“Coaching doesn’t start with Xs and Os. It starts with believing that players win games and coaches win players.”
—Bill Courtney, American football coach, movie director, and entrepreneur
You know coaching is important. In fact, it’s critical. Without your coaching, people around you will never reach their potential.
You’ve heard of Muhammed Ali, but probably not his coach, Joe Martin; nonetheless, Ali would not have been a champion without him. Same goes for the Green Bay Packers without Vince Lombardi, the Chicago Bulls without Phil Jackson, or Michael Phelps without Bob Bowman.
Coaching is an indispensable tool. It speeds the progress and heightens the trajectory of a good people. With the right coach, significant growth may not take five years; rather, it may take five months, or even five weeks. In short, coaching works. In fact, no team or athlete has ever become exceptional without exceptional coaching.
The Two Key Criteria of a Successful Coach
If you’ve ever played sports, you already know that coaching works. And any successful coach meets two key criteria—he expresses care and has standards.
Think about a person who was influential in your life before you were twenty. Did he care about you? The answer, of course, is “yes,” every time. If your motivation to coach someone is to hammer him, don’t bother starting. It won’t work. If you dislike him, it probably won’t work either.
If you’re not careful, you can single out the person that you have a problem with and begin to focus on her negative attributes. She will feel it, her confidence will erode, and her performance will get worse. As her performance sags, it will prove to you that you were right to begin with. She will feel your laser beam focus, her confidence will erode further still, and her performance will hit bottom.
It’s worth asking yourself if you are contributing to this sort of downward spiral by expecting the worst. Are you addressing poor performance because you care, or because you’re fed up? When a person feels that you’re down on her, her performance is going to suffer, and your prediction of her failure becomes prophecy fulfilled—because (subconsciously) you did all you could to make it happen. Before you have any reality conversations, change your own attitude. You are there to be a career advocate and a coach. Coaches care.
If you don’t think self-confidence affects work performance, consider the case of Tiger Woods. Woods was unbeatable in golf, the #1 ranked player in the world, until his many extramarital affairs were revealed. This was followed by a humiliating public apology, and an eventual divorce from his wife. Over the next several years, Woods’s play was highly inconsistent, dropping to a #104 world ranking at the time of writing.
As leader and coach, you must insist on non-negotiable performance standards.
This formula (sincere care enhanced by high standard) was likely already used by every person who has made a significant difference in your life. Think about it—a teacher, coach, boss, or parent.
First, they demanded more of you than you thought you were capable of. Then they made it clear that they were demanding this because they wanted you to be your best. It was for your good, because they cared! That combination is incredibly fertile ground in which young leaders are able to grow.
Care without performance standards equals chaos. Performance standards without care equals rebellion. But care mixed with clear performance standards creates an environment where employees can flourish and reach goals they themselves never thought possible.
3. Good coaching is focussed on providing frequent feedback
We live in a world where anyone born after 1980 is used to instant feedback about everything. I dropped Facebook after about two months, once I realized that it was actually a part-time job where I was expected to immediately respond to pictures and requests and a deluge of other cyber-detritus. However, I was born before 1980.
Younger people are used to constant feedback—whether they are posting pictures, adding their comments to YouTube videos, or critiquing online news stories (but doesn’t my opinion about geopolitics matter, too?).
I read recently about an app (Snapsure) that allows you to take a picture of a piece of clothing that you’ve tried on in a store, send it to friends from the dressing room, and receive their instant opinions about whether you should buy or not buy.
Hiring an employee and letting him work for a year before he gets some feedback in his formal performance review isn’t terribly effective anymore.
4. Good coaching generates opportunities for reality advice
We all have blind spots and it’s at those times that we’re in need of a reality advisor. This is a person who steps in and apprises us about what’s really going on. It’s an invaluable service. People issues emerge when reality and perception of reality begin to drift apart.
This problem is most common with your weakest team members. Often, your best people will rate themselves lower than you would, and your weaker players will rate themselves higher. It’s ironic that the people who you would lose first if you had the chance, think that you and the organization would die without them.
A reality advisor can intervene at this point and have a kind and honest discussion about where an employee is doing well and where he needs to grow. Growth only comes during times of discomfort; growth stretches us. When a teenager grows, she suffers growing pains. In fact, when we stretch ourselves in any way—speaking in public, working out, saying sorry, moving to a new job or a new town—it isn’t comfortable. Reality stings, but growing self-awareness enables us to become better people.
5. Good coaching offers encouragement
If you’re a leader with high standards, there’s a good chance you don’t often tell your staff when you’re happy with them. When you offer praise and encouragement, your stars will perform at even higher levels than they thought they were capable of.
A real star will do whatever it takes to maintain star performance and will take a lot of healthy pride in being recognized as a star by you. She will take seriously any suggestions you have for improvement. A real star loves being recognized as a high achiever.
6. Good coaching builds relationships
You may work closely with a person and yet never discuss things that are most important to you both. Although you may work together all day, you may only be interacting on a very superficial level.
A one-dimensional relationship involves the exchange of texts or email. It’s only useful for passing data and information. A two-dimensional relationship involves hearing a voice on the phone or seeing a face by video. A three-dimensional relationship involves sitting together in a room and talking face-to-face.
But even face-to-face working relationships can lack depth. Employees are most engaged when they feel personally known and understood by their direct supervisor. This means taking time to understand their career goals, obstacles they may be encountering, and things about their job that they most enjoy and most dislike.
7. Good coaching fosters career advice and mentorship
A coaching session is your chance to give back and help others by sharing advice and stories. There are two simple ways to approach this:
- First, make a list of the skills and lessons that you’ve had to learn to get to where you are today. Share the list with the person you’re coaching and start to discuss them one at a time.
- Second, when you sit down to talk, ask what problems the person is encountering. Then talk about them and share the wisdom you’ve learned on your career journey.
Coaching works when it incorporates two elements:
- Care: Coaching will only be effective if you sincerely care and want to help. If you’re down on the person you’re coaching, you’re wasting your time.
- Standards: You must uphold non-negotiable and clear standards and expectations with employees.
If you care but have no standards, you’ll be viewed as weak and ineffective. If you have standards and don’t care about the person, you’ll be viewed as mercenary, and your voice will have little effect. But when you combine care and standards, you create a powerful incubator that growing leaders will thrive in.
- Provides frequent feedback. Employees (especially younger ones) live in a world where most feedback is instantaneous. They expect it and will wilt and underperform without it.
- Generates opportunities for reality advice. We all have blind spots—weaknesses that we don’t see in ourselves—and reality advice helps your employees to grow in self-awareness.
- Offers encouragement. Strong leaders often forget to praise and encourage those who report to them. Coaching provides an opportunity to encourage your team.
- Builds relationships. Even though you may work together all day, you might not discuss the most important things that motivate your team members. Coaching sets the stage for those discussions to happen.
- Fosters career advice and mentorship. Coaching is the time when you can pass on what you’ve learned to someone else so that they can grow to be better employees and human beings.
Adapted from “The Power of People Skills,” Career Press 2017, pp. 191-208. See more about that here