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Managers these days are supposed to be coaches. Easy, peasy, right? We can all do that. Sports fans have been watching coaches in operation for years, and we see our children coached in ballet, gymnastics or acting. It’s familiar.

So here’s a warning: You’re not as good as you think. That’s from Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organizational behaviour at London Business School, and Anne Scoular, who trains coaches, based on their work with clients or executive MBA students as well as research. For most managers, coaching seems soft. It deprives them of their most familiar management tool: asserting their authority. So they fumble it.

In one study, 3,761 executives assessed their own coaching skills and then those assessments were compared to ratings by colleagues. Twenty-four per cent of the executives significantly overestimated their coaching abilities, rating themselves as above average while colleagues ranked them in the bottom third of the group.

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So let’s start with what coaching is. “An effective manager-as-coach asks questions instead of providing answers, supports employees instead of judging them, and facilitates their development instead of dictating what has to be done,” Prof. Ibarra and Ms. Scoular write in Harvard Business Review.

In fact, it’s not so easy. It goes against the managerial grain. Often an executive, intending to coach, begins a discussion with an open-ended question, such as “How do you think things are going?” The answer, however, is different from what they expected. Rather than follow its direction, the manager reformulates the question, which also fails to gain the desired response. Frustrated, leading questions pour out, such as “Don’t you think your personal style would be a better fit in a different role?” That’s met defensively by the direct report. And it get worse from there. “At the end of the exercise, no one has learned anything about the situation or themselves,” the duo write.

There is no single coaching style. Even top sports coaches can be quite different in approach. The authors suggest there are four approaches we can pick from, based on how much information, advice or expertise we put into the coaching discussion and how much motivational energy we pull out by unlocking our subordinate’s own insights and solutions:

  • Directive coaching: This involves telling – a lot of expertise shared but not so much motivational energy ignited because the coach or mentor has stated what to do and how to do it.
  • Laissez-faire: Your team members are productively getting on with their work so the right approach is to leave them alone.
  • Non-directive: This revolves around listening, questioning, and withholding judgment. As a coach, you’re not actually sharing much wisdom but instead trying to help the subordinate learn to resolve problems and cope with challenging situations on their own. “It’s an approach that can be highly energizing for those being coached, but it doesn’t come naturally to most managers, who tend to be more comfortable in ‘tell’ mode,” they note.
  • Situational: They call this the sweet spot and what you want to aim for – you are sharing ideas and the other person is stimulated to act on them. This style is a balance between directive and non-directive styles according to the specific needs of the moment. “From our work with experienced executives, we’ve concluded that managers should first practise non-directive coaching a lot on its own, until it becomes almost second nature, and only then start to balance that newly strengthened ability with periods of helpful directive coaching,” they advise.

At the core, you are coaching for compassion. In Helping People Change, academics Richard Boyatzis, Melvin Smith and Ellen Van Oosten offer three key coaching words at the start: Help, learn and grow. They contrast it with coaching for compliance. “Being told that we have to or need to change is simply not an effective means of helping us to sustainably alter behaviour,” they note.

Prof. Boyatzis, of Case Western Reserve University, says when we rush to tell someone we’re coaching what to do the research shows that person shuts down. And it’s not just offering a directive as disguised coaching that fails. You also will blow it by setting specific goals, providing feedback before the other person asks for it and providing tips on how the individual can perform better.

“The majority of people want to do good work. The first step to helping them to be successful is to understand what the person wants out of life and work. You have to care about the person, their dreams and values, and listen to them,” he says on the Transformational Leader website. In the book, they talk about helping the person to understand their ideal self and holding conversations that inspire the other person to bring the best version of themselves to work.

That may seem pretentious. But it’s what great coaches do in other fields. And it’s what you must strive for.

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Cannonballs

  • The present downturn came on six times faster than the previous one in 2009, McKinsey & Company research shows. Using Z-Scores for 1,500 European and North American companies – a measure that involves margins, revenues, retained earnings and assets – they found in the last recession it took 18 months to achieve the hammering we saw in three months this time.
  • Leadership development consultant Morris Shechtman says the criticisms levelled at hierarchies have little to do with the pyramid structure but instead stem from conflict avoidance. Hierarchies become dysfunctional when decision-makers don’t confront issues like incompetency and redundancies.
  • Excellence comes from shutting up and listening – really listening, insists management guru Tom Peters.

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