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Summary: Unlocking Potential: 7 Coaching Skills That Transform Individuals, Teams, and Organizations by Michael K. Simpson

Unlocking Potential (2014) provides practical coaching tools to empower leaders, managers, and supervisors to foster meaningful engagement with their teams and to promote positive organizational change. It serves as a comprehensive guide to becoming an exceptional coach.

Achieving success is one thing. Achieving success as a leader is quite another. Here, you’ll learn how to take your leadership to the next level: game, set, and match.

Life lessons in coaching that you can use today.


  • Want to know what it takes to become an effective leader
  • Are worried about your leadership
  • Care about your team and the people you work with

Book Summary: Unlocking Potential - 7 Coaching Skills That Transform Individuals, Teams, and Organizations


Would anyone trust a basketball coach who’d never hit the court? Of course not. But counterintuitively, too many companies are run by bosses and managers who know less about their work than those they oversee. In this book summary, Michael Simpson walks us through seven proven coaching skills and how to apply them to business—and to life.

These seven skills are:

  • building trust
  • challenging paradigms
  • strategic clarity
  • flawless execution
  • giving effective feedback
  • tapping into talent
  • moving the middle

In Unlocking Potential, business coach Michael K. Simpson explores these steps toward succeeding as a coach, leader, and mentor.

Building Trust

It should come as no surprise that being an effective coach begins with a solid foundation of trust. Without 100% trust, people will never give 100% in return. Successful coaches must fully believe in the wisdom they share, and draw upon the testing ground of personal experience to offer that wisdom.

Earning trust from a team begins with being genuinely concerned for their future and welfare. This must be done consistently and in a manner that respects the privacy of each and every individual. Merely holding a position of authority over others isn’t enough to expect automatic trust in return. In company settings where manager turnover rates are high, even when CEOs exude nothing but integrity, divisions are likely to lose morale and drive to execute their tasks in an efficient manner because they’ve learned to mistrust their immediate leadership.

One way to ensure trust is to keep confidences, no matter what. Say, for instance, that during a weekly meeting, tensions quickly arise between two employees. Rather than calling them both out in front of everyone, it would be best to speak with each of them behind closed doors, listen to both sides of the story, and work on bringing interpersonal harmony to the team. Then there could be a meeting with both of them in the same room with the goal of resetting things and moving forward. This demonstrates willingness to act as a buffer and that equal trust in both of them to work it out. In doing so, they’re given something to share — namely, their respect for you the leadership displayed — and therefore common ground on which they can rebuild their working relationship.

In this respect, coaching can be a very personal process. And it should be. Effective coaches are therefore active listeners who take into account everything going on in someone’s life when assessing potential, assigning tasks, and challenging them with new ventures. Effective coaches must also help individuals establish trustworthiness. Remember that a coaches are there to model and encourage good behavior in others.

What leaders often don’t realize is that people actually want to be coached. Effective coaching imparts a sense of purpose, confidence, and autonomy. It allows people to know exactly what’s at stake, how to achieve their goals, and what’s expected of them by doing so. In fact, according to a recent Columbia University Business School survey of 10,000 participants, nearly everyone indicated a desire for some sort of coaching in the workplace.

Challenging Paradigms

Paradigms are those deeply ingrained views that shape our ways of thinking about the world. Recognizing which paradigms are harmful or beneficial for the context at hand is part of what makes a great coach. A coach excels at turning struggles into positive experiences. These experiences make us stronger and breed innovation. Only a bad coach will try to sugarcoat every hiccup in the interest of keeping things running smoothly.

One of the most common — and most harmful — paradigms is that of inadequacy. Many of us suffer from a self-imposed “impostor syndrome,” always comparing ourselves to people who can do what we do better and faster. Such paradigms impede progress and limit individual potential. Coaches have a unique and vital opportunity to change that. Assessing paradigms, like diagnosing character and competence, is a multistep process and begins with exploring assumptions in the individual.

For example, an employee is struggling to keep up with the workload of their coworkers. Their coach invites them for a one-on-one meeting, asking them, “You seem to assume that you must work at the same level as everyone else, and it appears to be stressing you out. Why is that?” By opening up the conversation with their emotional well-being in mind, they’ll feel more comfortable about exploring a better option, whether it involves assigning different tasks, providing extra training, or taking more time to assess strengths. All it takes is that first step: expressing enough care to alter, if not replace, their paradigm in favor of something beneficial for everyone.

Next, you should probe the individual’s rationale. They’re most likely to have a slew of excuses prepared for why they act the way they do, and it’s in your best interest to get to the bottom of what’s really going on. This means questioning every viewpoint and perspective, gently yet persistently, until both parties get to the root of the problem. It is then possible to explore other options and even ask the individual why they think they’re being asked the questions they are. This gives them more of a sense of autonomy and helps them understand the coaching as being in their best interest.

Seeking Strategic Clarity

Coaches are neither dictators nor laid-back, anything-goes personalities. They exist somewhere in the middle, guiding individuals to choose wisely while nourishing personal goals in the context of a crystal-clear strategy. That said, coaches aren’t meant to impose your vision on individuals. That would be akin to forcing them into someone else’s paradigm, which would be hypocritical in light of the skill we just discussed. Rather, coaches should be helping individuals come up with their own mission statement — something realistic that they not only can follow but also want to follow.

Personal mission statements aren’t abstract ideas. They should be written out as actual documents, and coaches can help people devise their own. Effective mission statements have a few primary functions. First, they clarify only what is most important. Second, they give individuals control over their schedules instead of letting the world schedule their lives for them. Lastly, they give a deeper sense of purpose to daily life. Mission statements thus have personal as well as professional benefits, and are especially helpful for those who make their lives all about work, when it should be the other way around.

Coming up with a personal mission statement means being honest about the relationships that are most important to the individual and what they hope to achieve by maintaining and strengthening those relationships. Above all, it’s about drawing up a plan to put it all into action. In business, this means being explicitly aware of customer bases, competition, and resources — which brings us to our next skill.

Flawless Execution

This might just be the most difficult of a coach’s duties. A good coach is not only a paragon of execution; they must also inspire that drive in others. The so-called “execution gap” is one of the most substantial challenges faced by any business. The most common cause for this gap is lack of clarity regarding goals. Other factors include lack of accountability or an effective scoreboard.

Even the best strategies are destined to fail if the goals those strategies were designed for aren’t vividly clear. Flawless execution therefore begins and ends with a firm goal. Far too many people lose sight of the goal because they allow themselves to get caught up in the whirlwind of smaller tasks required of any given project. It is a coach’s responsibility to step in and remind everyone of the goal whenever necessary, making a clear distinction between the ultimate strategic goal and the immediate tasks one must push through to reach it.

None of this is possible without discipline, which the coach is also responsible for instilling. Coaches can encourage discipline by focusing on what are called Wildly Important Goals, or WIGs. WIGs are the absolutely essential goals that must be met, even at the expense of other ideas. Coaches must also act on socalled “Lead Measures,” actions over which one has control. While all this is going on, it’s helpful to keep a scoreboard in a visible location so that everyone can track their progress. Coaches must make sure that everyone — themselves included — submits to an ethic of accountability. Maintaining discipline requires that everyone understands what’s at stake when they fail to conform.

Giving Effective Feedback

The best feedback makes its recipients self-aware, focused on the tasks at hand, and motivated to achieve results. Feedback, as it’s traditionally practiced, is a topdown process, and often involves piling on criticism and advice without expecting much in return. Coaches, however, ask individuals to give feedback on themselves first. Only then do coaches offer their own observations or suggestions. Coaches don’t exist to lord their power or influence, but to build on self-awareness toward improvement. Many CEOs care little, if at all, about what their employees think, and neglect this aspect at their peril.

Coaches recognize that all people are at different stages of development — and that the last thing they need is negativity. As discussed earlier, the most common paradigm is one of self-deprecation. No one needs coaches to mirror their feelings of inadequacy, but to accept them as stepping stones toward greatness. That doesn’t mean coaches can’t be honest, but that honesty should be phrased in such a way that makes it apparent that they are invested. To do so, it’s best to focus on the hard quantifiable data of an individual’s performance, rather than on questions of personal character. A coach should amplify individuals’ self-awareness — but they are not therapists.

Tapping into Talent

Once feedback has been given and received, the next step is to work on an individual’s skills. The best coaches are those who recognize talent that others can’t see in themselves. They become that inspiration that helps people unleash their full potential. Staples founder Thomas Stemberg put this philosophy into action by going to each of his stores to ask employees how he might help them perform more effectively. This small gesture reaped big dividends, and marked Stemberg’s transformation from CEO to leader.

For the rest of us, it starts with a performance conversation in like-minded spirit. Like any conversation of accountability, it must be positive from start to finish. The coach’s goal is to focus on the data of an individual’s performance and determine — together — how to work toward improvement. After determining what this entails, the coach’s job is to step out of the way, or “clear the path.” They might still periodically ask how they can help improve things, but by then they’ve already trusted the individual enough to fulfill at least the baseline requirements without reiteration.

Moving the Middle

This is a more abstract and perhaps subjective component of effective coaching, but one that shouldn’t be ignored. Moving the middle involves shifting focus away from high performers and instead fortifying the middle ground. It’s about turning the good into the great. This doesn’t mean to ignore or stop rewarding top talents; only that due attention is given to those who wish to join their ranks. Almost everyone working in a corporate context will feel motivated by the possibility of advancement, and keeping mid-level workers stuck where they are will have an adverse effect on productivity.

Effective coaches don’t just bring in new players or seek talent outside their existing teams whenever strategies change. Instead, they look within, making sure that change is a clear expectation of their company’s work ethic, and that they’re prepared to grow with the teams as their leader. Coaches take the time to remind their teams of past successes, and to field suggestions and advice from within their ranks to achieve progress. And because so many mid-level workers are constrained in terms of what they can actually achieve, giving them opportunities to prove themselves goes a long way in unleashing that potential.

How many baseball teams, for instance, would improve as rapidly as they do if coaches didn’t take a chance on benchwarmers once in a while? Some of the game’s greatest talents only needed an opportunity to blossom.


In the end, coaching is all about people. Effective coaches must genuinely care about the people they’re coaching. Treating them like cogs in a machine guarantees that that’s exactly what they’ll be. Treating them like human beings with feelings, aspirations, and needs in line with their own is a sure way to clear the biggest hurdle toward becoming the most effective leader possible.

It’s therefore helpful to review the seven skills and keep them in mind at all times:

  • building trust
  • challenging paradigms
  • strategic clarity
  • flawless execution
  • giving effective feedback
  • tapping into talent
  • moving the middle

Whether we embody these precepts isn’t a question of innate talent. It’s something we must choose, commit to, and put into practice. And there’s no better time to start than now.

About the author

Michael K. Simpson is a best-selling author, speaker, and senior consultant at FranklinCovey. He is recognized as one of the world’s leading experts in executive coaching and leadership. Simpson has also held various academic appointments at Columbia College and the South China University of Technology. His other books include Talent Unleashed and The Execution-Focused Leader.

For more than 25 years, Michael K. Simpson has been a lauded executive coach, working with some of the world’s top businesses. His co-authored and published works include Ready, Aim, Excel and Your Seeds of Greatness.

Michael K. Simpson is one of the world’s preeminent business leadership experts and executive coaches, having spent more than twenty-five years on the vanguard of management development as an author, speaker, and senior consultant at FranklinCovey―where he taught at their Executive Leadership Summit with Dr. Stephen Covey and Dr. Ram Charan―and as a management consultant to top corporations including Marriott, GE Capital, Frito-Lay, Lilly, Nike, HSBC, John Deere, ExxonMobil, and Coca-Cola.

In addition to his practical business experience, Michael brings academic acumen to his work, having been an adjunct professor at Columbia College’s School of Business, guest lecturer at BYU’s Marriott School of Management, and professor at the South China University of Technology in Guangzhou, China. His published works include: Ready, Aim, Excel with Marshall Goldsmith and Kenneth Blanchard; Your Seeds of Greatness, Talent Unleashed; The Execution-focused Leader with PricewaterhouseCoopers; and Building Team and Organizational Trust, coauthored with Stephen M.R. Covey.

When he’s not busy consulting and coaching top executives to optimize their team and organizational performance, Michael enjoys traveling, skiing, tennis, and spending time with his family in the beautiful Wasatch Mountains of Utah.

Michael K. Simpson has over twenty-five years of experience as one of the world’s preeminent executive coaches and strategy experts to many Fortune 100 and 500 organizations. As an award-winning author, speaker, executive coach, and senior consultant at FranklinCovey, Michael helps CEOs and executive teams to clarify their vision, set strategy, reach goals, and build high-performance teams and high organizational trust.

Michael is a fellow with Harvard University’s Institute of Coaching (IOC) and a graduate of Columbia University’s Executive Coaching Certification Program.

Formerly, Michael was a principal consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in their Strategic and Organizational Change practice and a senior consultant in Change Management at Ernst & Young. Michael held executive management positions for two leading technology companies as vice president of sales and marketing and vice president of business development.

Michael is the author or coauthor of several leadership and coaching books, including Powerful Leadership through Coaching and Talent Unleashed.

Michael has been a professor at South China University of Technology; an adjunct professor at Columbia College’s School of Business; and a visiting lecturer at Hong Kong University, University of Malaysia, Columbia University’s Teachers College, Northwestern University, Brigham Young University, and Utah State University.

Michael is the CEO of Simpson Executive Coaching and the CEO of FranklinCovey-Impact International Education in China. Michael has a master’s degree in organizational behavior from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree from BYU’s Kennedy Center for International Studies.

When he’s not busy traveling, training, consulting, and coaching executives, Michael enjoys spending time with his family in the beautiful Wasatch Mountains of Utah.

Maria “Sully” Sullivan is a leadership development consultant and executive coach for FranklinCovey, where she works with client organizations that emphasize development among their leaders.

Educated in New England―first on a dairy farm and then at Dartmouth College―Maria took on senior manager/director roles in the legal, technology, and financial services sectors with bottom-line accountability at Louis Dreyfus, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, and Deloitte. She draws from this experience to support and accelerate her clients’ development. Using the best tools from multiple disciplines, Maria focuses on designing development systems, methods, and programs that suit the unique needs of her clients. Recent clients include ten of Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For.

Maria brings her experience, energy, and drive to her clients’ quest for improved leadership performance every single day. When she’s not on the road working with an executive, you will find her in Florida spoiling her teenage nephew and any number of dogs.

Kari Saddler believes that everyone deserves a leader who inspires and empowers them. She has twenty years of combined experience as a consultant, executive coach, and business manager. She has been a leader at JPMorgan Chase, WellCare, and Tampa General Hospital. In 2015 Kari joined FranklinCovey as an author, speaker, executive coach, and senior consultant.

Kari received her bachelor’s degree in English from the Ohio State University and her master of business administration from Ohio Dominican University. She is certified in multiple type-theory tools, including Hogan, MBTI, Predictive Index, and DiSC. Kari is also a professional certified coach and a certified social and emotional intelligence coach.

When not working with clients, Kari can often be found driving cross-country for weeks at a time, pulling an RV, boondocking in little-known hideaways, and exploring national parks. She lives outside Dallas, Texas, with her husband and three children.


Motivational, Business, Leadership, Management, Self Help, Psychology, Education, Communication Skills
Corporate Culture

Table of Contents

Foreword vii
Introduction 1
Part 1 Four Principles of Coaching 5
Chapter 1 Trust 7
Chapter 2 Potential 13
Chapter 3 Commitment 21
Chapter 4 Execution 31
Part 2 Seven Coaching Skills 41
Chapter 5 Build Trust 45
Chapter 6 Challenge Paradigms 53
Chapter 7 Seek Strategic Clarity 59
Chapter 8 Execute Flawlessly 79
Chapter 9 Give Effective Feedback 91
Chapter 10 Tap into Talent 105
Chapter 11 Move the Middle 117
Chapter 12 Coaching the Organization: The Organizational Effectiveness Cycle 125
Chapter 13 Coaching: A Final Word 147
Notes 151
Acknowledgments 155
About the Authors 159


Stay tuned for book review…

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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