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Coach your employees to help them reach new levels

Coach your employees to help them reach new levels

When a chief financial officer I’ll call Laura meets with her company president, she wants to bring up a worsening tension she’s experiencing with another member of the leadership team.

“I want to share with my boss about the growing impasse that’s occurring between me and my colleague,” she told me. “I want to use my boss as a sounding board, so I can improve a particularly troubling relationship I’m facing. But my boss doesn’t value those kinds of discussions. He’s bottom-line oriented: ‘Let’s fix the problem.’ I want him to help me think more clearly about this. But he’s not interested.”

Like that fix-it oriented president, most leaders I know leave their coaching hat in the closet whenever they interact with employees.

Though lack of time is often used as their excuse, leaders tend to neglect coaching out of ignorance, not intention. Most misunderstand the importance of coaching, and view themselves as solvers and answer-dispensers rather than functional coaches.

That’s unfortunate, because if you’re going to be good at leadership, you have to function as a coach.

Why?  Because coaching is the most reliable strategy for helping promising employees grow. It’s also a powerful retention process.

In this column, I would like to distinguish “coaching” from “mentoring,” and present four compelling reasons why exemplary leaders view effective coaching as indispensable to their leadership.

Let’s start with an important distinction: the difference between coaching and mentoring.

Mentoring is a process of transferring subject matter expertise and technical know-how from a more experienced individual to a less experienced individual. The transfer happens through observation, instruction, practice, correction, repetition and, finally, mastery.

Consider these examples:

  •  A medical intern learns a new suturing procedure from an experienced doctor;
  •  An IT manager teaches a project prioritization process to a new hire;
  •  A tax accountant tutors a first-year CPA on how to review a complex tax return; and
  •  A sales manager reviews talking points for customer visits with a young sales team.

In each of these instances, a transfer takes place: Knowledge and skills move from one person to another. Voila, mentoring!

Mentoring is essential for growing employees’ technical expertise and special knowledge, expanding their value to the organization. Mentoring signifies a leader’s recognition: “If others learn from me, my organization will be more likely to thrive and last.” 

Coaching is a different animal—and at least as important as mentoring. There are two main distinctions between coaching and mentoring.

The first distinction relates to the content of the interactions. The focus of a coaching session is not the expertise of the coach, but the issues and challenges faced, let’s say, by a high-potential leader as he navigates the complex terrain of relationships and self-awareness.

Coaching helps direct reports manage relationship challenges, low confidence, superficial thinking, immaturity and the tendency to avoid discomfort. The best coaching addresses coachees’ emotional steadiness, judgment and relationship competence, not their technical know-how.

The second distinction concerns the mindset of the coach. Unlike mentors, skilled coaches do not teach, instruct, direct, advise, solve or fix. They operate more as wise guides than as skilled experts.

Instead of providing solutions, answers and techniques, coaches rely on deep listening, acute perception, thought-provoking questions, personal stories and “I” positions to help coachees become better thinkers, more responsible, and emotionally honest.

Four reasons for coaching
I can think of four compelling reasons—“The Four C’s”—why exemplary leaders place a high value on coaching.

Deepening connection. The coaching process addresses issues that stir up emotional reactivity and are, consequently, easy to avoid. Putting these issues on the table with a boss builds a level of connection and trust that enriches the relationship for both parties.

Coaches build strong connections with their direct reports by engaging in deeper conversations that include self-disclosure. By extension, coaches promote more meaningful exchanges throughout the organization.

Is there a risk when coaches and coachees engage in genuine self-disclosure? Not nearly to the extent that some believe. The ability of boss and employee to thoughtfully “reveal self” to each other characterizes the best coaching relationships and generally produces rich rewards.

Increasing calmness. Skilled coaches are able to help others to consider their own part in a stuck relationship or persistent business problem. By tenaciously promoting self-responsibility and initiative, coaches take the spotlight off of blame. They become concerned “thinking partners” who challenge coachees to identify previously unexplored outcomes and execute new approaches.

What often follows is “unstuckness,” and a breakthrough calmness in the emotional atmosphere of the relationship. Taking responsibility tends to lower anxiety.

Sharpening clarity. Employees often seek guidance when they are confused about what to do next. The confusion might relate to career choices, an issue with a direct report, managing a surge in pressure, or a personal problem.

In these situations, there’s rarely an easy answer. Instead, how valuable is it to have a boss who understands the importance of presence and can ask questions that trigger perspective and insight?

The aim is for the coach to function in such a way that the coachee departs the interaction with a clearer sense of how to move forward. Skilled coaches stimulate clarity without “telling” or “directing.”

Summoning courage. It’s one thing to be clear; it’s another to have the courage to act on that clarity. Coaches can help others face difficult decisions: Should I stay put or move on?  Is this the right timing—and the best strategy—for confronting a colleague? Am I ready to take a position and back it up with resolve?

Often, courageous conversations require a reckoning with fear:  fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of discomfort, perhaps even fear of death. In helping employees manage fear, coaches must overcome their own fears of uncomfortable conversations.

They must live from a steadfast rule: Discomfort for the sake of a greater good is a necessary companion of leadership.

Leaders who have an easy time understanding the importance of mentoring often struggle with delivering coaching.

It’s a lot easier to tell people how to do something than it is to help them grow their responsibility and maturity.

That’s why coaching is more difficult than mentoring. And why it is so important.

John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at [email protected].

3/18/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected].