Talent Coaching And Empathy


By Buzz Knight
If your job involves coaching talent and getting maximum performance, and you aren’t getting the best out of your people, stop and take a deep breath. It may be time for a reset. Your relationship with the talent is likely way overdue for a reset. Maybe the relationship is broken beyond repair. More than likely, if you have had success with the talent in the past, it is fixable.

An empathetic ear as a coach is more important than ever as life moves at a dizzying pace. I have wondered often how John Wooden the greatest coach of our generation would have handled coaching if he switched professions to our business. Even though he never mentions the word empathy in this quote, he is clearly thinking about coaching with an empathetic ear: “A mentor must always guide, never push. It was my job to listen to them, to offer my perspective, and encourage them to pursue the ideals they believe to be true.”

Although the entire statement is brilliant, the key words that jump out to me are “listen” and “encourage.” I believe those of us who have spent time in our career as on-air talent have a different appreciation for what empathy means to coaching and how it’s the key to unlocking success.

Think about what your talent has been through in the six hours that they have been up as you sit down with them for your weekly session. They are in the post-show haze as the adrenaline rush and coffee buzz is starting to wear down. Your job is not going to have a good chance of success in that meeting if you start by dumping a boatload on them. Six sales requests, two appearance requests, and four pages of the newest Media Monitors information is going to be met more than likely with a shutdown.

As management guru Peter Drucker would say, “Management’s job is to simplify.” I suggest simplifying your talent-coaching meeting by listening to what your talent is saying about their performance and being encouraging, while course correcting if needed. In his great book from 2012, To Sell is Human: The surprising truth about moving others, Daniel Pink has a great perspective on management that is applicable to this theme of empathy. He says, ” Increase your power by reducing it.” Sounds like it could have come from Coach Wooden doesn’t it? Pink goes on to describe a study that social scientists at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management conducted about the relationship between perspective-taking empathy and power. The researchers concluded, “power leads individuals to anchor too heavily on their own vantage point, insufficiently adjusting to others’ perspective.”

Sometimes talent coaching goes astray when it is a rushed process that isn’t allowed to breathe. Just like a great on-air performance needs that ability to breathe, so does the interaction between talent and coach. Coaches need to be liked and respected to achieve effective coaching and they need to make the coaching part of their job one of the highest priorities. Coaching cannot just be an item on a “To Do” list that gets checked off, allowing the manager to move on to the next item. By honing the ability to ask the right questions and then being a great listener, coaches can excel at making talent better performers while improving the coach/talent relationship. Talent needs to be willing to be coached as well as have good listening skills, but we as coaches need to master the art of empathetic listening.

Coach Wooden once again on empathy, without actually saying the word : “I remain convinced to this day that compassion like sincerely caring for your players and maintaining an active interest in their lives and motivations is one of the most important qualities a coach can have.” Once again I single out key words like “caring” and “interest” that, to me, equate with empathy and coaching.

Two other modern-day coaching experts who would be amazing to observe if they coached in the media business provide similar lessons on coaching effectiveness. One is Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) of Duke, who fosters the “connection culture,” where a shared identity, empathy, and understanding moves a group of diverse individuals to a better team connection. The other is Joe Madden, the manager of the Chicago Cubs whose core philosophy as a leader, mentor, and coach is that as a manager it’s not about you. It’s about listening and encouraging with a firm and steady hand.


  1. While Buzz may not be having the experiences – personally – there are still a thousand PD’s who are placed in a “coaching” position within their organizations.
    Talent is reluctant to pay much attention, even as they have to pretend to do so, and for a number of reasons:
    The talent already knows they are being suppressed – if not oppressed – into irrelevancy. This, while too many PD’s would lack credibility. But, as is mostly the case, they do have some authority – a disheartening circumstance.
    As a result, the PD’s are delivering questionable material based on old-school dogma – while providing little, valuable and useful strategies for better communications. “Slow down!” however, is still a bit of info that should be applied in many cases.
    I think Buzz might agree that, too often, “talent” don’ trust nobody – and is fearful of everybody.


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