Exercising Leadership Through Coaching

By Don and Kathleen Thoren

Exercising leadership through coaching involves reinforcing positive performance as well as focusing your coaching efforts on unrealized opportunities and unresolved problems. As you focus on unrealized opportunities and unresolved problems, it is vital to use words and phrases that keep painting the vision of a new reality that could be.

“Leadership through coaching is having a vision of what could be and developing others to their fullest potential in pursuit of that vision.”

Leadership through coaching is not necessarily leadership by example. One of the things that most frustrates us is hearing a leader proudly state, “I never ask my people to do anything that I’m not willing and able to do myself,” thinking that this makes him or her a pinnacle of virtue. But the real impact of that philosophy is to forever handicap the organization’s potential with the limitations of its leadership. Even in professional athletics the best coaches were seldom the best players. Therefore, leadership through coaching is having a vision of what could be and developing others to their fullest potential in pursuit of that vision.

Excellence in leadership through coaching is revealed when you are able to get above average results out of average people! The following three steps will assist you in getting started.

STEP ONE — Establish Standards

Step one is to establish clear standards and responsibilities. In the traditional sense this means people who report to you, but with the varying roles of leadership today, it can also mean people responding to you as a task force leader, mentor, cross functional team leader to name a few.

“Make your expectations more specific and self-manageable.”

Be as specific as possible regarding what you expect in the way of performance and results. Make the standards measurable and obvious so the learner can self-manage her/his own learning and performance. For example, when my daughter, Kate was ready to learn snow skiing, I, Don, “The Professional Communicator” decided to teach her myself. Kate learned to balance herself by going straight down the “bunny” hill very quickly. I decided to teach her how to make turns in preparation for steeper slopes. After 30 minutes of my best “coaching” on how to make turns, I was failing miserably and called in a ski instructor. Sizing up the situation, the ski instructor’s first advice was for me to ski on my own for an hour! When I returned, Kate was making beautiful turns and I asked her what the instructor had said that I had failed to say. Kate explained that the ski instructor repeated most of what I had said, but added something very important. She had taken four ski poles and placed them in the snow at twenty-yard intervals down the slope. She told Kate that if she could make the turns to get between each of the poles on her way down then she would have the necessary skills to try steeper slopes. Why hadn’t I though of that! The ski instructor provided a clearly understood performance standard, placed performance responsibility squarely on Kate, but remained available to assist Kate, if needed, for Kate to achieve her own success. Can you make the expectations you have for those responding to your leadership through coaching more specific, measurable and self-manageable?

As Yogi Berra said, “You can see a lot just by watching!”

STEP TWO — Observe the Performance

Observe the persons performance and compare it to your specific, measurable standards set in Step One. Let us make a big distinction here. We’re not just talking about reviewing the results; we’re talking about truly observing the performance. Many leaders are prone to asking employees only about results, without being able to offer helpful suggestions/good coaching that will improve the results because they do not truly understand the product, technology, etc.

If you don’t have an understanding of the work you are asking others to do then it is almost impossible to observe the performance and be a helpful coach. Leaders today need to understand the technology involved, the product involved, customer, etc. Understanding the nature of the work so you can be a helpful observer of the performance is critical to leadership through coaching. Thousands of sales managers conduct sales meetings on Monday morning but then never go into the field during the week to observe the sales people. And I’m only talking about observing, not demonstrating or trying to save the sale for them. Today, many “software” development managers have gotten so far away from writing a “line of code” that it is hard for them to be helpful observers. The observation must be relevant just as a medical diagnosis must be accurate before the treatment plan (coaching) can change the final outcome.

“Fruitful observation follows good coaching questions.”

Here are two positive reinforcement questions you can ask. What are you working on that is going well? What do you think is the cause for this activity to be going well? The leader who is a good coach wants people to be “consciously competent” in that they understand the cause and effect of good results.

Here are three performance improvement questions you can ask. What are you working on that is not going well? What do you think is the problem? If I have any suggestions for you, would you want me to share them? Many times the leader can refer people to data or resources that may help shed some light on the cause of the problem and potential solutions.

STEP THREE — Provide Feedback

“The theory of the ’sandwich’ technique is that the critique will then be easier to swallow! It is a wonderful analogy but a disastrous practice.”

The third fundamental of coaching is to provide feedback on the positive or negative consequences of the performance you observe. The Olympics coach observes the athlete’s performance to reinforce what is being done correctly and to correct what is not. It’s the same process in organizations. Reinforcing what was done properly leads to conscious competence and improves the probability the desired performance will be repeated in the future. Correcting the performance begins with showing its adverse consequences on the accomplishment of the end result.

Keep corrections objective and do not sugar coat them. Review the elements of the performance observed in the sequence they happened and reinforce or correct in the same sequence. This advice is contrary to that offered in many management programs which suggest that any criticism should be “sandwiched” between two compliments. The theory of the “sandwich” technique is that the critique will then be easier to swallow! It is a wonderful analogy but a disastrous practice. When using the “sandwich technique”, the first compliment puts a big smile on their face so when you kick their teeth in with the critique, you won’t cut their lips! In other words, it’s dishonest and manipulative. If you use that technique you will find that your compliments are meaningless as they become viewed as a set-up for a kick in the teeth.

“Coaching is an integral part of delegating work and assuring completion.”

When you describe an employee’s performance and relate its impact on the results to be achieved, you are creating opportunities for employee self-management. Life showed Don a personal application of that principle a few years ago and he describes it as follows: “I was at the airport on my way to give a speech in Denver. First of all, our airport in Phoenix has been perpetually under construction since 1903! Naturally, on the morning that I am running late to catch my flight, the parking lots are being resurfaced and I can’t find a place to park my car. In my frustration, I find what appears to be a safe spot to park and jump out to dash to the terminal. A workman quickly calls to me, ‘Hey, buddy — you gotta move that car or it will be towed away.’ I am now embarrassed when I think back on how rudely I treated the workman. I gave him a piece of my mind about how poorly the construction was marked, about what a terribly important person I was, and about how my car was going to stay where it was until I got back from Denver that evening. Needless to say, I was overpowering and he was overwhelmed. As I turned to dash away, he timidly lamented ‘Well, OK, but they will tow it away.’ His message contained eight words. These eight words, weakly spoken, none the less painted a vivid picture of the consequences of my actions. My objective had been to use my car to get to and from the airport. I am now thankful that the workman overlooked my rudeness and gave me a description of consequences that provided me a self-management choice to meet my own objective — I moved the car! I luckily caught my flight to Denver and gave my speech to the members of the Rocky Mountain Employers Council. And yes, I used the example of what the airport workman had taught me about the gift you give others when you help them understand the consequences of their actions!”

For any of you who may feel that you simply don’t have time to “coach” those who support you, let us suggest that coaching is not an “add-on” activity. Coaching is an integral part of delegating work and assuring completion. It is our hope that a review of these 3 coaching steps will improve your leadership skills and reduce your stress over others performance and results for which you bear responsibility.

Whether we think of it as coaching or not, all leaders have more projects to accomplish than they have personal time to complete them. Telling others specifically what you want done, observing at least a part of how they do it, and providing feedback on their performance is the best way we know to save time. Good coaching!

“Excellence in leadership through coaching is revealed when above average results are produced by average people!”


Share and Enjoy:
  • email
  • Print
  • PDF
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us
  • Add to favorites
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Live
  • Technorati
  • Yahoo! Buzz

Comments are closed.