How to be a Great Coach at Work: 2 Words That Leaders Need to Know

Sep 8, 2020

Leaders today understand the value of coaching – and employees are hungry for the kind of guidance that goes beyond instruction. Chief Learning Officer magazine says that coaching is the number one skill that’s targeted for front line managers. Add the complexities of leading remote teams, and coaching has never been more vital. So, what’s the key distinction between management and coaching? There are two words that illustrate the core difference. If you are interested in becoming a better coach, consider how your next conversation with a team member will shake out. Here’s how to incorporate these two words more effectively, and lead your team to new results.

Ownership: Coaches know what managers don’t: the responsibility for change and transformation always rests with the coaching client (or, in the case of the manager, with the employee). Coaches look in the direction of receptivity: in other words, helping to open up the conversation so that a team member is receptive to new ideas – starting with the idea that new objectives and new results are the team member’s responsibility. In a coaching conversation, ownership is transferred from the manager (who has an incomplete task and a need) to the employee (who’s going to either get it done or face the consequences). If you’re interested in being a better coach, do you wish to instruct or inspire? Ask your employee how things could be better – and point them in the direction of ownership.

Here are three ways to be a great coach at work – and drive greater ownership:

  1. Whose perspective matters most? It’s always the employee, client or team member that’s being coached – otherwise, it’s not coaching. Now that’s not to say that the effective coach agrees with every perspective – often there’s a misunderstanding that’s caused the reason for the coaching conversation. What is that misunderstanding? To resolve it, start by understanding the employee’s perspective. Part of my training for managers focuses on listening – the often-forgotten skill that hard-charging executives identify as either squishy, or useless, or both. But is it? Often I dismiss things that aren’t easy as being dumb or ineffective, when really those words better describe my own bias. Without effective listening, you’ll never get to the viewpoint that matters most – and it’s never found in your own bias. How can you help people to create change if you don’t know where they are, and if you aren’t using some emotional intelligence around other perspectives?

  2. The Best Advice is No More Advice: an effective coach sees other points of view with detachment, not agreement. And smart coaches know that advice is the last thing you ever want to give to a team member. Here’s why: have you ever given someone great advice, and they still didn’t take it? “Just dump that guy, he’s no good for you”, “Stop eating donuts, they’re no good for you.” What happened? Author Daniel Pink explains the reason people don’t respond to advice, even if it’s in their best interests. In his book, Drive, he shares that motivation doesn’t come from the outside. Intrinsic motivation is where change comes from. So let me give you some good advice: stop giving advice. Ownership is where transformation happens, no matter how good your counsel might be. If you think you’re smart, why isn’t your employee changing their behavior? How smart is that, coach? Maybe leading through change isn’t about how smart you are. Maybe motivation and change comes from someplace else. Hey coach, ask your team member what they would say if they were coaching themselves. Ask them how the team or organization could look at the situation differently. Open up the conversation in the area of discovery, not instruction, if you want to coach more effectively.

  3. Am I a Good Coach? That’s the wrong question, coach. Stop focusing on yourself – that’s not where you’ll find someone else’s results. How do you know if your coaching is working? Ask yourself this simple (and better) question: How’s your teammate doing? If they’re seeing things in a new way, and accessing their own internal compass, you’ve got a lot better chance of leading through change. Otherwise, you’re just offering a punch list of items (which are really your to-do list) and instructing someone on how you’d like things done.

The second word that’s vital to the coaching conversation is here: Agreement.

In a management conversation, team members don’t have to agree that the inventory report is important or that they will meet the November deadline for the proposal. You just need somebody to get it done. Compliance works, compliance is quick, compliance doesn’t require anyone’s permission. But coaching does, if you want to uncover innovation and lasting change. Need a quick fix, or do you want to capture the hearts and minds of your innovative employees?

To be clear, it’s not necessary to sit down and have a deep listening session to hit Friday’s deadline. But when there are behaviors that need to change, and challenges facing your organization in the form of people, processes and potential, it’s time to coach. New results – transformational results – come from agreement, not instruction.

What can you do to offer a conversation that goes beyond expectations (which are almost always yours, and often unspoken) to agreement? The coach gains agreement because that understanding points towards mutual ownership. Coaches gain permission to advance the conversation. Permission is the first step in agreement – agreement that new behavior is needed and that new results are a mutual desire. If you need to have a difficult conversation, permission can be a powerful tool. True, you may not think you need permission, when coaching an employee. But moving forward without it will probably bring you back to this article to see what you missed. What happens to ownership, and agreement, when permission is granted?

From permission comes agreement. From agreement comes ownership. Here’s why coaching is such a valuable skill: in the coaching conversation, ownership is distributed, advice is self-administered, and motivation to change comes from the inside. Are those outcomes important to you and your organization? Help your team to see beyond advice and instruction, and your coaching will be making the kind of impact you want.

By Chris Westfall