Leadership Success-Coach Constantly and Provide Feedback

Coaching is defined in many ways, terms and contexts. For our purpose, coaching is a stream of communication from the leader to team members for the purpose of maintaining and improving performance.

Often times, coaching is viewed as an athletic function and visions of Bobby Knight, Dean Smith, Tom Osborne or Lou Holtz are summoned. The model provided by the athletic version of coaching is not far off from the business model but there are some distinct differences.

One of the comments that has often been expressed about coaching is the lack of time to devote to this activity. This is a classic symptom of a leader being too involved in doing and not involved in leading. When debunked this comment is really more about a lack of comfort in coaching skills than it is about available time.

Team members who do not receive regular coaching often feel disengaged from the organization and leader. Morale will suffer and in the absence of good coaching, team members will take an active role in defining what is good and bad in the organization. Strong personalities, sometimes for very bad reasons, will rise to an unofficial position of importance and drive team effectiveness. Team members with no coaching will also become fearful, tentative and resentful of the lack of knowing where they stand.

When effective coaching is present, the opposite will occur. Team members are engaged, upbeat, clear in their direction and clear in their understanding of where there performance is at. Team members will develop a much clearer understanding of the organization’s needs and how they fit in the big picture with good coaching. They also will see hope in their own growth.

The core coaching competency is good communication skills. To coach you must be able to communicate. In groups, with individuals, following-up in writing; a leader must be able to express their comments, suggestions, praise and encouragement effectively.

The other core competency in coaching is the need to be a people person. Although this phrase is pretty grossly overused, you must enjoy interacting with team members to be an effective coach. The boss that hides in her office and buries her nose in projects and paper work is often expressing a discomfort with dealing with people and thus avoiding coaching activities.

The journey into effective and excellent coaching will begin with breaking coaching into three separate pieces. The first piece is feedback. Feedback is providing either positive or corrective information to team members about their performance or behavior. This is the most common form of coaching and should represent a big part of a leader’s coaching interactions.

The second tenet of coaching is teaching and mentoring. This is different from feedback in that it takes a more long-term and nurturing approach. Teaching and mentoring is about providing skills to be successful and growing people for maximum results.

The final piece of the coaching puzzle is a catch-all wing that includes decisions to release team members, game planning and protecting team members. For the purpose of simplicity, we will call this operational coaching.

No single part of coaching is more important than another and none are effective without the other. For team success, feedback is needed, mentoring and teaching are needed and the operational elements of coaching are certainly engaged. Equally important and equally distributed from a leadership perspective.

Positive Feedback-The Basics

The correct and frequent delivery of positive feedback is one of the most powerful tools available to any leader. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most widely misunderstood, misused and underused tools as well.

Positive feedback is providing appreciation and acknowledgement when a team member performs at their role expectation or higher. It is simply designed to replicate the positive behavior or performance from the team member and create a culture where others strive for the positive feedback and acknowledgement.

For those of us who are dog owners and those of us that have previously enjoyed the company of man’s best friend, we can compare positive feedback in work team members to the process of conditioning dog responses. When you throw the tennis ball to the dog and he brings it back, you say “good dog.” When you throw the ball again and he brings it back, you again say “good dog.”

In the event that you cease saying “good dog” the dog will stop bringing the ball back. You say “good dog” to praise a positive event and encourage the replication of an appreciated behavior.

For those of us who have raised children, we can also compare our interactions with them to the correct use of positive feedback at work. When a child brings home a good report card, we say “good job, nicely done.” The intent is to reward the good grades and encourage more good grades. Every time the grades come back well, we repeat the praise.

Please don’t get this comparison wrong. Adult working humans are very much different from dogs and children. Or are they?

Adults react to reinforcement conditioning in the same way as children and dogs. When positive feedback exists, they will replicate the behavior. When no positive feedback exists, there is little motivation to replicate the performance.

Why Bother

In about twenty years of consulting and training work, we have documented an incredible phenomenon related to the lack of positive feedback in working environments. It is the “Why Bother” phenomenon.

Basically, what happens is that a team member does something well and the leader does not acknowledge or appreciate the activity. The first time around, there is not much harm because intrinsic motivation and pride will drive the team member to do well again. Unfortunately by the second or third time with not acknowledgement, thanks or reasonable belief that any appreciation is coming, the team member will develop a “why bother” approach and begin performing at minimum or worse levels.

This phenomenon also occurs when a leader is seen only in the role of critic in chief. The only time we hear from the boss is when something is wrong or she always tells people how to do it better so, “why bother.”

“Why bother” can become pervasive in workplaces and organizational culture when there is no expectation for positive feedback. It is very common when a leader ascribes to the “I pay them to do a good job” or “I expect them to do a good job” or the “when they don’t see me they know they are doing well” philosophies. Arcane and fatally flawed, you can’t produce replicated good performance through ignoring people.

Another contributor to “why bother” are the systems used in place of human interaction positive feedback. Annual performance reviews, employee of the month plaques and bonus checks have value but do not come close to the immediate reinforcement needed reproduce good performance.

As a leader, if you want to jump start the performance of team members or recharge an entire work group that you think is under-achieving, positive feedback can cure the “why bother” phenomenon quickly and re-motivate team members.

The Mechanics of Positive Feedback

The desired outcome of positive feedback is to have a team member continue to produce good results, strive higher for additional positive feedback and replicate needed workplace behaviors. In order to hit those outcomes, positive feedback needs to be delivered correctly.

The first rule of positive feedback delivery is immediacy. As with any reward, it must be closely connected to the event to provide the needed memory connection and avoid the “why bother” phenomenon. Immediacy is relevant to when the leader learns of the performance and availability. A direct supervisor with an office adjacent to someone who handled a difficult customer well will have a different definition of immediacy than a regional manager located in Buffalo when she learns of the great performance of a branch office team member in Atlanta. Not a second, third or fourth priority, immediacy is as soon as learned and as soon as feasible.

Positive feedback must also be delivered in a direct and straight forward manner. For the objective of positive feedback to be met, the recipient must clearly understand the message. If the positive feedback is wrapped in a long and convoluted story laced with historical comparisons and first person references, there is a good chance the team member will disconnect and all of the value of the positive feedback will be lost. There is no substitute for the direct and simple approach of “good job with that project” or “thank you for handling that customer.”

As shown in the small example above, specificity is a key element in positive feedback. Without event or behavior specificity, positive feedback will lose it’s effectiveness and sound hollow and insincere. When positive feedback is connected to specific events and behaviors, it demonstrates your attentiveness as a leader and conveys a strong message of sincerity and genuineness.

Your demeanor when delivering positive feedback is the final mechanical element. The bottom line here is that your tone must match the tone of the message. Effectiveness is hurt greatly when a message of appreciation is delivered in a flat, cold or grim manner. Positive feedback needs to make an emotional connection as well as just speaking the words. Team members need to feel your appreciation and enthusiasm and not just hear the words.

Unchained Melody

One of the most important rules of coaching involves connecting positive and corrective feedback messages. This method has been used for years and even achieved a name: The Sandwich Method. This describes the abhorrent practice of placing corrective feedback between two pieces of positive feedback.

Nothing could be more ineffectual than combining or enjoining types of feedback. The self-critical will only remember the corrective piece. The halo effect types will only remember the positive feedback. At a bare minimum, the person receiving the feedback will be confused. “Did I receive praise or did I get chewed out?”

The most common expression of chained feedback comes in the form of “you did a great job with that customer, but you needed to complete the order form in a more timely manner.” The big but. You can even see some team members expecting it. When they hear a piece of positive feedback, they wait for the other shoe to drop and hear the but statement.

The interesting part of this method is for whom it is designed. It certainly does not help provide a clear message to the team member receiving the feedback. It certainly doesn’t insure good spirit and the replication of great results from the person receiving the feedback. This method was designed for the ease of delivery from the person providing the coaching. Easy; yes. Effective; absolutely not.

Feedback needs to be delivered in separate event formats. If the performance was good, the team member receives positive feedback without chained conditions or comparisons. If the performance was not good, the team member receives corrective feedback without glossy coating. Positive feedback and corrective feedback. The two shall not be joined together.

Correctly so, some people have discussed performance where the bulk of the performance was good but there were legitimately some things the team members could have done better. This is a situation in which the leader must use some judgment and decide what type of feedback is most appropriate and what type of feedback could be better deferred to a teaching or mentoring type of session. When the bulk of the performance is positive, provide positive feedback and wait on any discussion of things that could be tuned or done better.

Eligible Populations-The Superstars

One of the bigger stigma points related to positive feedback is wrapped around the eligible populations and who receives it.

Most organizations, regardless of type and size, have between five and ten percent of their team members that are exceptional contributors. The “A” players. These are the people that consistently achieve more, work harder and generally aspire to higher responsibility levels. Not only do they receive positive feedback regularly, they often demand it. They are the team members that will often tell you what they have done well or the leader is well aware of their awesome performance.

One temptation to avoid is to take superstar type of performance for granted. Believing that these star players provide their own internal feedback or that more feedback for more good performance may spoil them will lead them down the path of “why bother.”

Eligible Populations-The Average Joe

Most organizations also have a large population of team members that are “just doing their job.” Nothing spectacular. No superstar status. Just doing what we need them to do. These team members are often the polarity of a working unit and are likely to be eighty to ninety percent of a total team population.

The epiphany question about this population is whether or not they are deserving of positive feedback. The simple answer to this is yes. The more complex answer is yes.

The population of standard performers is the population that is most at risk of leaving the organization because they are not appreciated, engaged or acknowledged. They toil away at what we need and ask of them but rarely hear from us unless something is wrong. This population is also at risk to deteriorate their performance to levels beyond acceptable.

The only way to encourage their continued contributions to organizational success is to provide them with the positive feedback earned from achieving their objectives.

Eligible Populations-The Problems

To complete the bell curve, we also have between five and ten percent of team members that perform below standard or are problematic on behavioral levels.

A typical pattern develops with these team members. After they have been coached, counseled and documented, supervisors and managers go out of their way to hyper-scrutinize their performance. Looking for additional mistakes, stumbles and failures. When found, more coaching, more discipline and more forms are engaged.

And that course of action has achieved what? Further disgruntled and detached team members. Team members that feel hopeless. Team members that become our biggest critics and are toxic in the working environment is what we are creating with this method.

Documentation and formal discipline has a place and need. It is necessary from a compliance perspective. It is necessary to show good faith and fairness. What it does not do is make someone a better or more successful team member.

With the same vigor that is used find more mistakes and issues, effective leaders go out of their way to provide positive feedback when a problem team member does something well. This technique will have a greater success rate than the continued hyper-scrutiny of a team member’s performance. Not a panacea with tough team members but another tool to use.

What You Need is Not What They Need

Another stumbling block in the correct application of positive feedback is using your own need for it as a model for giving to everyone else.

Leaders have greater self-management. Leaders have a greater resiliency. Leaders have greater mechanisms for providing honest feedback internally. You know when you have done well. You may even have a small, internal celebration. Unfortunately, many leaders assume that all team members have the same internal dynamics.

People need to feel appreciated and that their contributions are valued. This goes beyond a paycheck and they desperately want to hear some positive feedback from their leaders.

In a perfect organizational climate and culture, line level leaders are hearing positive feedback from mid-level managers. Mid-level managers are hearing positive feedback from division leaders. Division leaders are hearing positive feedback from senior executives. That is the way it should be.

Reality check. Sadly, in many organizations, positive feedback needs to be provided to team members even when that leader is not hearing any positive feedback. It is easier when you receive it but just because you might not, it is not an excuse to not provide it to your team members.

There is another message here as well. Some team members will attempt to rebuff or minimize any positive feedback. They will even tell you that they don’t need it. Don’t buy into their shtick. They want positive feedback and need it as much as any other person.

Positive Feedback Frequency

A big fear among many leaders is that they may end up providing too much positive feedback.

The bottom line is that there is no such thing.

When results are positive and a team member achieves success, they should receive positive feedback. Might be twice a day. Might be six times. Might be once this week.

When delivered correctly and to all eligible populations of team members, there is no spoiling the child. There is just the replication of positive behaviors and good performance.

The Need for Balance

As the transition begins from the positive feedback role of coaching into the corrective feedback role, balance must between the two must be achieved.

Consistently, one of the most frustrating comments from team members is that they only hear from the boss when things are bad. Or even the direct quote of “they know that they are doing fine when they don’t hear from me.” These tend to be symptomatic of an environment lead by a critical boss in which corrective feedback dominates.

Another symptomatic comment relates to team members who do not easily accept corrective feedback. They become defensive. They get angry.

Take a close and long look into the mirror. Defensiveness is not an innate, genetic behavior. It is learned. It is learned from an environment that is void of any positive feedback. It is learned from an environment in which the boss only bears bad news or criticism of work. The only time they are called into the office is to be chewed out.

With that type of environment, even the most well meaning team member will become defensive and bitter when all they hear is what they are doing poorly. The effective leader strives for balance between positive feedback events and corrective coaching events. Even better, the effective leader will evaluate where the organization is at in terms of global performance and manage individual feedback in the same proportion. If the organization is hitting eighty percent of all targets, group leaders will provide a proportion of eighty percent of positive feedback to twenty percent of corrective feedback.

Balance and proportion will create a culture where corrective feedback is received as easily as positive feedback.

Never Mixing a Toxic Brew

A significant issue in how many people deliver positive feedback involves the use of a “but” statement. This sounds like “Ted, you did a great job with that spreadsheet BUT you could have used a little different color scheme on the report slides.”

Some of you have even been taught a method of coaching or providing feedback called the “sandwich method” in which corrective comments are wrapped between two pieces of positive feedback. This method gained some great popularity largely because it was comfortable for the leader providing the feedback. This method and the inclusion of “but” statements are absolutely ineffective and provide no results related to coaching team members.

What is most often reported by team members is that they only remember the part that comes after the “but.” All of the positive before the corrective statement is lost. Some team members report that they leave coaching mixed coaching sessions confused and wondering if it was a positive message or corrective message.

One of the most telling behaviors to reinforce that the mixing of positive and corrective feedback do not work is when team members report that the feeling of anticipation after a positive statement is delivered. They say things like “I am waiting for the other shoe to drop” or “I am waiting for what I did wrong.” More than anything else, these statements should fully erase any belief that combining types of feedback is effective on any level.

Leaders are then faced with a challenge and must use exceptional judgment when deciding whether to provide positive feedback or corrective feedback. Many times team members produce work or deliver upon expectations that are mostly well done but there is some room for improvement. In those cases, the coaching leader must weigh the positive results with the need for improvement and choose a type of feedback and not mix the good with the areas of need.

Many leaders find that this is best accomplished by providing the positive feedback now and reserving the room for improvement discussion during a developmental coaching session.

Corrective Feedback

The polar opposite of positive feedback is corrective feedback. The purpose of positive feedback is to achieve the replication of a valued event or behavior. Therefore, the purpose of corrective feedback is to reduce or eliminate a poor event or behavior.

Corrective feedback, in large part, is the process of establishing expectations and boundaries for team members. It is not punitive. It is not a form of discipline. It is rather a very direct response to a situation when a team member does not produce or behave in needed areas.

A great disconnect occurs in many organizations because of a hesitancy or fear in providing regular corrective feedback. When asked, team members will pretty universally want to know where they stand. They want to know what they are doing well and what they could do better. In the other corner, many leaders have trepidations and fears associated with providing corrective feedback and would rather defer or save the information for later. Some would rather put it in writing or surprise a team member with the corrective feedback in an annual review.

The remarkable thing about corrective feedback is that the many of the skills and techniques associated with positive feedback are used for corrective feedback. Immediacy in corrective feedback is very important to make sure that the risk of a poor piece of performance or bad behavior is not replicated. In corrective feedback, this risk takes on a multiplier effect because other team members see when a team member errors and is not coached about the event. This could cause greater performance slippage among the team and now you will be coaching multiple people instead of a single team member.

One of the reasons that immediacy of corrective coaching is often missed is because of an avoidance tendency in many leaders. Fearing a confrontation or not wanting to risk their likeability, some leaders will defer a corrective coaching interaction until later. Unfortunately, later rarely happens and some leaders use justifying statements such as “I will talk to her if she does it again” or “the next time he does that, I will talk with him” or “it really wasn’t that big of a deal.” These types of deferrals must be fought off and the feedback must be provided immediately when performance or behavior is unacceptable.

Another shared skill with corrective feedback and positive feedback is using a direct and matter-of-fact communication method. In positive feedback, a direct approach is used to improve clarity and make sure team members understand what they have done well in the most simple terms. With corrective feedback, clarity is also important but directness is used to make sure the leader does not use too many words or paint themselves into a corner. Simply indicate the failure point, iterate the expectation and make sure the message was understood.

In narrative form, that sounds like “Bob, you were late today. I need you here every morning at 8:00am. Are you clear with that?” Or in another form it is “Mary, your report is not accurate. You need to go back and check the numbers in the farthest right columns. This report must be accurate because of the impact it has on our financial statements. Do you understand what I need?”

Some people will look at this type of dialog and perceive harshness. Harsh is a tone element and not the words you use. Direct is necessary to insure the team member clearly understands the intent of the coaching interaction and clearly understands the expectations for performance or behavior. It is not harsh but just direct and to the point.

Tone and Demeanor are Important

In corrective coaching, your tone and demeanor are very important to making sure the dialog does not spiral out of control or turn into a heated argument.

Corrective coaching is about changing a behavior and not belittling or humiliating team members. Yelling does not work. Providing corrective coaching when you are angry or disappointed does not work. Those emotions come out in the coaching dialog and it will guarantee a poor coaching session.

When the leader is emotionally hyper-charged is not the time to provide corrective coaching. Those are the moments when the leader must exercise some good self management and judgment and walk away. Immediacy is important but you must be able to deliver the corrective feedback in a calm and cool manner. If the team member senses anger in you, they will respond with being angry as well. Very soon, this interaction will end with one or both parties saying things they should not and the relationship being strained beyond repair.

One of the best techniques to control tone and demeanor in corrective coaching is to only focus on a singular event or behavior. When a leader rattles off a laundry list of failures her or his emotional thermostat will rocket up as will the tone and demeanor of the team member. Single event corrective coaching will also insure that the dialog is not about the total value of a team member but about a single performance error or behavioral failure.

Controlling the Dialog in Corrective Coaching

Some leaders tend to think that there is some type of constitutionally guaranteed right to let a team member have his or her say during corrective coaching. In some instances, healthy exchange of information is needed but in many cases it is unnecessary and takes a simple coaching session and turns it into forty five minutes of time you will never recover.

Think about the times you have provided corrective feedback and opened the discussion to the team member. In most cases, what you heard was either excuse making, blaming others or denial. In all of those instances, the responses did not affect the fact the team member had below expectation performance.

The best course of action is to not overly allow or invite team member responses in corrective coaching. Lay out the issues, reiterate the expectation and obtain a commitment for understanding or correction. Anything else becomes background noise and not particularly useful. One of the reasons that team members use excuses, blaming other or denial is that it has worked for them in the past. You or a fellow leader bought into it and backed off the corrective coaching. You taught them to use those responses.

If you do allow some team member discussion during corrective coaching, each of the common responses must be met head-on and challenged appropriately. If you bite on the response, you are further allowing the team member to escape responsibility for the team member not meeting expectations.

With denial, it is important to always use first person observation of performance or behavior. This also closes the door on any challenge that may arise sounding like “who said that” or “who told you.” Those are awkward situations at best and in many instances, impossible to work through. Using first person coaching such as “I saw you …” or “when I reviewed your report” will eliminate most denial objections.

Blaming others is a pretty common response in corrective coaching. Sometimes it comes in comparatives to other team member’s performance or even the leader’s behavior. It is important to refocus the team member back to personal accountability and say “this is about your …” or “this is not about JoAnne, this is about you”.

Excuse making team members requires a little more diplomatic approach. Using your best leadership judgment, you must determine if the excuse is justified and beyond the control of the team member or just an excuse that the team member could have anticipated or worked through.

When dialogs are controlled correctly, most corrective coaching sessions will last no more than a few minutes. Focus on issue, expectation and understanding and keep the side dialogs and debate to a minimum.

Environment is Critical

The where you perform corrective feedback is as important as the how and when. These interactions must be private and not done in any environment where other team members can hear the details of the conversation.

The model used by most people is to use an office and shut the doors, windows and blinds. Unfortunately, the only time some leaders shut the doors, windows and blinds is to deliver corrective feedback, disciplinary action or to terminate a team member. You might as well put a neon sign on the office door indicating that bad news is in session.

Try to use a location that insures the needed privacy for corrective coaching without calling attention to the event. Use a hallway, meeting room, parking lot or something that is quiet and private but does not signal what is going on. It will also add a certain amount of unpredictability to the leader’s routine so that coming into the office will not automatically signal bad news.

Consequences of Failure

Another point of good judgment for coaching leaders is when to add some language about the consequences of continued failure or poor performance. This is an “if, then” statement that clearly lays out what will occur or could occur if the team member continues with unacceptable performance or bad behavior.

This type of statement most often sounds like “if this occurs again, I will have no choice but to …”. The part about having no choice is a reinforcement of the leader’s responsibility to the organization to discipline or terminate a team member when they continually fall below expectations.

The reason that judgment is so important here is that not all corrective coaching sessions should include this element. In fact, it should be reserved for the most serious corrective coaching or in those cases where the team member is being coached for the same thing or similar event on multiple occasions.

Adding the consequences of failure statement to corrective coaching is actually a service to a team member. They need to know how serious an event is and they need to understand that there are consequences to repeated failures. The statement will also disarm any objections to increased use of discipline or termination “because you didn’t tell me it was this serious.”

Why Some Corrective Coaching Sessions Get Heated

Many experienced leaders, managers and supervisors will tell great horror stories of corrective coaching sessions gone wild. They will tell of the screaming team member, the threatening team member, the crying team member and the ultra defensive team member.

What most experienced leaders won’t do however, is to look in the mirror and determine why the corrective coaching session went poorly. They won’t see if they caused or facilitated the session spiraling out of control.

The bulk of problems associated with corrective coaching sessions arise from a lack of balance between positive feedback and corrective feedback. If the only time a team member hears from the boss is when they have failed at something, you can guarantee their defensiveness and bitterness. If they only see the boss when something is wrong, they will develop resentment, anger and deep disappointment.

The simple solution is to insure that corrective feedback coaching sessions go well, make sure positive feedback is provided in the correct dosage well in advance of providing any corrective feedback. Consider feedback as a bank account. In order to take something out (corrective feedback) you first must make some deposits (positive feedback).

The Other Sides of Coaching

There are several more key competencies related to coaching that are as important as providing positive and corrective feedback. They might not be as prevalent in terms of time invested but they are equally important. Some of these coaching roles are significant paradigm shifts from the traditional leadership view.

Correct Fit-The Beginning

The first interaction a leader has with a team member is during the hiring and recruiting process. Although usually brief, this first meeting needs to be used to assess the proper fit for a potential team member.

Traditionally, interviews were used to discuss qualifications, education and experience. All of those things have value but not nearly as much as fit and interpersonal skills. To drive this point home, look at your current problematic team members. The ones with two inch thick files. The ones that come off and on disciplinary action with regularity. The ones that constantly are causing trouble but avoid termination.

Now, as you look at those problematic team members, critically review why they are problematic. Is it because of a lack of technical skills, qualification and education or is it because of a lack of fit with the existing team or lack of interpersonal skills? Most managers and leaders agree it is because of the latter and not the former. Interpersonal skills and ability to fit with the existing team are far greater predictors of workplace success than technical ability or education.

Back to the interview. The leader’s job in the interview process is to determine if someone will fit properly with the existing group and in the culture built by the leader and team. This is most often discovered in situational questions about how a job candidate would respond and react to the common scenarios in your working environment. The leader can then compare the job candidate’s response to the desired outcome or how his or her team currently responds and reacts. This is also a great technique for behavioral interviewing.

The leader must also check and test a potential team member’s interpersonal skills. How they work with others. How they communicate. How they solve problems. How they handle adversity. How they operate under pressure and stress. What do terms like accountability and responsibility mean to them? These are the interpersonal skill check points that are so critical in the modern working environment.

The effective leader recruits team members based on interpersonal skills and fit and avoids the common over-emphasis on experience and education.

Correct Fit-The End

The most difficult role of coaching is ending someone’s employment on your team. Difficult but necessary.

In fact, many managers and supervisors make a far bigger mistake by extending employment longer than they should and providing way too many opportunities for improvement and change. This is not an invitation to be rash and take these decisions lightly, but the impact of not terminating a team member when required is far greater than terminating a team member too soon.

The Lakota Sioux tribes of the northern and western plains had a saying. They believed “when you encounter a dead horse, it is best to dismount.” Not comparing team members to dead horses but good leaders recognize when someone is not fitting or not performing pretty early in the team relationship.

When the determination is made that the team member will not perform or will not fit after appropriate coaching and counseling, the leader must end their employment.

In the modern working dynamic, most firing decision require multiple levels of approval and many sets of documentation and hoops to jump through. One of the biggest leadership mistakes is to look at these obstacles as insurmountable. Some mangers and supervisors, when told to obtain additional documentation, simply give up and label the team member as fire-proof or protected. This mistake, although convenient at the time, will lead to greater performance and behavior problems with the entire team.

Dragging a termination decision or action too long sends a horrible message to other team members. Rewarding poor performance or behavior will tell the team that those actions work. As a leader, you will also be faced with people that dare you to fire them. Don’t back down. Do them the favor for which they are asking.

Coach as Teacher

One of the most interesting leadership coaching roles is that of teacher. It can be challenging and extremely rewarding when the teaching turns into performance.

Teaching occurs when a team member needs instruction and when the leader is the primary source of information. This model is not as optimal as peer based teaching but it represents the reality in many operations. There are two primary issues to be concerned with related to teaching. They are over-teaching and under-teaching. Each are equally damaging and can be a source of disengagement and dissatisfaction from team members.

Over-teaching occurs when a leader provides too much information or too much detail in instructions. Instructions need to have some room for team member participation and also have some room for day-to-day innovation. If they are overly detailed, that room does not exist and innovation and participation will not occur. The other risk point in over-teaching is convoluting the chain of accountability. That will be covered in detailed in the Sheep Breeding Commandment.

Under-teaching is usually an assumptive behavior. That means the leader assumes that the team member knows more than they actually know. The leader provides very little in the way of direction because of the belief that the team member knows the rest. The team member should be the sole source of how much information they do or do not know and the leader is responsible to create an environment and culture to allow team members to ask for teaching and be open about their lack of operational abilities.

A final pitfall related to teaching is also assumptive in nature. Far too often the leader uses a teaching method that made sense for them. For example, it the leader learned it by reading the manual, he or she will guide team members to do the same. If the leader learned by doing it on the job, the leader will direct others to do the same. The problem with this is that all people learn differently. The effective leader will find the learning style of the team member and gear teaching accordingly.

Effective teaching from a leader needs to be performed with patience, empathy and driven, from a stylistic and content perspective, by the team member.

Coach as Counselor

As some roles of coaching are under-utilized, the coach as counselor role tends to be over-used by many leaders.

The baseline definition of the counselor role is to delve from standard corrective feedback into the reason for the performance or behavioral lapse. Rather than talking about being late, the leader tries to determine the reason it occurred.

There are times that a counseling approach is absolutely necessary but it is relatively rare. Also remember what your fiduciary responsibility is and isn’t. Your job is to protect the organization and not cure the person. You are also not qualified to act as a counselor when you get into discussions of substance abuse, relationship issues or psychological problems.

Sometimes our team members need to talk. Sometimes they have complex issues crossing into work performance and behavior. Listen to them. Be empathetic. Be compassionate. Be supportive. Don’t be overly anxious to solve or offer solutions. Gauge that with caution.

By the way, there is a significant difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is understanding where a person is coming from and their perspective. Sympathy is compromising expectations or requirements due to an event or series of events. Some team members seek a leadership ear to gain sympathy and avoid accountability.

The best course of action for most leaders is to be a referring source when they believe counseling is needed. Effective leaders find they can be empathetic and caring without crossing professional boundaries when they refer team members to appropriate professionals inside and outside of their organization. Avoid using the auto response of “you need to go see human resources” and demonstrate genuine concern before you make the needed referral.

Coach as Mentor

The final role for the coaching leader is that of mentor. Mentoring has a lot of dynamics and sub-competencies and can be the most rewarding of all the coaching related activities.

At it’s core, mentoring is the growing of talent. Growing talent to take your place. Growing talent so you can be more easily promoted. Growing talent to ease your workload and increase team member satisfaction. Growing talent to increase your organizational influence by the promotion and transfer of people you have mentored. Growing talent to create a pool of succession for your organization.

The first mentoring dynamic is finding someone to mentor. This needs to be a collaborative operation. Not everyone you think will be a good successor wants to be mentored. Not everyone who wants to be mentored will be a good candidate for future promotion or advancement. The process needs to be available to all but utilized with only a few at a time. As a rule of thumb, you should only consider directly mentoring two people at any one time. You will have to conduct some courageous conversations with people to both encourage and dissuade participation in mentoring.

The reason that mentoring is done in plural with two people is because stuff happens. People quit. They may not be exactly what you thought they were. You need to have points of comparison and need to have choices when opportunities arise. Placing all of your mentoring stock in one candidate is risky and often backfires.

Identifying mentoring candidates will require you to do a little career counseling. You will need to discover what they want out of this job and their career in whole. What are they looking for and what are their key motivations and satisfaction points. This process is just like hiring for correct fit.

After you have identified a couple of mentoring candidates, the first step is to solidify relationships with them. Discover commonalities, reconcile differences in style and appearances and build bonds on a deeper level. This relationship base will further establish trust and communication comfort which is important in the mentoring process. Get to know the mentoring participants. Let them tell their stories. Know their biography. Both you and the mentored team member must feel good about expression and deeper communication intimacy.

The effective leader now wants to add some quality doses of storytelling. Not of the bedtime variety but the types of stories that reinforce how to be a successful leader. The challenges you faced. Things you have seen. Lessons you have learned. Not related in a I’m-The-Best-Thing-Since-White-Sliced-Bread type of approach but in narrative of lessons and matter-of-fact approach. This is uncomfortable for many leaders but priceless for those being mentored.

After relational and storytelling activities, the leader must begin the process of delegating, empowering and developing the mentoring participants. You must be able to let go of some key tasks, allow the team members to perform them using their techniques and styles and debrief their decisions and performance. Much more about this process in found in the Sheep Breeding Commandment.

Another powerful mentoring tool is job shadowing. This allows mentored participants to gain a feel and firsthand appreciation for higher level jobs and functions. Job shadowing should be done in a programmatic and long –term approach that gives a sustained look at the job.

The other key mentoring piece is to allow mentored team members to act in your behalf and for you at key meetings and during times of your absence. This is an important step of translating their learning from storytelling, delegation and job shadowing into the practical world of acting and performing. During any period when a mentored candidate acts for you, even if it is very brief, a debrief dialog is critical. This dialog is designed to see what went well and what could have been done better. When done in a non-comparing and non-judgmental form, this is a great form of learning for mentored participants.

Mentoring requires a good time commitment. A time commitment that is not always returned in the near term but an investment that will pay dividends to you and your organization for years to come.


Tim Schneider is the President and founder of Soaring Eagle Enterprises, Inc. His mission, as well as that of his company, has always been "Committed Only to Your Success." Over the past fifteen years, Mr. Schneider has become one of the most sought after speakers, instructors and professional facilitators in the nation. Renowned for both his style and the content of his messages, Tim delivers powerful messages about customer service, team work, leadership, communication and personal s...

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