Winter 2003
Coach for Success

Here’s the problem: An employee is chronically late completing certain job tasks, which creates delays and otherwise robs profitability from your business. What do you do?

Not so fast! There’s a complication: This employee has actually been improving in some areas, which makes you think she falls behind because she spends too much time making sure everything’s right. But if you confront her, you may be demoralizing an otherwise hard-working, well-intentioned employee—which is the last thing you want, especially if her self-confidence is already a little shaky. So now what?

Send in the coach

Coaching is helping someone “find daylight” and go for the goal. In a workplace situation, coaching encourages employees to understand performance issues and generate their own solutions. Because it emphasizes collaboration, not confrontation, coaching improves employee effectiveness but avoids the costly stress generated by disciplinary sessions.

As a coach, you’re a combination mentor/tour guide/cheerleader. The better you are at it, the better for your business. “Being a good coach has a bottom-line impact on your business,” says Erik J. Van Slyke, senior manager for Deloitte + Touche’s human capital advisory services (New York). “Organizations that establish more coaching… see higher productivity and greater return on their investments in human resources activities.” Plus, he says, businesses with good coaching in place attract the best employees and keep them from jumping ship.

In the best of worlds, you and the employee will come to a solution together. In a traditional top-down management organization, “bosses” often feel threatened by collaborative efforts. “Some managers need the horsepower of their position to keep things running,” says Newman. “They run the risk of giving away their authority when they allow employees to develop solutions… [but] just because a player needs a coach doesn’t mean the coach knows best. It’s a symbiotic relationship. The coach is a cheerleader,” he says. But it’s the employee who has to make the play.

The playbook

What’s the secret to a great coaching session? Six workplace psychologists share inside information and some advice for the missed-deadlines scenario.

Create a positive mindset

Don’t be judgmental. Emphasize problem-solving, not personal evaluation. It’s natural to get upset about how the situation is hurting your business, but don’t communicate negatively. Instead, lay the groundwork for being positive by shifting your focus toward performance improvement. Van Slyke suggests thinking along these lines: This is a good employee who needs a little guidance.

Get the facts

How many times has the employee missed deadlines? Note the dates and the projects. What specific effects did that have on the business (e.g., dollars or number of customers)? Write the answers before your coaching session. “An employee may feel defensive when you coach them on a performance issue,” says Dr. Daniel Dana, president of Dana Mediation Institute (Overland Park, KS). But a detailed account of the facts shows that you’re concentrating on issues that impact the business, and not engaging in fault-finding. Say something like: “We’re all responsible for sales here. Everything each of us does contributes to that, and I’d like to talk with you about steps we might take to meet our goals.” Be aware, though, that even with this opening, the employee might feel defensive. If that happens, let the employee react, but don’t get caught up emotionally. Stay objective, and stay on message.

Start on an up note

The first 30 seconds are critical to characterizing the session as coaching rather than disciplining, so start by saying something positive about the employee’s performance. “Don’t make the mistake of zeroing in on the problemright away,” saysWilliamByham,presidentofDevelop-mentDimensions International (Pittsburgh, PA). Otherwise, “[the employee] will think you feel she’s not making a contribution. Instead, communicate that [she] needs to improve a specific area.” Make the praise factual and specific, something like: “You’ve always been a good employee, and I really depend on you. Your performance in [customer service], for example, is always outstanding.”

Briefly describe the problem

Present the problem as concisely as you can. You might simply start by saying: “We’re here to talk about the ‘timeliness’ problem.” Explain it in terms of its impact on your business, and use a tone of voice that communicates a desire to establish a dialog rather than discipline. Van Slyke suggests an approach like this: “I don’t have the inventory data I needed today—I didn’t get the numbers from you. That means a delay in ordering, which means we may get product later than planned. This happened twice before, too.”

Ask questions

Quickly involve the employee in acknowledging and responding. Get him to acknowledge the lateness issue and ask for input, especially about the cause. Employee feedback is critical because only the employee knows what’s really behind the problem. Ask open-ended questions (not yes-no): “What seems to be happening here?” or “What do you think is getting in the way of [restate the problem]?” Ask the employee to go through the steps: “How do you go about getting this done? What steps do you take?” That way, you might find glitches in the process that can be corrected.

Dig deeper

If you don’t yet feel you have something to work with, dig deeper by paraphrasing and summarizing what the employee says. Doing that can stimulate her to discover the real cause of problems. “Listen with a ‘third ear,’ because what you hear is very often a combination of what people think you want to hear, and what they’re aware of at the moment,” says W. Bruce Newman, VP for field services of Dana Mediation. Re-emphasize the collaborative nature of the session, and ask more open-ended questions in the same friendly, sincere tone of voice you started with. Try statements like these, and pause after each one so the employee can think (and not feel badgered): “OK, you think the problem is that you’re spending too much time on ____,” or “You’re saying the problem is with the excessive paperwork you’re required to do, right?” Finally, ask this one for good measure, even if you feel you have the “right” answer: “Do you think there are any other reasons?”

Most employees eventually come up with something. In the lateness scenario, it might be something like, “Maybe I haven’t been planning my time well,” or “I seem to get hung up on the details.”

What if the employee pins the blame on others? Sometimes that’s legitimate. Acknowledge it, but stay on track with something like: “I really need your help turning this problem around. Can we put that issue aside for a while? We’ll come back to it, but for now let’s focus on a plan to get your numbers in on time. Do you think there’s anything you might be doing that adds to the problem?”

In any case, once you agree on the chief causes, recap with words like: “OK, it seems you need to improve time management and prioritizing so that you don’t get mired in unimportant details. Does this describe things accurately?”

Ask for a solution

Now that you have the causes, rely on the employee to find a solution. “If you take over the task of coming up with a solution, the employee doesn’t ‘own’ it,” says Byham, who invokes the Chinese proverb: Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime. “Coaching isn’t answering the question, ‘What should you do?’ but rather ‘What do you think you should do?'” says Byham. Start simple, with something like, “How would you solve this?” or “What kind of solution makes sense to you?” Most likely, the employee will offer a couple of them. If one (or more) has merit, go with it, but make sure the employee is sold on it. Repeat or rephrase it in terms of the problem: “So you feel that devoting a half hour each day to scheduling the next day’s hours will solve the time-management issue.” After you get a yes, ask “Is there anything I or other staffers should do differently to help make you effective?”

What if the employee draws a blank? Avoid the temptation to dictate a solution. Instead, toss out some ideas and invite the employee to kick them around with you. One approach: “Here’s an idea. You might read this article on time management and then we can discuss how you’d apply them. Would that work?” or “Is this a good idea?” Putting it this way reinforces the collaborative nature of the session and encourages the employee to make the all-important personal investment that makes the solution work.

What if the employee comes up with a solution you don’t think is ideal? Try going with it anyway. Because he has an investment in it, it may work—possibly better than the solution you thought of. Another possibility: the employee’s solution is off the mark. Let’s say he resents not getting a raise and lately he’s been missing deadlines, but his solution is to be in charge of customer service: “This would help me improve my time-management skills.” That solution doesn’t address the problem. But it’s smart to take any reasonable step to help him succeed, so use his request as leverage, something like this: “I’ll consider that, but I really need you to make sure your time management improves. Once it does, I can work on you filling the customer service slot. So let’s talk about solving the time issue and get you where you want to go.”

Write an action plan

“Conclude the coaching session with some action goals,” says Byham. Coaching works best when specific tasks and accountability are built into the solution—and the solution is written up as a plan. For example, ask the employee by what date he’ll complete each specific milestone, and put those dates into the plan. Also agree on the dates for follow-ups.

By doing a written plan, there’s no chance of a misunderstanding, and no procrastination. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate—just a recap of the highlights, steps, goals and dates. “But if the person’s job is in jeopardy,” says Byham, “then you have to have the specifics written down in more detail.” Ian Jacobsen, president of Jacobsen Consulting Group (Sunnyvale, CA), agrees: “Have the employee do the writing, because this will confirm his understanding. Since the employee is the one who has to solve the problem, it’s better to have him describe the solution in his own words.” Also invite the employee to come to you with any questions that come up in writing the plan.

End on an up note

Before you end the session, tell the employee that you appreciate her contribution to your business and her enthusiasm during the session; also express your confidence in her ability to reach the goals you both set. “In our surveys, employees say they don’t get enough recognition.” says Van Slyke. Employee ideas and solutions “give you the ability to do something coach-like: praise them and give recognition,” he says. Tell them you think their solution is great and will work.

Follow up

Monitor the milestones not only to ensure that the employee’s performance improves, but to lend credibility to future coaching. Employees will take coaching only as seriously as you do. On the dates specified in the plan, ask questions and listen, says Fred Martels, president of People Solution Strategies (Chesterfield, MO). “Run interference if you have to. Discover the avenues that will help your employees excel.”

Coach vs. counsel

Coaching is great for boosting specific performance, but it’s not always the right tool. If an employee’s performance actually threatens the stability and success of your business but you feel this person still has value, you’re better off counseling. In a counseling session, you take a firmer role in determining and implementing remedial action.

“Be clear about whether you’re coaching or counseling,” says Jacobsen. “The employee needs to understand your objectives.” At one extreme is the employee who doesn’t realize the seriousness of the issue. At the other extreme, he says, “if you’re just trying to work with a person [who] sees it as job-threatening, there’s a possibility of defensive behavior.” And sometimes employees misunderstand and think they’re being shown the door. A fearful employee who’s now walking on eggshells or feels every effort is futile isn’t what you wanted to create.

“[Good coaching] is an extremely important part of being a good leader,” says Martels. “It can improve business performance, and keep your best employees from leaving.” The 10 steps here are the blueprint for successful coaching: zeroing in on the causes, and eliciting solutions that create effective, long-term and profitable employees.

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