As organizations realize that a large, one-size-fits-all training program isn’t a silver bullet for employee performance gaps, they’re thinking smaller. From checklists to 360-degree assessments and from on-the-job training aids to microlearning, organizations everywhere are trying to find learning scaffolds and differentiated instructional strategies to address each employee’s specific performance gaps. One tried-and-true method is employee coaching.
For as long as there have been businesses, there has been coaching. In his “Codex Leicester,” a collection of scientific writings, Leonardo da Vinci described establishing coaching practices to help young, budding artists. Before da Vinci, there was the succession of Socrates, Plato (coached by Socrates) and Aristotle (coached by Plato). Each gained renown for the way he coached young thinkers.
Organizations looking to establish performance coaching practices, however, should be careful not to fall into any of three common traps: using coaching in response to poor performance, treating coaching like just “one more thing” for employees to do and using coaches in place of managers.
1. Coaching Is Proactive, Not Reactive
If and when an employee’s behavior is not meeting organizational standards, he or she needs corrective action, often accompanied by paperwork. Typically, corrective action is focused on documenting deficient behavior and giving employees strategies for bringing their behavior back in line with company expectations.
Coaching, however, is about growth. It’s proactive and is most successful when it’s implemented when an employee is meeting, or even exceeding, expectations and demonstrating the potential for growth beyond his or her current role. While you can use coaching for employees who need support performing their current responsibilities, it’s important to differentiate coaching from corrective action: Coaching is fundamentally a statement of, “I believe in you and believe you can do this.” Leaders should implement coaching as soon as they see an employee’s potential for growth — ideally, upon hiring him or her.
2. Coaching Is a Culture, Not a Program
If it’s time to implement coaching, where do you start? Who should “own” it? Who will be accountable, and for what?
Many organizations think about coaching the same way they think about purchasing a new piece of software: It’s a program to manage using key performance indicators (KPIs), process flows and chains of command. While this approach may work well enough for some organizational purposes, it’s easy to slip back into the first coaching trap.
Instead of tacking on coaching to existing workflows and routines, think about how coaching can become a cultural value at your organization. It’s a longer, slower path to implementation, but you can accelerate it in a few key ways. For example, have leaders at the highest levels incorporate coaching conversations into their check-ins and conversations with their subordinates, and ask mid-level managers to report on how their coaching conversations are going with the people below them. When a supervisor models coaching for his or her subordinates and maintains coaching as a posture of inquiry and support, it makes it easier for mid-level managers to understand what authentic coaching can look like for their own employees.
3. Coaching Is Mentoring, Not Managing
“Mentor” can mean a lot of things, but for our purposes, a mentor is someone who has experienced a lot more life than another person and who willingly gives of his or her time and expertise to help that person grow and think. Often, thinking of this kind of mentor elicits images of a wizened, gray-haired executive offering to take someone out to his country club so they can “talk shop.” While this type of relationship may still be common, mentors can take many different forms and have all sorts of backgrounds.
One thing all mentors have in common: They want what’s best for their mentee, but they want the mentee to decide what “best” is. To use more modern language, mentors are thought partners — just with more experience. To be a mentor is to give up on the notion that you are managing someone into some sort of compliance-driven behavior change. Coaching that pursues mentorship acknowledges and encourages the mentee to think, not necessarily to obey. Good mentors know that when they coach, it’s still up to the mentee to take action.
Coaching isn’t easy, and it’s certainly not a quick process. It takes tremendous investment, in terms of both time and emotional labor. It’s often a long slog that can take months or even years to see improvement in terms of KPIs. Ultimately, though, coaching isn’t about KPIs. It’s about laying the foundation for an employee to learn, grow and develop in a symbiotic relationship with the organization.
By feeling invested in, coachees are ready to return that investment back to the organization through reduced turnover, high-quality work, increased institutional knowledge, and the opportunity to find their own coachee and start the process all over again.