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The Basics of Coaching-Style Management

By Bruce Tulgan

 
Many managers tell me, “I’m not a natural leader. I’m a _____.” You fill in the blank: accountant, engineer, doctor. They say, “I don’t really enjoy managing. It involves a lot of difficult conversations.”

What these managers are really saying is that they don’t know how to talk to their employees about the work in an effective way. This should come as no surprise when so many managers are never provided with any leadership training.

Only the rarest of managers has that special brand of charisma, contagious passion, and infectious enthusiasm that inspires or motivates people. What about the rest of us? Charisma isn’t something that can be learned. But you can learn to talk about the work in a straightforward and effective manner. It’s all about saying the right words, at the right time, in the right way.

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Coaching-style managers have a special way of talking

The most effective managers adopt a special posture, demeanor, and tone. They have a way of talking that is both authoritative and sympathetic, both demanding and supportive, both disciplined and patient. It is a way of talking that is neither Mr. Friend nor Mr. boss, but rather nearly exactly in the middle.

This special way of talking looks a lot like performance coaching.

Sometimes managers worry that if they try to talk like a performance coach, they just won’t seem genuine. They will sound contrived. As one senior manager in a software firm put it, “there’s no way I’m going around the office hollering, ‘Rah! Rah!’ I’m just not the coaching type.”

But performance coaching has very little to do with hollering, “Rah! Rah!” around the office. Talking like a coach does not mean talking like a cheerleader. It’s simply a technique. In order to be effective, coaching simply cannot be contrived. It must be totally genuine. Often it is so genuine that you don’t even realize you are doing it!

 

“The only thing that matters is what you are doing right now”

Some managers have never had a great coach or teacher. They may not know what good coaching sounds like, so it is even harder for them to replicate. But rigorous performance coaching is one of the fundamentals of highly-engaged management, so it’s important to get it right.

I can describe coaching-style dialogue for you: it is steady and persistent, methodical and hands-on, enthusiastic and maybe even a little pushy. Coaching is a constant banter of focus, improvement, and accountability.

What I learned from the best coach I’ve ever had is this: the only thing that matters is what you are doing right now.

Imagine that you are coaching a runner as they make their way down the field. If you start yelling, “Run faster! Run faster!” that probably won’t do very much to improve that person’s performance. What if instead you focused on improving the specifics of their performance, one step at a time? “Pull in your elbows! Tuck your chin! Lift your knees higher!” That is the type of feedback that can be put into action right away.

A coaching-style manager’s persistent voice leaves the person they are coaching with no choice other than to focus on whatever they are doing right now. The demands are intense, but the payoff is incredible. When you coach people in this manner, you help them build their skills one day at a time.

 

There are four essential elements of a coaching-style dialogue

When I ask leaders to recall some of the best management interactions they have had over the years, very often what they describe sounds a lot like performance coaching.

There are usually four essential elements of these conversations:

 
1. Customized to the individual being coached.
Different styles of communication work for different people. Everyone has different aspects of performance that need to be focused on. They all have unique habits, wants, and needs. The most effective coaching-style managers tune-in to those differences and use them as a guideline for their ongoing one-on-one dialogues with each employee.

 
2. Focused on specific instances of individual performance.
I often advise leaders to get in the habit of using describing language, rather than naming language. Like the running coach in the example above, it is so much more helpful when a manager gives an employee specific, concrete actions that can be taken to improve.

 
3. Describes the employee’s performance honestly and vividly.
The biggest mistake a manager can make is hold back on feedback for the sake of preserving the employee’s feelings. Of course, managers should never belittle or bully their team members. But they should also be fully honest and candid in their feedback. Again, using describing language, rather than naming language, goes a long way. Describe the performance you are seeing in concrete, vivid terms. Compare that to the performance you would like to see, based no the expectations you and the employee agreed on at the beginning of the project. Of course, this only works if you are taking the time to establish those expectations from the outset.

 
4. Develops concrete next steps.
The worst thing any manager can do is break down all the ways an employee is doing something wrong, only to leave them hanging at the end of the conversation. Don’t leave your employees in a sink-or-swim situation. Help them develop a solid plan of concrete next steps. Strategize and plan together. Building that type of support and trust on your team cannot be overestimated.

 

Don’t wait to start coaching your employees

So many managers don’t begin focusing on performance until something is going wrong. Why wait until your employees are failing to start coaching their performance? Become a coaching-style manager now and create an upward spiral of success that will have a huge ripple-effect on your team and throughout your organization. All it takes is a little effort each day.


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