Coaching “Drivers”


The men and women who occupy many of corporate America’s most influential leadership positions ascend to those roles based on their decisiveness, drive for success and ability to achieve results in challenging, high-risk environments.

The other side of the mental toughness Drivers[1] bring to the organizations they lead is the tendency to avoid acknowledging and engaging with the emotional or human element. When threatened, their strong bias toward action, combined with the lack of mindful awareness of what’s going on internally, their motivation and uncertainty puts them at risk for making emotionally driven decisions that hurt their careers and the organizations they lead.

An Executive Coach with highly developed emotional intelligence can be invaluable to reckless driving drivers if they can engage their interest long enough to introduce them to the strange new world of feelings, needs, and emotions – in other words building up their empathic side.   For several mostly obvious reasons, drivers are not natural candidates for coaching, and when they do wind up working with a coach, it is only after trying and failing and trying and failing repeatedly on their own.

Drivers are often unaware of their impact on others. Being quite self-confident and self-reliant, they rarely ask for feedback about how others experience them. Their aggressive nature and intimidating body language in response to feedback discourages others from offering honest feedback. So it is not unusual when there is a considerable gap between their self-perceptions and the perceptions others have of them.

In fact, while drivers have a long history of secretly or not so secretly feeling contempt coaching and those who take advantage of it, once they connect with a coach, their experience can be quite profound.  Drivers often suffer emotionally – feeling alone, unloved, empty, needy for intimacy, understanding, being taken care of – but like other pain, learn to live with and ignore it.  That’s just how warriors roll.  So when they make a connection to someone they can respect and trust – someone who listens and makes them feel understood and able to talk about their pain, they can keep it going indefinitely.

Case Illustration

In the six months since he was hired by the CEO to turn around the Mutual Funds area of The Heritage Bank, John assessed the department, and acted quickly and decisively to address problems and bring an aggressively competitive attitude to a bloated and underperforming organization. He cut expenses by 20%, replaced half of his management team with trusted and loyal people from his former company, and put in place new, more effective procedures and processes.  He had town hall meetings but little time to spend getting to understand Heritage people and helping them to understand him.  His focus was on implementing the ideas he was certain would turn Heritage around. Indeed, after less than six months, Mutual Funds outperformed expectations by 20%.

At first, his direct, highly goal oriented approach was a breath of fresh air.  There was no disagreement that the Mutual Funds department had gotten too comfortable under his long-tenured predecessor. Many of his decisions were right on the mark.  Trouble was, that they were his.  John never took the time to engage his organization in a way that would make the change effort “ours”.

Relying increasingly on a small circle of people he brought with him from his former bank, an “inner” and “outer” circle emerged. By dismantling the programs Heritage people built without much input or dialogue, he quickly lost the initial enthusiasm and good will of many key Heritage executives. The good work that existed when John arrived was ignored, and his fault finding approach lead people to feel blamed, criticized and belittled. John understood the resulting lack of enthusiasm and disaffection as confirmation that Heritage executives “just didn’t get it”, were “resistant to change”, or lacked the “proactive” attitude he was looking for. The climate became increasingly tense and divisive. The intent of his behavior and decisions were being read more and more negatively (“he wants get credit for himself…to further his own career…to drive us out…”). From John’s perspective, his actions came out of the best intentions – to rescue the business and the jobs that went with it.  He felt unappreciated and misunderstood.

It would have taken several more months for him to recognize the imploding downward spiral – he was not listening and employees had no reason to believe that giving him feedback would be anything short of career suicide – had John not met with an executive coach who was gathering feedback on behalf of another Heritage executive beginning coaching.  He decided to engage this coach himself to help him figure out how to deal with this “change resistant culture” he inherited.

It was clear from the start that John had plenty of his own “change resistance”. Not unlike the Heritage employees he wanted to help, John was happy to embrace getting help as long as he controlled it. While the coach could have provided a number of excellent suggestions (as John provided to Heritage employees), he was respectful of John’s need to feel understood, appreciated, and respected before listening to the coach’s ideas.

The coach spent two full sessions focused on allowing John to tell his story and feeding back his understanding of John’s world. Drivers are used to being in the “drivers seat”.  They want advice but their competitive, independent and perfectionistic nature makes them prone to experiencing help as a challenge to their competency and image of themselves as in command.  Hierarchically oriented, they are very sensitive to feeling talked down to and feel easily criticized. They learn best that which they discover themselves.

It was no surprise that, like any good “Alpha Male” being challenged, he asserted his upper hand (marked his territory) with the coach by keeping him waiting, answering “important” calls during sessions and frequently rescheduling. His coach was rarely consulted on the very people decisions he was engaged to help him make, until after the fact.

The coach addressed these issues by asking questions that lead John to more directly express his negative feelings about being helped including his biases toward consultants and “shrinks”. This was followed by negotiating a mutually agreeable coaching process with clearly defined expectations. The firm but friendly way the coach responded lead John to trust and respect him (not such a wimp after all). John’s resistant posturing decreased after that.

The next few sessions focused on exploring John’s “connecting style”.  This simple survey places individuals in one of four styles – Driver/Director, Energizer/Team Builder, Supportive/Team Player, or Analytical/Critical Thinker. This instrument is judgment-free. John of course, was a Driver as were his closest advisors.  But he saw that most of his organization fell into one of the other three styles. This exercise made him aware of his strong bias toward his preferred style and impatience with people who approached work differently. He was able to accept the possibility that a diversity of equally good complementary styles is good for the bottom line.

By the time a 360-degree feedback survey was conducted and fed back, John was reasonably comfortable with his coach and more receptive to the unfiltered feedback from people who had built up a lot of anger.  The 360-feedback could now be understood as a result of the way he behaved under stress.  This really helped to protect his “ego”, and lead to a series of very constructive meetings with his team in which he encouraged and validated their feedback and feelings (as the coach did with him).

After 4 months of coaching, John developed a fuller understanding of the impact of his behavior, decisions and style on his peers and team.  He rethought his role and spent considerably more time listening, including others and “communicating”. He began to recognize the detrimental impact of his frustration on team building.  Just as the coach engaged him by understanding before insisting on being understood, so John understood how “decisiveness” without sensitivity will inevitably lead to   making people feel criticized, demeaned and micromanaged. This in turn leads them to mark their territory, albeit passive aggressively. John began to take on the role of a “Coaching Executive”. He developed better listening skills and learned to ask questions in a curious rather than interrogating fashion.

Aware of just how much his moods shut people down, he started to make self-deprecating jokes to diffuse tension and let people know he was “human”. Ultimately, he reengaged a few strong but disaffected Heritage managers.  Many continued to stew (naturally these were the Drivers).

Principles of Effective Coaching with Drivers

Introducing Coaching 

  1. The way the candidate is selected and coaching  is introduced is crucial.  A discussion between the referring individual/sponsor and the coach is critical to assessing receptivity to coaching. Just as the professional athletes who resist coaching are, regardless of talent, viewed as likely to derail, so should Drivers who resist coaching be viewed as being at risk for failing as leaders.
  2. When introducing coaching keep in mind that Drivers are wary of being “sold” or of having help imposed on them. The sponsor should allow the client to decide and define the process as it makes sense to them. “Coaching has been a helpful resource and has benefited colleagues facing similar challenges.  But you decide – it may or may not be helpful. Talk to some of your peers who have had a coach. Let me know what you decide.”
  3. Allow others to be aware that the Executive is working with a coach. Often, simply the fact that they are working with a coach makes them seem more “human” and accessible. This has an immediate impact of easing the tension around them.

Leveraging the Coaching Relationship

  1. Ironically, Drivers respect and trust most those coaches who are least easily intimidated or impressed/seduced by their power. If the coach is too eager to prove themselves, they will come across as too junior.     What this case does not illustrate is how easily coaching can derail prematurely if the coach is not prepared to effectively deal with people who are expert at making others feel “off-balance”, slightly insecure, guilty, or never quite good enough.  Knowing that Drivers can put people on a pedestal one minute and hold them in contempt the next, contributes to the strong temptation to please them.  But the coach loses their usefulness if they allow their need to feel admired influence their professional judgment. If the coach is not on top of his or her feelings, they can find themselves becoming “yes man/woman” or surrogate.

Coaching Approach

  1. For many Drivers, the 360 feedback process in combination with Executive Coaching, forces them to constructively confront their defensiveness and realize the extent to which they compromise the quality of their decisions by insulating themselves from contradictory opinions.
  2. As with anyone, conveying a non-judgmental understanding of the client’s experience is first and foremost. While clients want direct advice (because it is direct and takes less time), it is often more effective to ask the questions that will allow the driver to arrive at their own answers. While tough on the outside, most “drivers” feel more alone and misunderstood than they would admit. They are not touchy-feely and don’t like to ask for “understanding”.  But they appreciate the feeling of somebody really “getting them”. Clients also appreciate the coach being able to demonstrate an understanding of their organization and business.

Common Critical Development Needs

  1. The coach as role model is an important success factor. The way the coach responds to the client when facing speed bumps in the relationship models an alternative, more effective way of communicating and resolving problems. Through the coaching relationship, the client can learn the value of:
    • Active listening and the power of empathy in breaking down walls
    • Asking good questions
    • Responding to attacks without taking it personally
    • Giving feedback (praise and corrective feedback)
  1. For Drivers, stress and anger management are critical skill-sets to develop.  Under stress the driver can quickly go from inspiring leader to “ramrod”, when they do the most damage to relationships. A critical part of coaching includes helping them to read the signs that their frustration is building and provide tools for reining in their anger.  Drivers are without question, at risk for stress related illness including high blood pressure, heart disease, GI problems, migraines, etc.  We encourage our clients to get a full medical workup when they start coaching.  Often the bad news is that they discover a problem, like high blood pressure.  The good news is that they can address it before it causes damage and it helps motivate them to find more effective ways to handle stress.
  2. Learning to shift from judging to understanding mode is fundamental to effective leadership.  The “black-white” and “right-wrong” thinking is especially pronounced under stress and it really interferes with collaboration and decision-making.  They approach disagreement with the assumption that they know everything they need, to know they are right. Their impatience makes it aggravating for them to have to step back and “understand” the other perspective, or even include people with diverse perspectives into the decision making process. “I already know I am right.  It’s a waste of time. I just need to figure out how to convince the other person.” Through coaching they can make good progress in developing their capacity for inquiry and questioning their own assumptions. This approach communicates genuine respect for and a desire to understand other points of view and other people. That goes a long way toward building trust, not to mention making better decisions.
  3. Managing time.  If the client has no time for coaching it means they are spending it wrong and involved in too much.  Drivers need permission to give themselves a vacation from responsibility. They are often overworked because they undervalue their contribution as leader and insist on getting involved in the more tangible challenges and details.  They need to spend more time in recovery and renewal away from the action so they can hone their unique understanding of the big picture.  They have to take the risks of delegating more and handing over ownership to people in the inner and out circles.

[1] For the purpose of this discussion, we want to exclude those who also demonstrate a pattern of lying, manipulation, or abusive behavior followed by little or no remorse. They are more or less uncoachable.

Leave a Reply