Creating a Coaching Culture

By Margery Weinstein

How does criticism and critique differ from coaching? Based on my experience, the critical manager offers his “comments and questions,” but doesn’t offer a solution, or a better way of doing the task. On the other hand, a coaching manager notes that something could be done differently, and points out how to think about coming up with a new solution. It’s a difference between being productive in communicating areas of needed improvement versus just venting.

If managers can direct their communication with employees so that it’s focused on “Here’s how to think about doing something differently,” you have the seeds of a coaching culture. At least it seems that way to me. What do you think?

An interview with Amit Singh, president of Google for Work, conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant inThe New York Times’ Corner Office column, made me reflect on the importance of a coaching culture: “I learned the hard way about the importance of coaching people rather than jumping in and doing the work for them. A lot of folks have a tough time with that balance, and I did, too. Instead of giving people advice or coaching them on how to present something, I would go and do it for them or write their presentation…It’s about trying to make somebody better versus criticizing someone for doing something. Done right, people love it, because you’re really invested in their success. The flip side is that if you just say what’s wrong, then people feel terrible,” Singh tells Bryant.

Is there a way to teach managers how to coach? What kinds of programs do you have at your company to teach and encourage coaching?

Singh’s employees were fortunate that he had the technical know-how and skills to actually do the work he was managing.

The challenge is it’s so much more fun offering critiques without solutions, or without offering solutions that are feasible. It’s hard to have a coaching culture if your organization has the phenomenon of managers, who, unlike Singh, are managing people who know more than them. With the computer revolution in the workplace, this is pretty common. The Baby Boomer manager overseeing a Generation X or Y employee, whose job it is to interact with technology the manager doesn’t understand, can make a coaching culture impossible. The manager in this situation can point out what he doesn’t like, or thinks needs to be changed, but is not able to coach the employee in a new or better way of doing whatever is seen as being inferior.

It’s controversial of me to suggest it, but I’d say that the inability of a manager to coach means that the manager shouldn’t be a manager. The manager may be a wise person to speak with as a neighbor, or an interesting person to speak with at a conference or cocktail party, but his wisdom isn’t useful to the employee he is managing. In these cases, the organization has to ask itself the value of retaining a veteran employee with a lot of generalized knowledge about its industry, but little knowledge about the specific work he is responsible for managing. What is a solution for cases like this?

One solution is to identify these management situations in your organization, and, if possible, move those managers into consulting, sales team, or marketing roles, so their depth of knowledge about the industry can be made use of in meetings with others from the industry, while the job of managing work they are not technically skilled in is left to someone else. This does two things: It beefs up your marketing and sales force, while making room for the hiring of more employees with actionable knowledge. Technically skilled managers are not only able to better coach those under them; they are able to provide better oversight for the company.

For example, if you have a manager who oversees a Website, and he communicates the wishes of the organization to the employee who works on the site, and the employee quickly tells the manager those things won’t be possible, the manager without technical knowledge won’t know if what the employee has told him is true. And, from a coaching standpoint, if the employee is being genuine and not trying to deceive, yet does not feel the executives’ goals for the site can be met, the manager with technical know-how can work together with the employee to find a solution.

The hard part is if your organization is too small, or poorly funded, to move the managers with generalized know-how into other positions. That would mean letting them go. One idea might be to offer outgoing managers limited consulting work while they look for a full-time position at another company. Like any layoff, giving ample advance notice also helps. What do you think of letting a manager like this, who you feel will have to be let go due to a limited amount of actionable knowledge, know six months in advance that he’s on his way out? I’ve heard some say you shouldn’t do this because the manager will be resentful and create problems for the remainder of his time with the company. But I don’t agree. Most employees, and especially seasoned managers, will appreciate being given enough respect to not be hustled at the door with no notice.

A last option, depending on the needed technical skill, is to ask the manager if he would be willing to get trained in the technology. If it were me, I’d jump at the opportunity, but you might be surprised at the number of managers who may feel it’s beneath them to learn new technical skills. “That’s why we hired Mary,” he may retort. “That’s not my job. Given my experience in the field, I can provide guidance, or offer my thoughts, but it is up to my employees to make it happen.”

Wrong. In a coaching culture, no one should be too senior and lofty to learn a new skill—and to be able to use that new skill to work with those they manage on finding workable solutions.

Do you have a coaching culture in your organization? What does having a coaching culture mean to you? Can you offer other companies tips on training managers to serve as coaches?

Reprinted from Training Magazine

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