The Skill/Will Matrix

Choosing the Best Coaching Approach

The Skill/Will Matrix - Choosing the Best Coaching Approach

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Sometimes you need to guide your people directly.

Imagine that you coach two junior colleagues: Anita, who's experienced and motivated, and Patrick, who's enthusiastic but new to his role.

Both have been assigned new projects, but both are feeling frustrated. Anita has said, as nicely as she can, that she finds your advice patronizing, while Patrick is struggling to do what you suggest. It's clear that you need to rethink your approach to coaching them.

The Skill/Will Matrix can help you find the right coaching style in situations like these. It's designed to help you assess people's skill and motivation levels. You can then tailor your coaching to their needs, based on this assessment.

In this article, we'll look at the matrix in more detail, and we'll explore how you can use it effectively.

About the Tool

Coach and author Max Landsberg wrote about the Skill/Will Matrix (see figure 1, below) in his 2003 book, "The Tao of Coaching."

You can use the matrix to think about people's levels of skill and motivation, and, from this, choose the best coaching style for each of them.

Figure 1 – The Skill/Will Matrix

Skill/Will Matrix Diagram

From "The Tao of Coaching" by Max Landsberg. Published by Profile Books, 2003. Reproduced with permission.

The matrix is divided into four quadrants. Each one reflects a different coaching style that you can use, based on people's levels of skill and motivation. The four styles are:

  • Direct: use this approach for people with low skill and low will.
  • Excite: use this coaching style for people high skill, but low motivation.
  • Guide: this approach is best for those with high will, but low skill levels.
  • Delegate: apply this approach for people with high skill and high motivation.

How to Use the Matrix

First, explore people's levels of skills, and think about how motivated they are. Then, plot skill and motivation on the matrix to determine which coaching style you should use.

Let's look at the different coaching styles that you can use for each quadrant.

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Direct (Low Skill/Low Will)

Working with someone in the Direct quadrant takes a lot of time and effort.

If you manage the person that you're coaching, set clear deadlines, and monitor progress closely. If you don't manage her, encourage her to discuss deadlines and instructions with her manager, and to ask for help if she is struggling.

Consider using the GROW Model to focus on skills development, and on increasing motivation.

Excite (High Skill/Low Will)

Someone who falls into this quadrant has the skills he needs to perform effectively, but lacks the motivation to use them.

Use Herzberg's Motivator and Hygiene Factors Theory, McClelland's Human Motivation Theory, and Sirota's Three Factor Theory to explore what motivates this person. Then, make a link between this and his motivation in his role.

For example, if he's motivated by new responsibilities, point out where these will arise within his current projects, and highlight that there will be more of these if he sets an example of effort and hard work.

Your coachee may reveal that elements of his role or working environment are negatively affecting his motivation. If this is the case, explore how you, or he, can reduce or remove these demotivators.

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Guide (Low Skill/High Will)

Someone in this quadrant already has the motivation that she needs to improve. Your task is to look for opportunities for her to build key skills, and then give her the confidence to apply them.

Use the GROW Model, and allow time to explore opportunities for development. You may also need to encourage her to think about her preferred learning style, so that she can make the most of learning opportunities.

Then, encourage her to take managed risks, so that she can learn from her experiences.


Someone in this quadrant may be highly motivated, but may need guidance on a specific issue with her work or attitude – for example, improving timekeeping or personal hygiene.

Use the Situation – Behavior – Impact Tool to highlight the impact of her behavior, and to help her change it.

Delegate (High Skill/High Will)

Someone with high skill and high motivation needs you to be less of a coach, and more of a mentor or "sounding board" for his ideas.

Let him know that you're available if he needs to brainstorm, and encourage him to adopt a "self coaching" approach to personal development. Make sure that you're clear on your responsibilities as a mentor, and, if you're also his manager, check that there are no conflicts of interest.

Key Points

Max Landsberg developed the Skill/Will Matrix, and outlined it in his 2003 book, "The Tao of Coaching."

The matrix consists of four quadrants:

  • Direct (Low Skill/Low Will).
  • Excite (High Skill/Low Will).
  • Guide (Low Skill/High Will).
  • Delegate (High Skill/High Will).

Use the matrix to assess the skills and motivation of your people, so that you can choose the best coaching approach to use for each person and situation.