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7 Tips For Coaching Someone More Experienced Than Youby Zenger Folkman September 5, 2017

 

Today organizations are encouraging more frequent conversations between bosses and their subordinates, which are perceived as being far more effective than the traditional annual performance review. However, many have found that such conversations can become awkward when the subordinate is a seasoned professional; that person is extremely experienced, highly competent, possesses high self-esteem, and nearly always wants to be treated as an equal. Applying the research of Daniel Pink from his book Drive, this individual invariably has high mastery of their work, wants to have greater autonomy, and is longing for greater purpose and meaning from their job.

The business world has adopted the term “coaching” to describe these periodic, frequent discussions between a boss and subordinate. I submit that the first thing that must happen for the boss who is coaching a seasoned subordinate is to develop a totally new mindset regarding the nature and meaning of business coaching.

In the athletic world, coaches are more knowledgeable and experienced in the sport than the athletes. The coach is passing on information to a novice player and is often highly authoritarian. That information is intended to help the player perform at a higher level.

In a business setting, that sports conception of coaching must be dispelled – erased – dramatically reformed. Instead, the definition of business coaching is: "Interactions that help the person being coached to expand awareness, discover superior solutions, and make and implement better decisions." Note that there is no hint of advice giving or instructing. It is about expanding someone’s conception of a practice or problem, discovery by the person being coached of better solutions, and finally, implementation of those better decisions.

Coaching conversations in business typically have two purposes. The first is to improve the subordinate’s future performance. Rather than this happening because of fresh new ideas and suggestions, it is often the outcome of the subordinate developing higher aspirations and leaving the conversation feeling inspired to put forth even higher effort. They also may have considered and selected better ways to accomplish their work, these decisions having come from within, not without.

The second prong of these discussions is about the person’s career. This purpose is to improve this employee’s retention and their career advancement. It includes the manager knowing the individual's career aspirations and how they can assist in this person’s career advancement. It provides an opportunity for the manager to convey interest and concern for the person's long-term career progress.

With the above as a brief backdrop on business coaching, I offer seven tips for ways these objectives can be consistently obtained:

1. Focus on the future. Make the conversation forward-looking versus a look in the rearview mirror. The author Edward Everett Hale described his formula for a happy life as:

“Look up and not down;

Look forward and not back;

Look out and not in;

Lend a hand!”

This is a good perspective for a coaching conversation. Ensuring that the discussion is forward-looking, upward focused, externally oriented, and designed to be helpful will ensure its success.

2. Joint discovery versus a one-way speech. If the coaching process is exploratory and examining the future, there can be no hint of the manager talking down as a high school athletic coach might to a teenage student. It cannot smack of a parent-child relationship. The conversation is ideally completely horizontal; it is a conversation between two peers. One simple measure is the "air time test" which asks what percentage of the time is the manager talking versus the subordinate. Ideally 80% would be the subordinate’s share of the talk time.

3. Emphasize listening. The subordinate talking 80% of the time will be totally useless unless the manager is intently listening to what is said. Listening is not simply being quiet while the other person talks; it necessitates focus and is evidenced by facial expression and body language. In a recent Harvard Business Review article I explained that a great listener is “someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.”

4. Ask insightful questions. These are not "gotcha questions" but sincere inquiries that expand the way both parties can think about the subordinate’s future performance. Nothing conveys true listening better than asking insightful questions.

5. Avoid criticism. Unless the subordinate is being put on a performance plan for faltering performance, the wise coach carefully avoids saying anything that would be interpreted as criticism. Why? Perceived criticism invariably breeds defensiveness, which in turn leads to performance decline. If the purpose of coaching is to elevate performance and enhance the person's career, criticism is best avoided.

6. Seek permission before giving advice and suggestions. As a manager, you may have observed some behavior that gets in your subordinate’s way or something that could be initiated. It will usually be best received if you say something like, “Fred, I have an observation that I think could be helpful to you. Would you like to hear it? Is now a good time?” We know there’s some pressure for the person to say “Yes,” but this is what you might say if you wanted to give a senior executive some useful feedback. It conveys respect and treats them with dignity.

7. Set follow-up discussions. Coaching conversations can be interpreted as merely casual chatter unless the manager conveys a serious desire to have ongoing discussions to ensure that agreements about future actions are indeed going to be implemented. Scheduling further meetings sends a powerful signal that the manager is genuinely interested in this individual’s career and future performance.

Following these seven tips will go far in making coaching conversations with a highly seasoned colleague be productive and set the stage for many more.

To learn more about the specific research behind these seven tips you can download my white paper, Coaching as a Management Style.

This article was originally published on Forbes.

 


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