If you’re like me, you’ve heard the term ‘coaching’ in reference to something we’re supposed to do with our employees so often that you’ve become somewhat immune to it. In my roles as HR Director, Consultant and, yes, Management Coach, I have found that the term means vastly different things to different people and as a certified professional coach I can’t help but cringe a little at some of the ‘misuses’ of the word. Previous experience tells me there is a sizeable population who will disagree (violently) on the terminology but in the spirit of peace, unity and brotherly love I invite you to look past the labels to the essence before you call me mean names.
People often use the term coaching to mean telling people how they can perform better, or providing specific performance related feedback, or even corrective action. I will be the first to admit that all these conversations need to take place in the workplace from time to time, but the purist in me can’t help but point out that this is NOT coaching! Yes, I know that sports coaches give specific, pointed feedback and proscribe corrective action and that we as a culture are addicted to sports (and war) analogies in business but sports coaching is not identical to professional business coaching.
Coaching, as a discipline, refers to guiding people through a series of thoughtful questions to assist them in discovering their own solution. It usually involves helping people reframe their perspective and uncovering their own limiting beliefs to allow them to reach new potentials. There is also usually an element of accountability in coaching. I don’t let my clients think I am holding them accountable, as that’s not empowering, but I will agree that I help them hold themselves accountable.
So when should you coach, versus use another tool in your toolbox? This is not set in stone but I think coaching is a great tool to help people with conflict resolution skills, career aspirations, handling interpersonal problems, and developing strategic plans. An easy rule of thumb for me is that Coaching helps good people get better, when there are no obvious problems to address.
Non-coaching situations are ones where there are tactical issues to address, knowledge to be transferred, or problems to be overcome. In these cases, then training, feedback or goal-setting is a more appropriate tool. If you have a performance problem such as neglecting to perform a required function or failing to meet minimum expectations, then a more formal performance discussion and possible exit plan are more appropriate.
Hands down, the hardest part about coaching another person is NOT giving them the answers – especially if they are struggling with a situation you are well-versed in solving. Part of becoming an excellent coach is the process of letting go of the need to be seen as an expert, accepting that each person has their own learning journey and that you might not have all the answers (I hate that!). Coaching requires immense patience and faith that the discovery process bears more fruit than just being dictated a solution.
In my experience, it is really (REALLY) hard to coach people who work for you in subjects in which you are an expert; not impossible but it taps into a completely different skillset than training. When you are training someone, you are telling them what to do and how to do it, but in coaching you are helping them explore alternatives and come up with a solution. Sometimes we can fall into the trap of ‘pseudo-coaching’ where we ‘KNOW’ the right answer and ask a series of questions that we believe will get someone to the place where we think they should get. This is NOT coaching and unless you are extremely skilled in this technique it’s also usually glaringly obvious what you are doing and not a little patronizing.
If you have identified a coaching need and have the time and skill to engage in coaching, it can be one of the highest and best uses of your time and very rewarding as well. Watching the light in someone’s eyes as they get it, and seeing their careers blossom and their confidence grow is amazing, and why I decided to pursue coaching as a major segment of my professional life. It’s also great to receive. As a coach, one of the ways I stay sharp is to work with a coach myself.
If you are interested in learning how to better coach your employees, or have some success stories to share, I’d love to hear it! If you are mad at me for saying coaching is different from performance management, I hope we can stay friends and agree to disagree!
Carrie Maldonado is the founder of Limitless HR Solutions, a Seattle-based management consulting firm devoted to helping business owners fall back in love with their businesses. A certified executive coach, seasoned Organizational Behavior Management Practitioner and Senior HR professional, Carrie can be reached for consultation at firstname.lastname@example.org