Fun coaching case study: Career coaching for an elf who desperately wants to be a dentist

By: Andrew Neitlich

Center for Executive Coaching


Following is a coaching conversation, in the spirit of parody, that is about  career coaching on the surface. However, it’s really about a couple of other things, too:

  1. the risks when leadership provides coaching to employees, and their agenda is different than pure professional development;
  2. what can go wrong when coaching is not confidential;
  3. what can happen when the coach gets directive with his or her own agenda; and
  4. why it is a mistake when organizations confuse progressive discipline with professional development coaching.

As you read the following conversation, list the places where the coaching is ineffective, and evaluate the reasons why. What can you learn for your own coaching practice, as well as the conditions you need to set up a productive coaching relationship?

Coach: As you know, management here at the North Pole engaged me because they are concerned that your performance has slipped. Even though you are on progressive discipline for your poor performance as a toy maker, as well as your frequent absences at choir practice, they wanted to invest in some coaching for you to see if we can’t get your performance back on track.

Hermey: Is what I tell you confidential?

Coach: Well, I’m partly here to evaluate your intentions and report back to senior leadership. But I’m also here to try to help you get re-engaged here as a toy maker. Ideally your performance will speak for itself!

Hermey: Hmm. I don’t know if I can trust you. Everyone around here seems to feel like they would be better off without me.

Coach: Well, how about if we give it a try and see if this can bring some value to you. As I understand it, you want to be a dentist, and that might be a factor in your recent slip in performance. Is that correct?

Hermey: Yes.

Coach: May I ask how you concluded that you want to be a dentist?

Hermey: I can’t say for sure. I’ve just always had a passion for teeth. And then I got this book about teeth and being a dentist and I can’t focus on anything else. All I want to do is be a dentist. I am fascinated by teeth!

Coach: I hear you, but can you tell me a bit more about why? What is it about teeth that get you so passionate?

Hermey: I don’t know. I love dentistry. No one gets me. You don’t get me, either. I guess I’m just a misfit.

Coach: Well, let’s not jump to conclusions. Perhaps if we explore your talents we can understand a bit more. What would you say are your top strengths?

Hermey: I don’t really know that I have any, outside of being a dentist. All I know is that I’m constantly being yelled at by my manager for poor performance and for not fitting in. Let’s just say that making toys is not my strength.

Coach: Are you sure? Maybe you do have the talent and you just don’t feel motivated.

Hermey: It’s hard to do a good job when I want to be doing something else, like cleaning and fixing teeth, so badly. I am in our Elf choir and I’m fairly musical, but I get so distracted reading my dentist book that I sometimes don’t show up for practice. If I had to say, I suppose I’m best at reading my book about teeth and thinking about being a dentist.

Coach: What other career paths have you considered besides being a dentist?

Hermey: Nothing else really. In the North Pole there’s really only one career path for an Elf, and that’s to make toys and then maybe rise up to be am Elf toy foreman. Options are kind of limited up here. So I haven’t been exposed to other career paths. Then I found this book about teeth and being a dentist. Once I did, it was as if a whole new, wonderful, magical world opened up for me.

Coach: Surely there are other options besides being a dentist? Perhaps if we took some time to explore them….

Hermey: Why are you so opposed to my being a dentist? You are just like everyone else up here. I thought coaches were supposed to be unbiased, but it seems like you’re just a pawn for the leadership team here, trying to keep me in my place.

Coach: Not at all. I’m trying to do what’s best for you, senior leadership, and the entire organization. How about if we try to explore another line of inquiry, if that’s okay with you? Perhaps you can tell me your action plan to become a dentist?

Hermey: I have a great plan. What I’m going to do is run away to a faraway place until I find a school to get my dentistry degree. Sometimes I’ll hike through the snow. Sometimes I’ll float on a piece of an iceberg over frozen seas. Eventually I’ll get someplace where I can get my degree and set up a practice somewhere.

Coach: You live on the North Pole. That’s a long way to travel in the frozen tundra, especially when you are so small and with reports of an Abominable Snowman lurking about.

Hermey: Who cares? I’m passionate and if you do what you love, good things follow.

Coach: What’s your plan to stay warm?

Hermey: I’m not worried.

Coach: What’s your plan to get food along the way, for instance by hunting seals or polar bears?

Hermey: I’m a vegetarian so I don’t have to worry about that either.

Coach: What about the Abominable Snowman?

Hermey: He’ll never find me. It’s not like I’m walking around with a big red light flashing around me.

Coach: I guess what I’m saying is that it seems quite dangerous and nobody wants you to get hurt. What are other ways you might learn to be a dentist, while still working here safely and while earning your keep?

Hermey: I’m stumped. What are you thinking?

Coach: Do you mind if I share my thoughts?

Hermey: That’s why I asked.

Coach: It seems to me that you are being quite impulsive here. You are thinking of putting yourself at significant risk just to become a dentist. I think you are so disengaged with toy making that you are looking for an escape, and being a dentist is what you came up with in order to avoid the opportunities right here in front of you. My guess is that if you took some time to explore other options, we could find you a career path that you will love even more, and perhaps we can even convince leadership to invest in your professional development. But first you have to improve your performance as a toy maker and also show up for choir practice. What do you think?

Hermey: Whatever….

Coach: May I share another insight?

Hermey: Why not? You seem to be on a roll.

Coach: I wonder if you might not be doing all of this just to get attention. I mean, here you are in the North Pole, one Elf among many. It’s hard to be an individual. I wonder if you haven’t picked dentistry just to stand out from the crowd.

Hermey: Geez, you are quite a shrink. I thought coaching was different than therapy. Why can’t you accept that I love teeth and the dental profession is my calling? What have you got against being a dentist?


How would you rate this coaching session? How would the leadership team rate it? The coach? The Elf?

I would argue that this was not a good session for a few reasons:

  • There is no clear intent. It seems like the Elf is interested in a different outcome than the coach and the leadership team. The Elf is interested in pursuing his dream and being accepted. The coach and the leadership team seem more interested in getting the Elf to perform in his current role.
  • There is no confidentiality, and so the Elf doesn’t trust the coach.
  • The coach frequently directs the conversation to represent his and the leadership team’s agenda. In essence the coach is doing the leadership team’s dirty work for them, by serving more as a manager than a coach.

Another feature of this conversation is that the company uses coaching as a synonym for progressive discipline. In the past, coaching was what organizations did for employees they were probably going to fire. They called this process progressive discipline, basically putting the employee in probation and documenting cause for termination.

Today, coaching has evolved. It is a proven leadership development tool for high-potential employees and top performers. Unfortunately, many people still associate coaching with progressive discipline. It is important for organizations to separate the two different activities clearly.

Finally, would you accept a coaching engagement without all parties agreeing that the coaching will be confidential (unless your client confessed to doing something illegal, or threatened to hurt himself or others)? I wouldn’t. Nor would I accept an engagement with an unclear intent, or one in which the client, sponsor, and coach are all in agreement about the positive outcomes to achieve through coaching.


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