time with A and gain better results.  I would want to coach her because of the following:

1. Determine why she performs over the expected. Is it a skill set? Is it a because that has a certain personality style (DISC)?

2. Can the skill set or motivation be duplicated in the other employees?

If I am doing 1 on 1's, I should know the personality style (DISC) and know what motivates the employee.  I want to coach this person to fill my position when I get promoted. I also want to discover if there is some underlining skill set that the others do not have.  A may be in the best position to evaluate the skill sets of other employees.

I would coach B

The reasoning? A players aren't just a little better than B players - they are a lot better. So effort getting B to the next level should result in more than a linear improvement.


A: They are there, let the big dog run.

B: Coach them to them to 'A'

C: Get what you can get for now, Coach them next after B.

D: Manage them out.  Not worth the effort.



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Coach B

1) A sounds ready to be promoted, and since you need to focus on strength, B is the next logical choice.

2) Another options would be to immediately promote A, and since D has been substandard for some months, I should have enough to fire D. Then, I have time to coach both B and C.

just kidding on #2 of course.


I would coach C

I would choose C because if I can bring C from bellow average to above average that will have the highest impact on my team performance.  I would move from having an average to an outstanding team performance.  Right now on average you have a fine team.  If you concentrate on moving B to A then you run the risk of C dropping to D so you mantain an average team.  If you concentrate on C, B will most likely stay above the fine line, so that you can build a great team.  If on top of that you can fire D (I am assuming you have already tried to bring him up when he was in the C position), and replace him/her by a top performer with talents that match the requirements of the position then you can most certainly have a top team.  You have to keep an eye on B though so that he doesn´t drop to line bellow fine.  I would probably encourage more external coaching to the B and A, this can be done with very little time of my part spent with them.  With the A star performance I would do as my PhD supervisor adviced me: With top students make contacts for them, remove obstacles and get out of their way.  As much a I would love to spend more time with the A, there is a limit to how much one person can do and spending time with the A won´t really increase that much the productivity of my team.  I am also assuming as the A is a star performance there is very little I could still coach him/her myself!

I am inclined to think though it could depend on the individual characteristics of each one, I certainly wouldn´t want to see B dropping bellow the fine line and I wouldn´t want to send the message you have to decrease in performance to get my attention.  And one think that I don´t quite get is that coaching can be done by others not the manager him-herself.  So not that much time is spent on coaching.  But as you said there is only one single right answer and a definete one I risk C.


Coach C

If I put all my effort into C and can bring them up to above average, then I have just increased the overall effectiveness of the team. This will be better for the company and there will be fewer project failures.

I'd coach B.

I find performance to be non-linear, probably due to working with programmers and sysadmins. An A isn't twice a B, she's ten-twenty times a B. So,

A is likely to be promoted already, as she's a superstar. Coaching might help smooth her transition to a position like mine, but conservation of managerial energy means my efforts are better spent elsewhere.

B with coaching could become another superstar. Two superstars and someone grinding out singles would outperform a superstar and two better-than-average staff. If A is promoted, B becomes that A performer; otherwise, I have two superstars and we're outperforming all other units.

C would receive feedback (positive and negative) in an effort to improve his performance, but given the coaching dilemma model, no coaching. If he can improve to average, great!

D serially underperforms, and is likely to be terminated or receive 'performance management'.


Scott Delinger

DiSC: 5137


Any incremental improvement in A's performance would yield exponentially more for the company than coaching any of the other three Directs. 


The A's have it.  As described by Folkman and Zenger in The Extraordinary Leader, the payoff for coaching A is way out of proportion higher than for the others.  B holds some promise as well.  We need to set the bar at extraordinary, not average.  Spend a disproportionate amount of time with your best folks.  Differentiation breeds meritocracy, sameness breeds mediocrity.


John Nuttall



A number of people assumed that A isn't going anywhere - I wouldn't make that assumption. You may lose your top performer if they feel you aren't challenging them and helping them reach a higher level of success.


 I swear I've heard MT talk

 I swear I've heard MT talk about this before on a cast. I believe A is the right answer. Isn't this managerial economics 101? You want to invest your most scarce and precious resource (time) into the area that can earn the biggest returns. 

Dis-proportionate investment in your best people

If you can only coach one person, that person is your star performer - Ms. Alpha.   IF she's mastered he job, coach her on doing your job. Heck, if she's ready now to be doing your job already, start coaching her on the skills she'll need when she becomes your boss!   

But with the MT 1:1 model, coaching is easy.  10 minutes at the end of everyone's 1:1, every week.   It's your EXTRA coaching efforts that go to Ms. Alpha.

Focus on A

 Active coaching of all directs would be important, but if having to choose only one, my focus would be on ‘A’.  It was indicated that this employee is most likely ready for a promotion.  A natural progression for this individual would be the job the manager currently holds, and the coaching in this instance could focus on the directs own coaching/mentor skills, in preparation for their next position.  The goal of the manager is to continue to develop organizational capability, and what better opportunity to prepare ‘A‘ for their next role then to delegate some of the work to help improve overall group performance.  Feedback and One-on-One’s with the lower performers would lay the ground work for what is expected of them, and asking them to work with the higher performer allows them the opportunity to improve, and the ‘A’ to develop coaching.


Some may see this as delegating the manager’s job, but when looking at this in the context of what is the most important thing, you need to focus on your top performer.  It is critical however that this be set up in a way to ensure that it is clear that you are still the manager.  Having the top performer focus their coaching to specific things such as technique or methodology, keeps the relationship between the two directs more in line with that of an expert in how the work is done, rather then a manger overseeing performance.  If the team dynamic is functioning well, the lowers performers may be seeking the guidance of the higher performer already.

I would coach A

Ms A has already shown she is exceptional at making a difference by using the resources of the company. Coaching time is a rare resource, she would therefore make best use of that. It would benefit the company most to get her to be the best performing she can be and at the most senior level she is successfull at, as quickly as possible.

If I don't spend extra effort with her, maybe my competitors will. My star performers are known to my competitors.

If she is better than me in all aspects, then I can't coach her, instead I should help her find a better coach. Apart from that situation I can still coach her.

When she gets promoted I spend the time with B.


Would Coach B

First timer on the forums, and thought this was a very interesting dilemma get get started on.

My choice for the coaching time you have available would be to concentrate on Employee B. 

Employee A is already above exceptional in the role and additional coaching would not substantially increase the performance of Ms A because of the limitations of the current role.  Ms A is already ready for promotion, and it is often only after the person is actually in the promoted role that you can stretch the person further.  One of the comments that is has regularly been made so far is that Ms A would be promoted into your role or equivalent, where my experience is that promotion is often not into exactly the same role as their current supervisor.  The role of the current supervisor is often two promotion steps, from your current role.  As long as promotion is not held off too long Ms A should be aware that current performance is excellent, and the rewards will be provided in due course.

Employee C is below average, but has the potential to grow in the future, but part of their future is understanding that above average performance will be needed to continue in promotion possibilities.

Employee D does not justify the extra effort, if they have already been given sufficient time to show their capabilities.  Additional time spent on coaching would improve the employee's performance, but probably just up to average level.  Generally stars show up very early in their employment, and Employee D has not shown this ability to date.

Employee B is the person that the Manager should concentrate his coaching on if he only has room for one employee.  Two major reasons. 1) As noted by a number of other commenters, the difference between above average and above exceptional is not just a 100% difference, but many multiples in difference.  Coaching Employee B could improve this employee's performance many times above where he/she is now. 2) Employee B could also be an excellent role model for Employee C.  Employee C could see that the additional work and effort could lead to bigger and better things.  While Ms A is welled liked by everyone, Employee C would not immediately see this as being an achievable position as it is so far away from where they are now to be reasonably considered achievable.

An interesting dilemma, and am interested in hearing Mark's answer.


Answer to the dilema - When?

Please can you let us know when we can expect the podcast with the answer to come by?  I am missing the when from the Who does what by when?  I can bet most of us are anxious to find the answer, and knowing when it will come out easy some of the anxiety!

I have been looking at the answers.  Lot´s of good arguments.  So I decided to place the people I know and have known at work within each slot of the dilema.  I think one can expect people to be on average and slightly above average.  I am not too sure one can produce a top performer (an A employee) out of every employee (the B employee in the dilema).  So I remain with the option to coach the C employee.

Coach them all!

I will be having One On Ones with the four of them, after all, so I'll have the opportunity --and the obligation-- to coach them all.

Manager Dilemma

Managers are problem  solvers, D is a problem. This individual needs to know that you had a choice to choose one of the four managers, and you chose D. A direct under these circumstances should get the message real fast. All A directs had to start from D.

Focus on Delta

Based on the given information, I would focus on Delta. As a manager, I'm responsible for my teams contributions to the organization. Delta is not meeting the minimum standards and therefore the team is not meeting the goals for the organization.

I would utilize Alpha, as it was suggested they are about ready for a promotion, and provide them an opportunity to grow by allowing them to work with Bravo and Charlie to improve their performance. This would be occurring while I was working with Delta.

With Delta, my focus would be on bringing them up to meeting the minimum standards. This effort would have to be limited in duration so as not to continue on a path that is not going to be fruitful. If Delta was able to meet the standards, I would reassess at that point as to the future direction to take. If Delta was not able to meet the standards in some defined duration, then would need to part ways before the team begins to suffer in performance.


My call: Focus on B

 We should be coaching them all via our O3s right....

My assumption in making this answer - potentially bad - is that there are no opportunities for you to be promoted/moved sideways into. This is on the basis that Alpha sounds ready to take on your role.

As I have said Alpha sounds ready to move on and in the interests of themselves/the company it should be encouraged. Provide them pointers in respect to their network. Charlie and Delta need coaching and providing them with such an input of your time should produce results but there is a risk that they will continue to fall short. 

Bravo has shown promise through their results and so is most likely to benefit from the investment in your time.

Massively curious to see how this pans out....


Coach B

I would coach B:

The A is already above exceptional performance. He's ready for promotion, so he doesn't need a coaching to grow. His development must be hold back by his current role, the promotion will unleash his growth.

The D is performing below the inacceptable level. Coaching him wouldn't probably be the best manager's investment. But there is something else to be done because such a team member is holding back the whole team.

Between B and C, the B who is performing above average has a best potential => invest in B.

Looking forward to hear the M&M's answer.

Thanks for this interactive thing!


Focus on A starting to Coach B

If A is such a high performer, ready for promotion, then I'd ask A to start coaching B on one of B's opportunities for growth.

In effect, you are coaching A to coach B, killing two birds with one stone. The process sees the Manager (me) asking performer A to develop her coaching skills using a real scenario that will benefit the team, and individual A and B.

It may be awkward and will require some pre-wiring with both A and B, yet if my time is scarce and do not have time to coach both, then let A coach B. This would part of a continued development plan for myself, as i get relief in a coaching duty, allowing me to take on a more important task, it allows A to act as if she were the Manager in the coaching respect, and B gets development opportunity.



Coach A - Managerial Economics 101!

Manegerial Economics suggests that we should spend the most valuable resource we have on the resources that produce the most valuable return.

That said, it would not be cool to ignore the others so I would allocate my time as follows: I imagine I have 9 units of time, say half-hours. A would get 4, B would get 3, C would get 2 and D would get 1 half-hour.

Executed well, you could have a situation where A is coaching B and C and B coaching D.

Focus on B

I agree with Promanov's rationale.  It is in the best interest of the department to have as many exceptional performers as possible. 

If one coaches B to exceptional performance, the team's performance will improve short team and long term.   If I'm promoted and/or A is promoted, the department could suffer if B is not ready to be exceptional. 

Cast already out!!!

I have not listened to the cast.  Trying to catch up on the cast.

I would choose A (top performer).  That is what Marcus Buckingham said to do with my own skills.  I see this as an extension to the group.

If I were really smart, I would get A to coach B.  This is what is going to happen after I get promoted :).



Delta: coaching is the tool you use to help meet goals.

Of the three lines in the road, only the acceptable performance line between Charlie and Delta is an objective measure. Median performance is relative. Exceptional performance is subjective.

It strikes me that in some but not all situations Alpha's exceptional performance can compensate for Delta's unacceptable performance. The type of work you do indicates the type of answer you are predisposed to give. If you manage a team of widget makers where Alpha may make 100 widgets an hour while Delta only makes 10, boosting Alpha's productivity only 20 percent will realize a better payoff than boosting Delta's even 100 percent. On the other hand if you manage surgeons it is imperative that your entire team operates within the realm of acceptable performance. Exceptional Alpha cannot raise the dead patients of Delta We're more like surgeons than widget makers where I'm at.

I would give Alpha more resources generally. Pay, bonuses, equipment, head count, vacation days, company cars, training, etc.

Many other commentators assume Delta is a lost cause but after listening to the show again I don't think this is warranted. She isn't hitting metrics. These are goals. Coaching is the manager tool you use to get your people to meet goals. Of course, if the dilemma is 'Who do you coach: Someone you are about to fire or anyone else on your staff," go with anyone else.

Coaching isn't what you use to develop an Alpha. Sometimes it's hard to find goals for an Alpha. Sometimes you try and you make an unattainable goal. This sort exercise can be rewarding for an Alpha, but now you're fiddling while Rome burns. The best way to develop your Alphas is through delegation.

Also, I'm the Alpha where I work. More coaching wouldn't make my job better. The worst part of my job is cleaning up after Delta.

I disagree: All directs do

I disagree: All directs do NOT start from D. Some start in a job at a B or C level. I doubt any start at an A level, but directs don't necessarily start at an unacceptable level.

Scott Delinger

DiSC: 5137

Love the surgeons analogy

 On the other hand if you manage surgeons it is imperative that your entire team operates within the realm of acceptable performance. Exceptional Alpha cannot raise the dead patients of Delta We're more like surgeons than widget makers where I'm at.

That's both insightful AND funny, FE3MIKE.

I haven't listened to the "real" answer yet, but I'm impressed by yours.

Answer is A

A is most valuable to the organization.  Can easily rationalize this decision by making part of Coaching A be for that person to Coach B. 

I would coach C

There are several different ways to resolve this scenario, but since you are looking for 1, I would look to coach "C".  "A" & "B" are already meeting and/or exceeding the metrics and should be rewarded for their work so that they feel appreciated.  This may bring "B" up a level as well.

I would also look at "D" to see why the metrics are not being met.  Is this a "Skill vs. Will" issue.  If it is a "Skill" issue, some peer training by "A" or "B" will bring "D" up and give the others recognition.  If it is a "Will" issue, then you know "D" is on his way out.  Either way, working with "D" will not take up too much of your time.

The focus should be on "C".  Let's find out why "C" is in this situation, again "Skill vs. Will", and pour fuel on the spark so it becomes a roaring fire. I would also use "A" and "B" as peer mentors so that the time spent on "C" can be multiplied exponentially.  This way, as a leader, I have duplicated my efforts and have helped "A" and "B" to become leaders, which should be the #1 goal of every leader.

Yes, coach D

The question is, do you coach D as well as A, B and C or do you give up on them as a lost cause. Whether or not D responds well the the coaching and whether or not you get a good return on your investment of time, you must be seen to be fair to maintain respect and trust. For this reason, you do coach D.

Apart from anything else, I think it's a professional responsibility, as has been observed before.

All the comments about getting the most return from coaching A are true but I just don't think that's the point here.

I would coach A

If I had to pick one it would be A,
however D would be the easiest to teach,
because there would be more to teach D,
less to prepare for D/more things to ask D to do
to improve every week, while A would be difficult
require more preparation, better and more precise guidance
with no tolerance for mistakes. A would be more of a challenge
and more rewarding to work with because of the dedication
to achieving.

However, I have to say D requires the first look
because if D is unhappy and sinking the ship,
taking on water while the rest of the team is bailing D out,
then a solution must be found for D first.
Also by this logic, C has to checked second, and then B,
finally A, just to make sure from bottom to top
that no one person is suddenly going to drastically ruin the team.

Most importantly, my reasoning for going to A first is that A 
would be able to help D with more coaching
thereby training A to be a better future team leader, hopefully.
But I guess if A hated D then move on down the list
and see if A can help C and B can help D
or B can help C if A helps D.