The football coach stood frustrated on the sideline as his quarterback threw incomplete passes. He suddenly rushed onto the field, grabbed the ball from the quarterback’s hands, and started passing to the startled wide receivers. After the coach completed a pass he returned the ball to the quarterback, and said, “my boy, that is how its done,” as he walked off the field.

This never really happened. But countless times managers behave the same way by grabbing a ‘problem’ out of their employees’ hands, ‘solving’ it by taking over, and then thinking they are good coaches. They are wrong.

Effective coaching is rarely taught in school. In fact, our schoolteachers and sports coaches usually modeled exactly the wrong lessons for effective coaching – they spent years telling us what to do and how to do it. We learned these lessons well. Now we commit the same coaching infractions and often wonder why our employees don’t improve.

Coaching is not instructing

There is room for instruction in coaching, but only when someone doesn’t know how to do something. As soon as someone knows the relevant skill, you must let him or her practice. For example, I’ve played tennis for decades by running to the ball and hitting it over the net (mostly). This is much fun, but I have not improved substantially in all that time. My wife recently gave me tennis lessons for my birthday. The instructor, Dean, first observed my swing for a little while. I was grateful he kept a straight face.

Dean then taught me how to torque my body, use my non-racquet hand to guide my swing, and swing up to my opposite shoulder. This was a revelation. And of course I sucked at first. So I practiced while he watched.

When he saw that I knew the basics, HE STOPPED TELLING ME WHAT TO DO. Instead, he described what I was actually doing and let me figure out how to correct my swing. In other words, he stopped teaching, but gave me detailed feedback about how my performance differed from my goal, which was to hit the ball consistently with topspin.

This is the same as coaching for high performance at work. After people set a goal, they would improve faster if we invested more time observing and providing specific feedback than telling them what to do. Even I’m getting better at tennis, and it’s only been three lessons!

 Coaching is not advice

I have an uncle who is getting on in years, who I love dearly. When I was younger, Uncle Bill used to smoke smelly cigars, ask how I was doing, and about one second later launch into what he thought was a similar situation from his own life (i.e., “when I was your age…”) He would end his story by pointing his cigar at my chest and saying, “Robbie, here’s what you gotta do…” and give me advice that I wouldn’t take in a million years.

But guess what? We do the same thing when our employees come to us with a problem they are struggling with. Think of how many times someone came to you with a problem and the first thing you did was shower him or her with suggestions – “HAVE YOU TRIED THIS…?” without a deep understanding of the problem in the first place.

Uncle Bill is a great uncle, but not a great performance coach. A great performance coach helps you understand your problem without solving it for you. How? They ask questions that make you think. Such questions include: “What do you think is the underlying issue?” “How do the pieces fit together?” “What would the other person say if they were here?” “What are your topmost concerns?” “If there were no constraints, what would you really want to do?” and so forth.

Most people can figure out how to improve once they have a deeper understanding of their situation. And when they do, you can’t stop them. No advice needed. That’s when as a coach you have earned your keep.

So if you want to improve your coaching, ‘here’s what you gotta do:’

  • Instruct only up to a point the person can perform the skill or has the knowledge needed for the job at hand
  • Provide specific feedback that helps the person understand how their performance compares with their goal (it helps to have a clear goal, by the way)
  • Ask probing questions that help the person think more deeply about their situation
  • Don’t give advice unless asked, and even then, don’t overdo it
  • Watch the individual’s performance improve, and then consider yourself an excellent coach

© Robert Ponzoni -ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2008