Reflections on a New Coaching Program

I had been a manager for more than ten years before I heard the word "coaching" used about working with employees. Like many managers, when I had one-on-ones with my staff, we would cover checklists of tasks. Yearly reviews and goal setting tended to look like more checklists. The discussions centered on what would be accomplished for Bates College over the next year, as opposed to how an employee wanted to grow and develop. The question "What do you want to do in your career?" seemed superficial. The person I was working with would give an answer, but we never really worked through a process of getting them to that goal. I never felt I could help the staff grow and develop through these meetings.

An organizational behavior course introduced me to coaching. The concept immediately intrigued me and, as I began to research it more, I grew excited to try it. In my research I found several resources about coaching, but starting from scratch still seemed overwhelming. I hope that by sharing some of the experiences I have had with coaching, others might get a process started without feeling overwhelmed.

Before starting a coaching program, I think it makes sense to understand what coaching in a professional workplace is and what it is not. Coaching is about helping staff define their interests and values. It involves a significant amount of listening to people in order to better understand what motivates them in their work and what career path they are interested in pursuing. It is also critical to understand that coaching is not performance evaluation or correcting less than optimal behaviors. In fact, to make sure coaching is not seen as a performance review process, I don't mix my regular meetings with staff with coaching meetings. I want to be sure the two are clearly distinguished. When we meet for coaching, usually once per month, it is for one hour; the agenda is clear and includes an opportunity to summarize progress toward achieving identified goals and objectives to make sure the employee can meet those goals.

In his book Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman wrote that coaching is "having a deep conversation with an employee that goes beyond short-term concerns and instead explores the person's life, including dreams, life goals, and career hopes" (p. 60). Unfortunately, as Goleman also pointed out, despite a commonly held belief that leaders must be good coaches, this is the least used leadership style. He attributes this to leaders being "too busy" in today's fast-paced work environment. Indeed, doing a good job of coaching is time-consuming. Before my first meeting with my staff I send them a list of 12 questions that I want them to think about and answer. For each person I am coaching I also answer the same questions as I think the employee would answer them. Then I compare my answers with what the employee wrote down. This process takes about two hours and allows me to see the difference between how I see the employee and how they see themselves. Before each additional meeting (in my case, monthly), you will spend 30 minutes to one hour reviewing your notes from the previous meeting, reviewing the progress made, and preparing for the upcoming discussion.

After reviewing several resources, I decided to use Harvard Business Review's "Guide to Coaching Employees" as a framework for the process. This excellent guide provides tips and templates starting with the initial e-mail inviting staff to the meeting, to the previously mentioned questions I ask staff to think about in advance, to an agenda for follow-up meetings. As you peruse the guide, you will quickly realize that this work is not easy or fast. The commitment to this process pays off, however. I want to share a couple of success stories that might encourage you to set aside the time to develop a coaching process of your own.

Michelle has always been an excellent employee and demonstrates natural leadership abilities. As staffing changed over the past few years, Michelle began to take over several tasks that had previously been my responsibility. In my mind she was poised to be a manager and leader, probably in my position eventually. However, in our coaching sessions it became clear that Michelle's dream position was not in management. She very much enjoyed doing the technical design and programming work that she had taken over the year before. While she understood and accepted that leadership skills would benefit her work, she did not aspire to my role. Without spending this time together and thinking through what she valued and what motivated her, I would have continued to pass tasks and projects to Michelle that groomed her for a management role she did not want. Continuing to work in this manner would have eventually created a disengaged employee, even though I would have thought we were doing it in her best interest. Now, I have begun to assign projects that fall in her area of interest. The result is an employee who is deeply engaged and passionate in her work and about her future. She can openly discuss that future with me and ask for projects and training that will help get her there. This is good for Bates College and great for Michelle.

A second staff member had an equally interesting experience. As we worked through the coaching process, we talked about strengths and weaknesses. One of Mark's very clear strengths was communicating, particularly in writing. All of his technical notes were thorough and easy to read, both for technical and nontechnical people. Through our coaching conversation, it became clear that Mark not only excelled at writing but also enjoyed it. Our coaching is now leading us down the road of technical writing. Mark will be working to create FAQs for our community, along with developing the knowledge base for our technical staff. Part of the coaching plan for the upcoming year includes some course work in technical writing, along with teaming up with the instruction coordinator who currently does much of this work.

I have learned a lot through this process and have a couple of key takeaways for anyone who is beginning the process.

Being a good coach is critical to having a successful coaching program. Effective coaching requires time: time to adequately prepare and to really listen to your employees. They need to feel you are fully engaged in the process. If you don't remember what was discussed previously, or mistake one employee's goals for another, it will be clear you are not invested in them. The coaching will soon become "just another thing" that the employee has to do.

Listening is critically important. This time is about the employee and their values and goals. The only time I talk is when I have a clarifying question or I hear something that I believe needs further exploration. In many cases this will be a new experience for the people you are working with. They are not used to sitting in front of you and talking about themselves. It will be your job to make them feel comfortable doing this. During the first couple of meetings, be prepared with several prodding questions. The previously mentioned HBR guide has many suggestions for prompts to keep the conversation moving.

The other difficulty for many employees is talking openly to their supervisors about their goals and dreams. They are likely nervous to tell you if they want your job or your boss's job. Even more so, they are nervous to tell you that their dream job is not even something at your institution, or in education. You have to be sure they know that telling you these things will not affect their standing with you. In our coaching sessions, I am very open with my staff about them needing to feel free to have this discussion. To get them to open up, I tell them about my goals and dreams and share my ideal job. I also explain to each person that if we could get them to their perfect job, then it is a win for everybody, Bates College included. I would never hold a desire for growth and new opportunities against anyone who worked for me.

As a result of this process I feel that the people who went through it, and continue to do so, are more engaged with their work, and definitely have a closer working relationship with me. We are able to complete projects that we might not have completed previously, as employees are willing to take on extra work targeting their areas of interest. Most of all, it is good to see that we are doing the right thing for our employees by helping them grow and at the same time benefitting our institution.

Are you ready to get started with coaching? I previously mentioned the HBR guide, which will be a critical resource for you. An additional article that you may want to read is "Leadership That Gets Results" by Dan Goleman. In this article Goleman defines several different leadership styles. Understanding the leadership style to which you naturally gravitate can help position your move to a coaching style. As you think about implementing your own program, it may seem time consuming to do with every person who reports to you. I believe that you can start the process with specific people, or departments. As Goleman points out, the coaching style may not be effective with people who are resistant to change. Starting with people or departments that are ready and excited for change can give you a successful experience with coaching the first time. You can use those experiences to prepare yourself for others who might not be so ready for change.

Finally, understand that this is an opportunity for growth, for both the person you are coaching and yourself. You will learn new things about yourself and develop your own style of coaching. One example of this for me is that I always had all my technology put away during the coaching session. I believed this allowed me to focus on the person I was talking to and listen clearly. However, we discovered that during the sessions, we might want to go out to a website and look for training opportunities, or associations or mail lists the person could join. This has become a model for how my coaching sessions work: They are active sessions in which we each leave with tasks for our next meeting. Unlike official performance evaluations, you don't have to be perfect during your coaching sessions. You only need to show the person you are meeting with that you are invested in them and their growth. From there, a successful program will be launched.


Scott Tiner is associate director for Client Services, Bates College.

© 2017 Scott Tiner. The text of this blog is licensed under Creative Commons BY 4.0.