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Coaching Confusion

by David Brock on June 15th, 2022

This is a good news/bad news post. For years, there has been little attention paid to the topic of coaching. Sure, there was lip service, but when one looked deeply into organizations, either coaching wasn’t done, or the coaching that was done was horrible.

In the past year, there has been increasing attention to coaching–at least when measured by social media articles, and, possibly, VC investments.

Despite the increasing attention, there is even more confusion, and, I’m not sure how much of this attention is actually translating into high impact performance based coaching. I number of ancillary indicators would indicate the opposite–with decreasing employee engagement, decreasing tenure, skyrocketing turnover, and the great resignation.

There seems to be a lot of confusion. I hope I’m not adding to the confusion, but I wanted to begin addressing some of the fundamental issues, bad information, horrible practice:

  1. Coaching is a management responsibility! It’s not something that we give lip service to, at least if we are to fulfill our responsibilities to maximize the performance of the people on our team. It’s not something we delegate or something we outsource. It’s our job as managers to coach and develop those people that report to us.
  2. No one is closer to understanding the performance issues of an individual, the situations that person is facing, and the “context” than the individual’s manager. The manager sees what the person is doing every day, what they face, where they do well, where they can improve. The manager is the bridge between individual performance and the ability of that individual to execute the organization’s strategies, priorities.
  3. Having said this, the manager is never alone in helping individuals develop their skills and maximize their performance. Great coaching managers leverage other resources to help addressing specific performance issues. For example, a sales person might need some training, or they might need someone with deep expertise in certain areas, or they might be peer mentors, role models. It is unrealistic to expect a manager to be a master of everything, but the manager can connect the sales person to those experts, making sure there is a plan in place to help that individual.
  4. What about expertise? There are those that say the manager has to be an expert in the function or specific area in order to be an effective coach. There are so many ways this is unrealistic—even harmful. For example, if expertise were critical, we’d promote our very best performing sales people into that role. WRONG! We have so many stories of our top performers being the worst possible managers. Second, today’s the breadth of areas in which we have to develop our people, means we can’t have deep expertise in each area. We have to have some basic understanding, we have to have the ability to learn/adapt, we have to be curious enough to ask questions and probe. But, as mentioned before, great coaching managers will be able to connect people that have that expertise.
  5. What about coaching expertise? My first management job, like many others’ first management jobs, I was clueless about coaching and performance management. Fortunately, there were several things that helped me. First, my manager took his responsibility to coach me–developing my leadership, management, and coaching skills seriously. Second my company invested $1000’s in training. Within 30 days of being named a manager, I went to “charm school.” It focused on developing the skills of new managers–we learned how to understand performance, we learned how to coach, we learned how to leverage resources to help–both ourselves and our people. Finally, I was driven to excel as a manager, I deeply cared about the success of each one of my people. I was deeply curious, driven to learn about my people, driven to help them perform (Partially because I wanted to maximize my own personal performance). So I learned coaching, among other things.
  6. OK, now the truth about coaching. I did everything I could to learn how to coach, but I made lots of mistakes. Sometimes, my communication style was wrong, I didn’t connect. Sometimes, I was too impatient or arrogant and got into tell mode, not an effective coaching style. Sometimes, my ego got in the way, I felt compelled to be “right.” And every once in a while, I was inspired. Over time, I learned. Today, I continue to make mistakes, I continue to learn. Thankfully, great coaching is a shared learning experience. Ideally, we both learn, grow, improve.
  7. Back to expertise. Personally, I believe expertise is over-rated. The most critical skills for managers (and sales people), are the ability to figure things out. Caring, understanding, curiosity, discipline, constantly learning and improving. Without these, we will never be top performers–whether managers or individual contributors. Absent those, expertise is irrelevant.
  8. What about outsourcing? As a caveat, I do a huge amount of outsourced coaching and mentoring. But I believe, strongly, that managers can NEVER outsource their coaching responsibility. First of all, no outsider can ever have the depth of understanding of the day to day issues and individual faces, or the priorities/strategies/processes/resources within the company and how to leverage them to drive performance. Once, an executive wanted to retain me to coach a number of his senior managers. I asked him why he wanted an external coach and what he expected me to accomplish. His response was, “I know they need coaching, but I have neither the time or desire to do it. So I need someone who will do the coaching for me!” Can you imagine this, a senior executive saying he had no interest in doing the most important part of his job! As you might guess, I refused, though I felt bad for the managers reporting to this individual–they needed coaching and had a manager who was clueless!
  9. Outsourced coaching: Outsourced coaching can be powerful, again, not to displace day to day manager coaching. Sometimes, there are areas where deep expertise on a specific topic might be needed. For example, developing/delivering high impact insights, creating differentiated value, understanding industry/market issues/trends. For specific deep expertise outside coaches can be a great resource. There is, however, a last mile issue, how is this expertise translated into the specific issues the sales person (or team) faces. A great outside coach will ask questions to help the sales person think about the specific application of these skills to their jobs. The other area where outsourced coaches contribute are as mentors. In this role, they function not to maximize a person’s performance in the job, but to maximize their personal growth and development in their career. (Remember, some of this mentoring might be, “are you in the right job in the right company? Might something different be better?”)
  10. What about mental health? A lot of the articles, and most of the “hot coaching startups,” focus on mental health issues. It’s not unreasonable, as we look at the disruptions driven by the pandemic, socio/political conflict, increases in polarization, increases in feelings of isolation, and now massive layoffs; that there are mental health/stress issues that impact all of us. Mental health issues, even the most basic, require deep expertise. As managers, we are neither trained nor qualified to provide mental health coaching or support. (And the coaches in a large number of the outsourced coaching companies are not either. The great one’s will recognize this, providing recommendations to trained professionals). Having said this, we want to create work environments that are “healthy.” We want people to feel, genuinely, included and cared for. We cannot tolerate any work environment where, in any sense, people don’t feel safe or they can’t express their feelings. So we have to recognize mental health, stress, inclusiveness, safety, are critical responsibilities for all levels of management.

Coaching and developing our people is the highest leverage opportunity for maximizing the performance of each person on the team. It is a fundamental responsibility–that cannot be delegated–for every manager.

From → Leadership

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