Coaching in Awkward Situations


Coaching moments are not always obvious. What might start out as a humorous, questionable, or awkward situation may evolve into a perfect opportunity to step back and provide some impactful advice and counsel.

Our team’s global teleconference calls frequently provided just that chance. We regularly had ~300 people from more than 10 countries and 50 locations on our quarterly updates. Our operations reviews had slightly fewer participants.

You know the drill – regular, virtual meetings to update everyone on the progress and activities of the organization.

Typically, you learn to recognize voices quickly. Regardless, many insist on continuing to re-introduce themselves to the audience that already knows them well. “Yes, Emily, please continue.”

You also learn speakers’ habits … especially of those who participate frequently. Some speakers may have speech patterns or verbal ticks that can become annoying to some audiences. Some may even become chat-room fodder for the distracted teleconference meeting participants.

Let’s start here.


Saying Um

When Opportunity Strikes

Conference calls can be tough. Staying on track and being both effective and efficient with time is a challenge. Echoes due to poor phone connections, background noises, the unintentional use of the mute button, and questions such as “Can you go back one slide?” make achieving all of the call’s goals difficult.

One of our peer directors that had a key role in cross-organizational communications was required to speak often; he regularly led the conference calls. He had one of those vocal habits that grated on people, like fingernails on a chalkboard: he constantly used filler expressions. Filler expressions are useless words or phrases that create a pause in the conversation such as, “I mean” or “you know.” If used infrequently, they are less obvious as audiences usually focus on digesting key messages rather than analyzing every single word streaming from the speaker’s mouth.

Most of us are prone to use a filler word or two. Like, I mean, you know, those words that do, er, absolutely nothing for the content of the conversation other than creating an, um, you know, annoying or distracting pause. Right?

Derek’s vocalized pause of choice was “Um” and he said it quite often. Actually, he said “um” so often that nearly everyone on our calls became absorbed with keeping and posting the “count” on a subgroup instant message thread during our 100+ person calls.

“10! 25! 50!” And, so it went. Needless to say, this little “joke” got old fast and meetings devolved to the point where we all thought, “I hope Derek is not speaking today.” Unfortunately, he always did speak and everyone continued to keep score, whether consciously or subconsciously.

During one such two-hour meeting the count neared 100. Something had to be done. Instead of Derek’s intended message coming through to the audience, the “ums” seemed to completely obscure his important business communications.

What should be done about this?


Stop Saying Um Star Trek

Time to Coach

I thought about this for a bit after one call and felt terrible that one of my peers was unknowingly being mocked due to something that many speakers suffer from, so I called his office.

“Hey, Derek. What did you think of that call?” We chatted for a few minutes. “Derek, I have a question for you. Has anyone ever given you feedback about your speaking style?” “No, Michael, no one has. Why?”

I knew Derek well and I was confident that he wouldn’t mind my ribbing him so I decided to use his filler word of choice in my explanation.

“Derek, um, I want to share something about, um, the way you, um, speak during our calls. Um, you have a tendency to, um, say ‘um’ often. In fact, way too often.”

No one had ever bothered to share this issue with Derek. I was nervous at first, but he took it well. His involvement in our organization and business meetings was too important for his communications problem to be treated as flippantly as it had been.

Derek asked, “What should I do about it?” I inquired if he had ever considered Toastmasters. He hadn’t. I suggested that he seriously consider joining them and added that the company would probably pay for it.

He thanked me with deep sincerity and an also-noticeable degree of embarrassment. I told him that he’d do just fine!

Derek enrolled in Toastmasters shortly after the conversation. I told our boss what I had spoken to Derek about to ensure that the idea would gain traction.


Bad Habits Die Hard

And In the End

I shared the conversation with several of the scorekeepers over the next few weeks so that the background games would stop. Improving the habit of using filler words takes time.

At first, Derek’s pauses were more awkward than natural as he focused intently on reducing the “ums” that had infiltrated prior conversations. Sometimes improvement comes after a step or two back. By the time six months had elapsed, he was well on the way to being completely de-ummed.

At one point later that year we were together and discussed what he had been doing. Joining Toastmasters was a seminal moment for him. It had dramatically improved his speaking pattern in several ways and he was grateful that someone had been brave enough to make him aware of this habit. The conference call tracking games were now ancient history.


Making It Work … For You

What made this coaching experience successful? First, it started with a clear example of an issue to be resolved. Second, it was addressed during a private conversation because coaching is best done one-on-one as it keeps the recipient from becoming defensive or embarrassed. Third, the approach was rooted in trust, authentic concern and support. Derek had no reason to question my motives for speaking with him despite the levity of the approach I had elected to use.

As a professional, colleague, or leader, one has to remain conscious of what transpires in a given setting. Coaching moments rarely advertise themselves with bright, flashing neon lights. Most of the time, they are more subtle such as in the story above where they may present themselves in a more embarrassing or awkward manner.

True coaches and mentors do not shy away from these opportunities. Rather, they address the situation as a coach or advisor should, directly and candidly with the coachee. More often than not these opportunities develop into a successful endeavor.

It is very important to remain aware of the environment in which you and your colleagues are in. The subtle undertones of office humor may actually be a sign of the need for coaching intervention. The next time you encounter a situation that may require coaching, identify the issue, devise a plan, and, as a team, come up with a solution.


Michael Massetti is an Executive Partner with Gartner who really does enjoy being a supply chain professional! Seriously. All opinions are my own.

Additional articles about coaching and leadership from Michael …


Dear Dad …

Dear Dad,

Happy Father’s Day. The last time we got to spend Father’s Day together was 1979, a very long time ago. I was not yet 22. Just over one year later, you left us. It seems like forever ago. More time has passed since you died than the time I got to spend with you. We missed the best of times – the transition of a hyper-active, over-achieving first son into manhood and fatherhood.

You left suddenly on July 27, 1980 after a very long battle with heart disease. The same ugly disease that took your mom when you were only 9, your oldest brother before he turned 40, and your youngest sister. Thankfully, that gene seems to have been thwarted.


I was driven by you from as young an age as I can recall to be successful. No matter how well I did, “You can do better, Michael” was what you told me. It’s never left my psyche. I compete with myself to this day – sometimes that’s been great for me, others not so much.

I always wanted to live up to whatever hopes and expectations you had for me. I put the picture of you and me sitting on a dormitory bed at Notre Dame after the graduation ceremony in 1979 on social media every year. I know how proud that made you, you never got to finish high school. And, the one with us wearing hats on our couch with the caption “Men in hats!”

I never got to hear directly from you about how proud of me you were. Mom always told me when we reminisced about you. I learned a lot about it at your wake and funeral when the long line of friends and colleagues you had paid tribute. It did not take away the sting of your death.

I never got to call you when those life’s moments faced me and I was not really sure what to do. I never got to call you when celebrating a great moment, like the birth of my two daughters. They never got to see either grandfather as both of you died well before your times. Trust me, there were many times I needed to call you …

What lingered in my mind too long was the summer after 4th grade when you punished me to write “I must be good and I will be good” after a school year of straight A grades but “Not Acceptable” in conduct – I was very hyperactive and not challenged in school. Nevertheless, it was a very long summer being stuck in the house every day. Regardless, I knew you were serious.


What I know now that I did not know then is that you developed in me a very strong sense of self-confidence. The hyperactivity of youth became a constant personal energy source. I am always positive with a hopeful outlook on life. If I’m known for anything, it’s the smile and infectious energy that I exude, thanks to you. You instilled that hope and faith in me while pushing hard to be the best I could be.

You’d be very proud of many of the things that I’ve accomplished in my career. You’d also be disappointed of the mistakes and bad judgments I’ve made. It’s all part of life. If there’s one thing about life that I’ve learned, it’s the fact that there are no guides to al

l the situations that you will face. “C’est la vie” is one of my overused clichés.

I wanted to be a great father, a caring and loving dad. There are many great memories for my girls but many difficult moments, too. It was almost 10 years between your death and the day I got to hear “Happy Father’s Day” said to me. It was almost more 10 years afterwards that the enormity of you being gone really struck.

I was laid off of work in 2001 but was back working in just under a year, I was fortunate. But unemployment hit me hard, harder than I could understand or admit at that time. I recalled


how hard our lives were in the mid-70s when you were out of work. I feared that moment for my own life every day since and I still do as I approach 60. It scared me more than anything had up to that point in my life.

Being out of work changed me forever, in many good ways and some bad. I really needed you then, but there was no one to call. The void was overwhelming. It was Father’s Day in 2004 that it really hit me about you being gone, I broke down and cried for what seemed like an eternity.


When I look back on our short time together, I remember the great things like the first baseball game when you and our neighbor kept laughing at the goofy jokes of the ushers. The next thing we knew, we were in the seats behind home plate for the 2nd game of the double header. Or, how we managed our way through a weekend camping trip of nothing but pouring rain.




I remember the confidence you showed as we came home from a family visit in NYC when you gave me the keys to the car during another rainstorm while mom sat white-knuckled in the backseat of the car. With rain as the theme, our drive to Notre Dame the first time was wild when we could not see past the front of the Triumph Spitfire on I80 near Cleveland. All good memories.

It’s now 2017. 60 is just down the road. I’m healthy, employed, happily married, and watched my children grow. One is on the verge of great success. The other’s path is still uncertain. I did my best to get them where they have both gotten to. I know that they have to take it from here. I just wish they had met you.

Mom died three years ago. She lived happily after you left with her second husband. It’s just me, Rick, and Joanne now. Thankfully, we’re connected to many of our cousins and your closest sister, Millie.

I just visited my wife’s dad for Father’s Day, another NYC Italian of immigrants, just like you. He’s 96 and still kicking. I call him Dad. I tell my wife how lucky she is to have him around for her entire life so far, it’s a blessing.

I am grateful for every day that I have. I’ve had a lot more time than you did and I appreciate the chance to see my family all grow. I have 2 step-grandchildren, too. What a joy that is!

Well, it’s time to call it a day. To sum it all up, I beckon the call of Frankie, your musical love that has passed on down to me. In the song that you took as your own that I have since co-opted he says, “Regrets, I have a few. But, then again, too few to mention. I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption. And more, much more than this I did it my way!”


Love you, Dad!



How centerfield made me the leader I am today!

This article is dedicated to a long-time friend, mentor and leader, David Lavalette of Vermont.

  Yankee Stadium Centerfield

Leadership Lessons Learned on the Field of Play

There are myriad stories and metaphors that draw comparisons and contrasts between sports, leadership, and performance. I will add another one to that hefty list.

I played baseball and softball until my mid 40s. I loved roaming the outfield, usually centerfield. My teams won a lot of games and competed at a pretty high level. This is a story from very early in my career when the wisdom of leadership and self-awareness were completely undeveloped.

Some Thoughts About Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence surfaced in management lexicon in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee are three prominent authors and thought leaders in this area of study. Their research has shown that high-performing, financially successful organizations are highly linked to the emotional maturity of the leader. “Exemplified by such capabilities as self-awareness and empathy.”

For many years, the softer side of leadership success was discounted or ignored. Strong, intense military leaders, such as George Patton, were often used as examples of what a successful leader should be like. And, more recently, no one ever accused the legendary Steve Jobs of having a soft side.

Leaders set the tone for the organization. Their mood, approach, personality, and style flow through the organization, whether positive or negative, loud or quiet, or collaborative or confrontational. “The leader’s mood is quite literally contagious, spreading quickly and inexorably throughout the business.”

So, what should a leader focus on – the business, the data, the customers? Given the research by Goleman, et al, the answer is “A leader needs to make sure that not only is he regularly in an optimistic, authentic, high-energy mood, but also that his followers feel and act that way, too.” Goleman calls it “primal leadership.”


Just Another Day

It began innocuously. Our team had played together for three years, my first years with them. We were a solid, competitive team, battling for first place each year. Anyone who has ever played competitive sports, whether as part of a team or solo, knows that performance on any given day can be a personal best or a disaster. For me, this night was the latter.

By the middle of the game I was hitting poorly and we were losing. I lost it after I made an out at a critical point in the game. I came back to the team on the bench angry, yelling, and out of control. I was not mad at anyone but myself. I was completely oblivious to the adverse affect it had on my teammates.

At the end of the game, my coach (and co-player and co-worker) Dave came up to me. He said that I had been a very influential and positive force on the team. My energy and passion rubbed off on the team and made us better. But, he highlighted, the reverse was true when I ventured into anger and tantrums.

I had absolutely no idea. I never paid attention to the others while I was lost in my selfish world of no self-awareness, much less self-management. He delivered the message so well (wisdom of experience) that the impression was tremendous. He put his arm around me and told me to stay positive and to keep the others up, too. I was very thankful for the feedback.

I had to change. I was now aware, albeit only at the surface, of the impact one individual could have on the mood and performance of a team or group of people. The journey began.

Time Heals All Wounds

Rarely is a personal style change immediate. It was time to pay attention to myself, others around me, and be aware of my affect on others. As my career was progressing, more and more people were directly impacted by my approach and style. Thankfully, the company’s management development program was fantastic and thorough. There was a lot to learn, absorb, and practice.

At the same time, I joined softball teams that were excellent. I was able to channel the positive instead of the negative much better and winning started to come easier. Of course, there were always bad days, but I learned how to keep it inside and positive – no one play, or game, would distract me from the new course of self-management.

Everything came together in the subsequent years. My leadership roles increased. I paid very close attention to the most successful leaders around me. Certain effective leadership attributes started to surface and they had nothing to do with their technical or professional skills. It was clearly their self-awareness and how they managed their teams that made them excel.

As I practiced and employed the skills of awareness and empathy, the 360 feedback messages I received consistently improved. They accentuated the positive, inspirational, and engaged leadership impact I had developed. The journey is never over, but the influence of that night nearly 30 years ago continues to persist.

Passing It Along

There are myriad resources out there for leadership development and improving performance. I have applied the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI®) in multiple organizations to start the conversation about style differences and to encourage the dialog for all of my leaders to be aware of themselves and the impact they have on others. Personally, I had to learn how to take my ENTJ type (with the emphasis on the “E”) and effectively lead an organization.

Another set of great resources come from Patrick Lencioni and his consultancy The Table Group. His books, especially “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and “The Advantage,” are great tools for organizations to improve the overall leadership environment.

While no one is perfect, the process of self-awareness and self-management takes time, effort, and help. It is important to reach out to others to get feedback and support to work on improving one’s leadership skills. Enjoy the journey!


All references and quotes are from “Primal Leadership: The Hidden Driver of Great Performance,” Harvard Business Review, Daniel Goleman, Richard E. Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, December, 2001.


Michael Massetti is an executive who really does enjoy being a supply chain professional and a leader! While my playing days are over, I never stop learning from what goes on in the world of sports and business.