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Leadership Development

When to Coach and When Not to Coach

Coaching should be thoughtfully and carefully applied or not done at all.

Add coaching to my already busy schedule? I can’t! I don’t have time. I don’t know how, and no one is paying attention, anyway.” These are common responses from leaders when they’re asked — or told — to add coaching to their already overloaded plates.

All over the world, leaders are using coaching to gain a competitive edge. But does coaching solve every problem one might encounter in the workplace? No. It’s not a panacea. Determining when coaching is a good investment can be challenging.

Consider the following scenarios where managers shouldn’t coach:

If they prefer command and control: If managers find direct reports coming to their office frequently with questions and requests, missing deadlines, prioritizing work in the wrong order, and being too paralyzed to make decisions, they shouldn’t coach. They may have created a fiefdom where they control everything. The challenge is, the manager is just one person and may not have enough bandwidth to be in control all of the time — and it becomes impossible to take a vacation.

Consider Ben. Let’s say he’s a director at an automobile manufacturer. He leads a team of 10 people including smart young guns from the Ivy League as well as tested veterans. As part of a high potential program, Ben worked with an external coach for six months.

During one frustrating meeting with his coach, he said, “Why can’t the people on my team just do their jobs?” He was fed up with the long hours he was putting in doing his subordinates’ work, not to mention the constant interruptions from his people asking him what to do and how to do it. “They can’t make decisions, they don’t do things the right way, and they keep missing deadlines,” he said. He had no idea he was a command and control leader who would rather do than delegate. He needed a coach.

If they don’t value innovation: If a manager stifles creativity, loses talented people and slows the pace of change, they shouldn’t coach.

Consider the following scenario. Barbara, a vice president of marketing for a financial organization, meets regularly with her boss and with HR. Turnover in her department is at an all-time high. Exit interviews suggest people are leaving because they don’t feel their ideas get fair consideration. She said she knows she has a reputation for shutting people down and stifling creativity but can’t quite see why that is. Barbara needs a coach.

If they have a negative attitude about people: If a manager believes people are lazy or that all feedback should be reserved for the annual performance review, they shouldn’t coach.

A supervisor gets some tough feedback after a staff meeting. We’ll call him Armando. His boss comments that he seems to consistently have two dismissive responses to his team’s ideas: “Been there, done that” or “What’s wrong with the way we’ve always done things?” Recently he wrote up an employee for laziness. Later, leaders learned the employee was suffering from an illness but was afraid to tell Armando what was going on. Armando doesn’t see any need to change his leadership style or his attitude. He needs a coach.

If they have more than enough time and skills: If a manager has tons of free time, knows all the answers and thinks coaching others is a flavor-of-the-month methodology, they shouldn’t coach.

Erin is a new manager in a high-tech sector that provides software solutions to some of the world’s biggest companies. Her technical skills have made her a rising star. She came in with management experience and is now managing her former peers. She is hesitant to stop doing the things that have made her successful in the past. She finds herself telling her direct reports what to do even when she feels they may have better ideas but aren’t speaking up. Recently she told her boss, “I’ve tried to encourage my people, but I end up in hour-long conversations and nothing gets done!” She needs a coach.

These stories have one thing in common: In each situation, the use of coaching skills would have led to a better outcome. “Building a Coaching Culture with Managers and Leaders,” a research study completed earlier this year, examines the effects leaders who use coaching skills can have.

The International Coach Federation and the Human Capital Institute wrote: “A strong coaching culture positively correlates with employee engagement and financial performance. Nearly two-thirds of respondents from organizations with strong coaching cultures rate their employees as being highly engaged, compared to only half from organizations without strong coaching cultures. In terms of financial impact, 51 percent of respondents from organizations with strong coaching cultures report their 2015 revenue to be above that of their industry peer group, compared to 38 percent from all other organizations.”

“While we are in the early stages of building out a coaching culture, we are already seeing a positive impact on employee engagement, leadership development, improved teamwork, productivity and decision-making,” said Shana Erickson, vice president of leadership development and executive coach for Columbia Bank.

Of course, there are times when coaching is not appropriate. It’s a rookie mistake to think coaching will work in every situation. There are also times when coaching as a standalone development intervention can backfire. Great leaders blend coaching with other leader behaviors to get the best results. Here are two key situations where leading with coaching is the wrong move.

Someone doesn’t know what to do: When a manager doesn’t know how to get started or how to complete a task, coaching is not appropriate. When a person’s competence on specific tasks or goals is low, the best approach is to offer specific direction. Once the manager shares exactly what needs to be done and by when, he or she should check for understanding. Start with, “These are the first three steps I would take.” End with, “Can you summarize what we’ve agreed to, so we are aligned?” Listen, and then course correct where needed.

When context is missing: When a leader is moving toward coaching, or making other changes, it’s important to set the context for new behaviors rather than surprising the person with the change. Managers can signal a change by informing individuals they are going to try something new.

“Great business results cannot be sustainable without skilled and engaged employees working as a team to reach common goals,” said Jean-Pierre Comte, president of Barilla Americas. “Building the organization is the first priority for a business leader, and coaching is one of the tools they need to do it.”

To be successful at coaching, five must-haves need to be in place:

Environment: Before coaching, managers should let direct reports know they’ll be doing things a bit differently. Set the stage, get permission to coach and check in frequently to ensure this new way of leading is hitting the mark.

Trust: Trust is a foundation for any coaching relationship. The manager’s role can be especially hard because they have both perceived and real power over direct reports. Getting people to talk openly and honestly about their needs, motivations and skill level takes patience, practice and trust. In “Coaching Skills: The Missing Link for Leaders” a 2016 study examining the correlations between leader coaching behaviors and the resulting trust, affect or emotion, and work intention of their followers, The Ken Blanchard Cos. found “individuals who perceive their managers as exhibiting coaching behaviors are more likely to trust their leaders.” Coaching is one way leaders can build trust. [Editor’s note: The author works for the Ken Blanchard Cos.]

Intent: Coaching is essentially about supporting others’ development and growth. It’s a two-way dialogue where the manager is one half of the equation. It is important to begin by being very clear about objectives and goals. If a manager notices that coaching is going off track, they should examine their own motivations and beliefs. It can be powerful to say, “That didn’t go the way I intended” and start again, working to be more supportive and encouraging.

Erickson said she has found these five factors to be critical to coaching success in leaders and in professional coaches. “Many leadership programs overlook the importance of self-leadership — a strong sense of self and awareness of values, intentions and motivations that establish the foundation of trust.”

Action: Development is good. Development with focused action is better. The purpose behind great coaching is to influence some kind of change in mindset and behavior. Encourage others to take specific actions that are focused on achieving a desired outcome. This moves coaching beyond much disdained naval gazing to a strategy with real bottom-line impact.

Accountability: Leaders who use coaching skills help others commit to behavior change. Even with the best of intentions, people get sidetracked, work gets reprioritized, and sometimes life just gets in the way. Using coaching to hold people accountable can help them overcome obstacles.

“To be effective, business leaders have to be aware of their strengths and talents as well as their weaknesses and blind spots,” Comte said. “Feedback from direct managers, peers or direct reports definitely helps to build this self-awareness. However, an external coach brings unbiased perspective that is rich with learnings from different contexts.”

Whether a leader is focused on his own development and growth or is determined to help others to grow, coaching is a methodology that should be thoughtfully and carefully applied. Leaders have a responsibility to achieve positive business outcomes. Developing others so they can contribute to those outcomes is a critical part of that responsibility, and it should not to be taken lightly.

Coaching effectively supports long-term, sustained employee development. Leaders who have an opportunity to use their coaching skills shouldn’t dismiss their employees’ needs by saying no. Instead, consider the higher engagement levels, trusting relationships and financial health to be gained from a shift to a coaching culture — and say yes.

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