Spring 2005
The Coach Approach

Let’s say you have an employee who always takes too long to get certain job tasks done. And causes delays and costs you time and money. What do you do?

Wait—there’s a complication: This employee has actually improved in some areas, and you think he falls behind because he spends too much time crossing T’s and dotting I’s. So if you confront him, you may end up demoralizing a hard-working, well-intentioned employee—which is the last thing you want. So now what?

Send in the coach

Coaching is helping someone “find daylight” and go for the goal. In a work situation, coaching encourages employees to understand performance issues and generate their own solutions. It’s about collaboration, not confrontation: it improves employee effectiveness but avoids the stress that “disciplinary” action causes.

As a coach, you’re a combination mentor, tour guide and 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, HR consultant and author of Listening to Conflict: Finding Constructive Solutions to Workplace Disputes (Amacom, 1999). “Organizations that establish more coaching… see higher productivity, and greater return on their investments in human resources activities.” Plus, businesses with good coaching in place attract and keep the best employees.

In the best of worlds, you and the employee come to a solution together, vs. a traditional top-down company where “bosses” often feel threatened by collaborative efforts. “Some managers need the horsepower of their position to keep things running,” says W. Bruce Newman, senior consultant with Mediation Training Institute International. “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? Here’s some professional advice for the missed-deadlines scenario.

1. 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 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.

2. Get the facts. How many times has the employee missed deadlines? Note the dates and the projects. What specific effects did it have on business (e.g., dollars or customers)? Write the answers before your coaching session. “An employee may feel defensive when you coach them on a performance issue,” says Daniel Dana, PhD, president of Dana Mediation Institute. But a detailed account of the facts shows that you’re concentrating on issues that impact the business, not fault-finding. So 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.” Even with this opening, though, the employee might feel defensive. If that happens, let the employee react but don’t get caught up in it. Stay objective, and stay on message.

3. Start on an up note. The first 30 seconds are critical to characterizing the session as coaching, not disciplining. So start by saying something positive about the employee’s performance. “Don’t make the mistake of zeroing in on the problem right away,” says William Byham, PhD, author of books such as Heroz Empower Yourself, Your Coworkers, Your Company. 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.”

4. Briefly describe the problem. Present it 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, not discipline. Van Slyke suggests something like: “Jack, 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 late. This happened twice before, too.”

5. Ask questions. Quickly involve the employee in acknowledging and responding. Get him to acknowledge the lateness issue and ask why it happens so you can turn the situation around. That feedback is critical because only the employee knows what’s behind it. Ask open-ended questions (not yes-no): What do you think is getting in the way of [restate the problem]?” and “How do you go about getting this done? What steps do you take?” That way, you might find glitches in the process.

6. Dig deeper. If you don’t yet feel you have something to work with, dig deeper by paraphrasing and summarizing what the employee says. “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 Newman. Re-emphasize the collaborative nature of the session, and ask more open-ended questions in the same friendly tone you started with. Try statements like these, and pause after each one so the employee can think—and not feel badgered. “OK, you think it’s 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 question 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, he might say 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. Let’s put that issue aside and come back to it later. For now let’s focus on a plan to get your numbers in on time. Is there anything you might be doing that adds to the problem?”

In any case, once you agree on the chief causes, recap: “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?”

7. 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?'” he says.

Start simple: “How would you solve this?” or “What kind of solution makes sense to you?” The employee will likely offer a couple of them. If one (or more) has merit, “So you feel that devoting a half hour each day to scheduling the next day’s tasks will solve this.” After you get a yes, ask: “Is there anything I or other staffers should do differently to help make you effective?”

But what if the employee doesn’t have any ideas? Avoid the temptation to dictate a solution. Instead, toss out ideas and ask the employee to kick them around with you: “Here’s an idea. Read this article on time management, and then we can discuss how you’d apply them. Would that work?” 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.

Or 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. Another possibility: the employee’s solution is off the mark. Maybe he resents not getting a raise and now he’s missing deadlines, but his solution is to be in charge of customer service: “This would help me improve my time-management skills.” It doesn’t address the problem, but it’s still smart to take any reasonable step to help him succeed. So use his request as leverage, 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.”

8. 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 dates for follow-ups.

A written plan means there’s no chance of a misunderstanding of the steps, and no procrastination in taking them. 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.” Also invite the employee to come to you with any questions that come up in writing the plan.

9. End on an up note. Before you end the session, tell the employee that you appreciate his contribution to your business and his enthusiasm during the session. Also “express your confidence in his ability to react,” says Van Slyke. Employee ideas and solutions “give you the ability to do something coach-like: praise them and give recognition.” Tell them you think their solution is great and will work (but only if it’s true).

10. Follow up. Monitor the milestones not only to assure 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 give and take feedback on whether the plan is working.

Winning game plan

“[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 ten steps outlined here are the blueprint for successful coaching: zeroing in on the causes, and eliciting the solutions that create effective, long-term and profitable employees.

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