When you are the coach

Gale Mote/Tree Full of Owls

Managers are responsible for transforming talent into performance, individual effort into collective results. I am increasingly convinced that strong coaching skills are essential for anyone in a leadership role.

Everyone needs a coach. Sometimes we just need reassurance that we are doing the right thing. When we are headed down a dead-end road, we need someone to help turn us around. The right words at the right time can restore confidence and spark the fire necessary to overcome an obstacle. A practical piece of advice can help us to see a solution more clearly, improving productivity and commitment.

Let me first be clear when coaching is not appropriate. As a manager, if you are in the final step of your company’s disciplinary process with an employee, you will not be acting like a coach. With new employees, eager to contribute and lacking any knowledge about the organization or its systems, it is pointless to ask, “What do you think?” We all know how frustrating it is when someone asks us to answer a question when we are totally clueless about the answer. We simply don’t know what we don’t know. We need someone to clearly establish expectations, explain why they matter, share what’s most important and communicate timelines as well as who is available as a resource if there are questions or issues.

A coaching session may be initiated by the manager or the employee. Regardless, the process is the same. It begins with identifying the issue to be discussed and mutually establishing an objective for what is to be accomplished. Next, both engage in a conversation about the current situation with the coach asking open, probing questions to help both see and understand perception and reality. Last, both the coach and employee focus on the desired state – discussing options and deciding on positive action steps going forward. Follow-up is necessary to reinforce progress as well as refocus efforts.

Some managers love to hear themselves talk. An employee shares a challenge or problematic relationship and the manager immediately spouts poetically about how she handled this when she was in a similar position. Relishing in reliving every detail, she begins to tell the employee exactly what to do, what not to do and how to ensure it doesn’t happen again. The problem with this approach is that no two situations are exactly the same. The manager has not done her due diligence to clearly understand the current state or any contributing factors. Most important, only the manager owns the solution.

Exceptional coaches have mastered two interpersonal communication skills – asking relevant, probing open-ended questions and empathic, attentive listening. Without these, coaches are likely to diagnosis before they clearly understand the symptoms and the disease.

I encourage coaches to have some pocket questions ready to help explore the current situation described by an employee, to learn more about what is really happening. Remember, as a coach, you are only hearing one side of the story. It is important to get the employee to help you get a broader perspective.

A few of my favorite coaching questions include: “Tell me about the seriousness of this situation for you. If nothing changes, how does this impact you going forward?” “Do you know of anyone for whom this is not an issue? What is different about their situation?” “What actions have your taken? How is that working for you?” “How do you think it might have gone better?” “What is your role in this? How might you be contributing to the problem?” “What would a best case scenario look like?” “What obstacles are you going to have to overcome to accomplish your goal?” “What actions are you going to take that are different tomorrow than they are today?”

One of the best ways you can ensure your employees feel valued and respected is listening, really listening. This demands you turn off your Blackberry, shut down your computer and put the phone on Do Not Disturb. Be completely attentive and make your employee believe that he is the most important thing in your world at this moment in time because he is.

Next, listen with your whole body demonstrating complete and sincere interest in what he is saying. Maintain positive eye contact and an open, relaxed body stance. Having the conversation in a neutral, relaxed setting always helps. Be watchful of his body – gestures, facial expressions, vocal tone and eye contact – as he shares his thoughts and ideas. Remember, it’s not what he said but how he said it. Many coaching clues come from non-verbal communication.

Demonstrate empathy by putting yourself in his shoes. “I can see how you would be confused. You feel like you were told to do one thing and then criticized for doing exactly that. I would feel frustrated as well if I were receiving a mixed signal. Tell me more about your initial meeting with the program manager.” Asking relevant questions that tie into previous comments also demonstrates effective listening. “You stated earlier that communication is lacking between the two departments. How does this current process help or hinder dialogue between program management and engineering?”

When an employee feels you clearly understand the problem and that you have helped guide him to a workable solution, he will be motivated to make the changes necessary to improve performance. That’s your job when you are the coach!

Gale Mote is a trainer, organizational development catalyst and coach in Cedar Rapids. Contact her at galemote@galemoteassociates.com.