I was at a meeting recently with a few leaders from the Singapore Ministry of Health. They were a lively and well-informed group and they did not need any of my expertise about executive coaching. The questions that were occupying them were about why a supervisor, manager, or executive needs the same skills that professional coaches use. We teach that leaders can be more effective if they have coaching skills and a coaching mindset, but what does that mean? As they pointed out, executives seldom have time to take a half hour to hold a "coaching session."
Coaching can be useful for both improving performance and developing others but it may look quite different in practice. For the active manager, coaching happens in the moment, in the hallway, or walking from a meeting. It does not usually require an appointment—just an opportunity.
Take the routine problem of receiving a complaint from a direct report about the performance of a peer on a project. This can be approached in many ways, but I think a coaching approach may be the most promising from the point of view of achieving desirable results.
Let's consider the alternatives a manager has. Presumably the manager could agree to talk with the peer and solve the problem. Depending on the approach the manager takes, the peer may feel betrayed by the co-worker, be resentful, or find it helpful to get some assistance. Despite the skilled intervention by the manager, it will not improve the working relationship between the two peers because one of them ran to a greater authority. The best that can be hoped for is compliance in the present project and delaying the conflict to the next joint project.
Let’s suppose that our imaginary manager resists the temptation to fix the difference between two peers. Assuming that the manager uses a directive approach to save time and get the problem off his or her plate. "Go work this out between the both of you" seems likes a better option, but it has several inherent limitations. There is no telling how well prepared the direct report is to actually work it out effectively. It is likely that the direct report will end up feeling ignored and may add that frustration to the irritation she already feels with the unproductive co-worker. How likely is it that their next meeting will be fruitful?
Perhaps a coaching approach could yield a positive result without taking a lot of time. What would that look like?
One of the key components of a coaching mindset is a determination to let the coached person keep responsibility for the solution. This way a coaching leader can respond without taking over the problem. Questions such as "What have you done so far to solve this?", "What else could you do?", and "What do you know about why your colleague is not delivering?" are the preferred medium.
These questions can enlarge the range of actions for the direct report and it takes the same amount of time as giving advice or issuing an order. It creates the possibility that the person being coached tries a different approach and keeps at it. It reduces the chance that you will make it worse through intervening and implies that you have confidence in the intelligence, good intentions, and capability of your direct report. Instead of just announcing, "I have confidence in you", it communicates the truth of that.
The questions above are just the start, but perhaps you would like to give them a try and see what happens.
When you add coaching to your repertoire of management and leadership skills, you enlarge the range of actions available. Your direct reports are encouraged to consider alternatives and you create the opportunity for them to feel a sense of pride when they problem-solve. Managers still need to direct organise, and teach but coaching approaches are a valuable tool in your box.
Copyright © 2012 Singapore Institute of Management