If you want to be an effective coach at work, throw away the mental images you carry of coaches from the world of sports. It's not just their emotional outbursts and other theatrics that can lead you astray. It's that they are managers – highly judgmental bosses, who control the livelihood of their charges, making decisions about whether to play or even turf the individual, which is not a coaching style. They are also experts in their field – a baseball coach knows the game intimately – and ironically that isn't a requirement for a coach at work either.
Gregg Thompson, a Canadian-born coach to executives at major U.S. corporations and author of the book The Master Coach, says that when you are coaching, you are not acting as a manager, contradictory as that might seem. "You are not giving advice – that's the No. 1 mistake," he says in an interview.
He shares a coaching impact model, with the following continuum: Directing, advising, teaching, mentoring and coaching. The first four are quite different from coaching. Under pressure, leaders tend to move toward directing and advising, which can undercut their coaching efforts because the focus becomes the manager's goals, not the individual's needs. "The coaching relationship is all about the other person. The coach is a catalyst for learning, advancement and change," he says.
A coach helps the individual learn about themselves and their relationship with others. When Mr. Thompson asks people who was instrumental in their careers, they inevitably mention someone who acted in a coach-like manner. That person saw something in them they didn't recognize and challenged them to be better. It's adult learning, and the individual being coached needs to be self-directed.
You can't force your insights on somebody else. They have to want your help. They have to be intent on learning and developing. It's often assumed some people are uncoachable, but he is dubious: "It's not that they are uncoachable. They just don't want to be coached by us. We haven't earned the right."
How do you earn it? He says you must display "noble intention" – that you are truly interested in helping the other person. Not fixing the other person. Not turning the other person into a miniature replica of yourself. But helping.
"You need to feel good about yourself so you can subordinate yourself and make the coaching conversation about the other person. We're really transparent. People can tell if your intentions are noble. Unless the person being coached is a willing participant, it's not coaching, it's something else," he says.
He highlights three dimensions of coaching: Character, connection and conversation. Character is the most essential dimension of coaching, earning you the right to coach. Trust is essential. You may have great relationships with friends but those connections are different from the tie to someone you coach. It's a peer-to-peer relationship, caring and challenging at the same time, nurturing growth. The coach must establish this connection before the effort can begin.
Conversation refers to the dialogue you have together. It will involve things that don't come up with others – touching on goals and dreams, entering risky areas that put both people on the edge, discussing uncomfortable issues. The senior executives he coaches are highly talented and intelligent. "I have nothing to bring to them in knowledge or advice. My role is to have a conversation that can test their thinking, challenge their beliefs, and help them to see differently so they can act differently," he says. If nothing changes, he stresses, that's not coaching, it's just a nice conversation.
While he is an outsider with those top executives, you may be coaching a subordinate. But you need the same perspective. You must accept that the other person is fully capable of running their life and managing their career. You're just a catalyst for change, helping them to open their eyes to new insights – and then helping them to grapple with the difficulties of change. "It's not soft. It's tough. You hold them accountable," he says.
It's crucial to suspend judgment. Sometimes, that may mean turning on a dime. You tell someone their performance is inadequate. You offer to help. And from that moment, you suspend judgment, embrace noble intention, don't see them as an underperformer, and help them to be their best. Coaching is optimistic. "Good coaches are a purveyor of a better today and tomorrow," he says.
And good coaching, he believes, is within the reach of all of us. It's not easy, but if you follow his guidelines you will have a better chance of success.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter