Put me in the game, Coach! – Acting as a Coach and Mentor
Coaching and mentoring are two skills that all good leaders practice often and well, while the leaders at the lower end of the employee satisfaction survey…well, not so much. Is there a difference between the two? For the purposes of this post, we will treat these as different levels of focus using similar skills. The primary difference between the two is a matter of time. Coaching is more of a short term gain, while mentoring might relate to some things more distant. You will coach people through a change in technology or procedure but mentor them towards a career or personal goal. For this post, we are talking about coaching.
There is no shortage of “You name it, For Dummies..” self-help books out there and many are surprisingly good. I once bought one to successfully navigate and enjoy a trip to Disneyland many years ago (and yes, I now know the average wait time for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride). Of course, there is one for human adult coaching skills. Meet early and often, give performance feedback, make sure you have development plan, and set realistic and meaningful goals, which all seem like good advice.
I would add a few items to the above. First, know when to coach. Blanchard identifies employing the coaching skill on employees with equal amounts of competence and commitment. Many of the other situational leadership speak to this stage as “selling, convincing, persuading, and advising”, with a high level of direction but equally high levels of support. This stage is also characterized by communication being two-way. This stage follows the entry level stage of high direction, low selling. I liken Stage 1 to boot camp – I am not going to expect to give a lot of the “why?” answers at this stage, as I just need you to do it the way I tell you, i.e. one-way communication. This is adequate for a short while but most organizations try to get people out of this stage sooner rather than later. Coaching is also not a skill that may be appropriate for the long-time employee who is well aware of the “why?”, clearly has the skill set, and just chooses not to roll that way.
Second, a coaching session with “You, the leader” are by their nature, “critical conversations.” Do your homework and prepare. This a good time to demonstrate how committed you are to actually achieving a positive outcome by how well you set the table. Coaching sessions are no less important then performance feedback meetings. The ultimate goal is for an outcome in which you began to move people toward the Support/Delegate quadrants of the situational leadership cube. The next progression is the employee who is a capable but possible cautious performer. They know how to get the job done and may just lack the confidence to fly solo, or work with minimal direction or feedback. So, take your time. It takes a good leader to have the patience and time to seize on every possible coaching or teaching moment. Be that person.
In one episode of my military career, I was assigned to a unit whose primary job was search and rescue and maritime law enforcement. My team leader, an experienced hand with many skills in these arenas, never missed an opportunity for a coaching session. I recall a night when the weather was so bad there was some discussion about “closing” the station (which in our service was only contemplated when the odds of returning were 50/50). At about 2:00am, we were scrambled by the command center and told to get underway in regard to a report of an overturned small craft. The location was a short distance, and upon arrival, we found a small open boat flipped, with two persons in the water, rapidly running out of energy and hypothermic. As I prepared to throw a heaving line, the team leader tried to maneuver our boat into a favorable position relative to the wind. When I hurled the line, it was a moment before we had reached the optimum position relative to the victims. As a result, the line went forward about 10 feet, caught a gust, went up and then over my head and landed in the well deck some 20 feet behind me. I was momentarily taken aback by that turn of events as the victims were still in front of me and in desperate need of a line. I began to look for our ring buoy and throw that when our team leader caught my attention and began to talk me through the process of retrieving the line, and preparing it for a new toss. If there ever was a time for high direction Stage 1 leadership, this was it. Instead, he patiently explained the process of preparing the line to stay flatter on the toss, and the way to throw it that kept it down. He even explained why the ring buoy was not the best tool for this specific moment. Thankfully, the second throw didn’t take much longer and was right on the money.
I have often reflected on that instance over my own career as I progressed through the learning and leadership stages myself. It certainly made me proud of my performance and my organization and in no small way contributed to my decision to commit to a long and personally fulfilling career. So, if you think your coaching sessions should be quick one-way conversations, think again. By definition, coaching requires commitment on both sides and is a two-way street. Prepare for it, and then put your people in the game.