The logic is this. After identifying and choosing strategies to accomplish goals, clients need to organize these strategies into a plan. In this task, counselors help clients come up with the plan itself, that is, the sequence of actions—what should I do first, second, and so forth—to turn the goal into an outcome. However, the execution of these tasks—and all the tasks of the problem-management process—is often much messier. Therapist need to understand where their clients are in the geography of helping, and what they are struggling with in order to know how to intervene.

The Case of Frank: No Plan of Action

The lack of a plan—that is, a clear step-by-step process to accomplish a goal— keeps some clients mired in their problem situations. Consider the case of Frank, a vice president of a large West Coast corporation.

Frank was a go-getter. He was very astute about business and had risen quickly through the ranks. Vince, the president of the company, was in the process of working out his own retirement plans. From a business point of view, Frank was the heir apparent. But there was a glitch. Vince was far more than a good manager; he was a leader. He had a vision of what the company should look like 5 to 10 years down the line. Early on, he saw the power of the Internet and used it wisely to give the business a competitive edge.

Though tough, Vince related well to people. People constituted the human capital of the company. He knew that products and people kept customers happy. He also took to heart the results of a millennium survey of some two million employees in the United States. One of the sentences in the summary of the survey results haunted him—“People join companies but leave supervisors.” In the “war for talent,” he couldn’t afford supervisors who alienated their team members.

Frank was quite different. He was a “hands-on” manager, meaning, in his case, that he was slow to delegate tasks to others, however competent they might be. He kept second-guessing others when he did delegate, reversed their decisions in a way that made them feel put down, listened poorly, and took a fairly short-term view of the business—“What were last week’s figures like?” He was not a leader but an “operations” man. His direct reports called him a micromanager.

One day, Vince sat down with Frank and told him that he was considering him as his successor down the line, but that he had some concerns. “Frank, if it were just a question of business acumen, you could take over today. But my job, at least in my mind, demands a leader.” Vince went on to explain what he meant by a leader and to point out the things in Frank’s style that had to change.

So Frank did something that he never thought he would do. He began seeing a coach. Roseanne had been an executive with another company in the same industry but had opted to be a consultant for family reasons. Frank chose her because he trusted her business acumen. That’s what meant most to him. They worked together for over a year, often over lunch and in hurried meetings early in the morning or late in the evening. And, indeed, he valued their dialogues about the business.

Frank’s ultimate aim was to become president. If getting the job meant that he had to try to become the kind of leader his boss had outlined, so be it. Because he was very bright, he came up with some inventive strategies for moving in that direction. But he could never be pinned down to an overall program with specific milestones by which he could evaluate his progress. Roseanne pushed him, but Frank was always “too busy” or would say that a formal program was “too stifling.” That was odd, because formal planning was one of his strengths in the business world.

Frank remained as astute as ever in his business dealings. But he merely dabbled in the strategies meant to help him become the kind of leader Vince wanted him to be. Frank had the opportunity of not just correcting some mistakes, but also developing and expanding his managerial style. But he blew it. At the end of 2 years, Vince appointed someone else president of the company.

Frank never got his act together. He never put together the kind of change program needed to become the kind of leader Vince wanted as president. Why? Frank had two significant blind spots that the consultant did not help him overcome. First, he never really took Vince’s notion of leadership seriously. So he wasn’t really ready for a change program. He thought the president’s job was his and that business acumen alone would win out in the end. Second, he thought he could change his management style at the margins, even though more substantial changes were called for.

Roseanne never challenged Frank as he kept “trying things” that never led anywhere. Maybe things would have been different if she had said something like, “Come on, Frank, you know you don’t really buy Vince’s notion of leadership. But you can’t just give lip service to it. Vince will see right through it. We’re just messing around. You don’t want a program because you don’t believe in the goal. Let’s do something or call these meetings off.” If she had challenged him like this, Frank probably would have said, “I think I need a different consultant.” In a way she was a coconspirator because she, too, relished their business discussions. When Frank didn’t get the job, he left the company, leaving Roseanne to ponder her success as a consultant but her failure as a coach.

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