As the “Leadership is an Art” author Max Depree puts it: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say ‘thank you’. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader.”
I have 3 stages in my coaching framework:
First thing first, knowing the reality
As Intel's ex-CEO Andy Grove puts it, “If you don't measure it, you can't manage it.” Allow me to add “If you don’t know the reality, you cannot measure it.”
It does not sound intuitive but the truth is “reality” isn’t always obvious to leaders, and reality is dynamic too.
I believe in the importance of both private "one-on-ones" and “managing by walking around”.
One-on-one is important because employees know for certain that there is a private and pre-determined setting where issues can be thought out ahead of time and brought forth in a relatively safe and predictable environment.
“Managing by walking around” was first articulated as an “HP Way”. It allows senior managers to bypass the middle management and understand the pulse of the rank and files. It is not such a big deal when my team is of the size of 10 people but clearly disconnect would have easily been there had I not set aside enough time for “walking around” after I grew my team size along with our company’s hyper growth.
Knowing reality is so fundamental to coaching -- whether/what/when/how to coach. The truth is employees do not always volunteer everything during a formal or informal meeting, but a combination of the two will greatly enhance the chance for a leader to understand and thus define the reality.
Secondly, coaching by listening but not teaching
More than a decade ago, I interviewed at a place where the manager offered me a job on the spot and said “my philosophy is to hire people smarter than myself”. I considered him a top notch and accomplished guy in the networking industry, and I felt somewhat uneasy on his compliment as how in the world I would get to learn things from him?
It turned out my “concerns” were unnecessary. :) As a manager, coaching is less about teaching or advising specific technical details, coaching is really about “getting connected” with the non-technical aspect of people’s innermost and driving the best performance out of a person. I have seen time after time that less experienced engineers being more productive because they are highly motivated and they get to maximize their potential faster.
So how do we coach after all? Listening and asking questions is more effective than teaching or preaching! Ideally managers want to have the answer from the mouth of the employee instead! Here are a few important steps to make this happen:
a) Listening and figuring out the motivation of the employee.
It is easy to assume the motivation of the employees, but everyone is different. Active listening skill and attitude is extremely important.
b) Establishing the common ground between employee’s motivation and organization needs.
Sometime employees need some prodding as they don’t necessarily think about their own motivation every day. By asking direct questions, challenging assumptions, and laying out “possibilities”, employees may crystallize their own motives and feel the “hope” in a more tangible way.
c) Letting employees own the action plan
As John Steinhart, a Stanford teacher, put it, "managers need to explain the priorities, let employees develop an implementation plan, invite them to come up with the metrics by which the manger should evaluate the results".
So true but the unintuitive methodology is that managers should guide through the “whether” part but employees should own the “how” part. Manager’s job is not to teach the “how” during the coaching and frankly I don’t know how many people can be taught “how” if they cannot figure this out after enough prodding and hinting.
d) Keeping tracking of the progress, and celebrating each of the milestones.
This is an obvious step for coaching, however we often overlook the celebration piece along the way.
Last but not least, say “thank-you”
A universal motivation that all employees have is that they want to be recognized in the end. They are motivated to improve and be coached exactly because they want to feel the result in the end, otherwise there is no desire to be coached next time.
But “thank-you” may need more than a simple praise or award. Managers need to resonate with people when they say “thank-you”, why they say thank-you, what details they observed along the way, and whether they are looking after their employee's interests along the way, etc etc.
If you have not noticed it yet, saying “thank-you” effectively is hard. This is yet another unintuitive truth. When you resonate with your employees on a good note, you are bonding with them. Otherwise that “thank-you” may appear to be a lip service longer run.
That said, sometimes a literal and simple “thank-you” can carry a long way too. Earlier in my management tenure, I had an employee who I cared a lot and respected a lot in my heart but fell short of keeping “thank-you” on the lips, and he left the team. He was slightly shocked by how much appreciation I had on his work in the end, and obviously I was shocked by his shock.
Never underestimate the power of saying “thank-you” and all the magic associated with saying “thank-you” effectively.