Three Keys to Effective One-on-One Coaching: A Critical Skill for Leaders
August 1990. It was one of the most challenging times of my military career. Saddam Hussein had just invaded Kuwait. About the same time, I reported for duty as an army major to my new unit in Stuttgart, Germany. Shortly after my arrival, I learned we were going to war.
I was blessed to have a competent, committed, caring coach as my new boss in army Lieutenant Colonel Bob Fasulo.
I define coaching as the actions of a person in a leadership role who enhances the performance and development of others through teaching, training, directing, encouraging, or collaborating. Every manager has a coaching responsibility.
Colonel Fasulo took me under his wing. He invested time to get to know me personally and professionally. He gave me clear guidance on my roles and responsibilities. We met often to keep me laser focused. He ensured I received the education and training where needed. He invested significant personal time to help me learn about my people, their skills, and their strengths. I learned to trust him; he learned to trust me. He defined success for me and helped me achieve it.
Effective one-on-one coaching is a critical skill that great leaders possess. Effective coaching inspires in others an internal drive to act ethically, without direction, to achieve goals. Effective coaching drives performance builds competence and confidence, and ultimately enhances trusting relationships. The best coaches help people find ways to make things happen as opposed to creating excuses why they can’t.
Effective coaching also requires you to believe in yourself. You must believe that you can have an impact in the workplace, and that you can inspire others to achieve their goals they might not otherwise achieve. The real question is not if you will make a difference, but what difference you will make.
Ineffective or the omission of coaching will turn away high potential recruits and cause the most talented people to leave the organization.
Face-to-face communication cannot be left out of any coaching experience. Respectful, regular face-to-face communication breaks down barriers, reduces anxiety, and builds trust. Much can be learned from the spoken words, the tone of voice, and especially body language during in-person meetings. While it is useful to take advantage of all the opportunities that technology offers, it will never replace human contact for inspiration and encouragement.
I have three recommendations that can help you raise the bar on your coaching effectiveness.
Establish Agreed-Upon Goals and Strategies to Achieve
Most people want to know what success looks like. They want to be clear in their goals as an individual and, if appropriate, the leader of a team. Well-defined, measurable, relevant goals documented in writing at the beginning of the year help people gain clarity on expectations. Strategies are developed and agreed upon by the coach and team member so that both understand each other’s roles. The probability of success increases dramatically when strategies and accountabilities are well defined.
Establish a Disciplined Process on When and How You Coach
Become a disciplined scheduler of coaching sessions with your people. Establish monthly, bi-monthly, or quarterly meetings and make them a priority. Tailor the duration of the meetings to meet the needs of the people. At times, hour or longer sessions will be in order. Other times, fifteen-minute check-ins will suffice. Be clear on your agenda for each of these sessions.
Have a simple, consistent approach to your coaching agenda. Start with review the individual’s goals, ensuring they remain aligned with the vision, mission and priority objectives of the organization. Adjust the priorities when required. Discuss what is going well. Discuss the challenges or areas of improvement. Find ways to seek the truth. Periodically ask for feedback on how you can be a more effective coach for them. End each session on a positive note.
Enforce Accountability by Assessing Performance
Effective coaching demands assessment of performance. Without this assessment, no system of accountability will be achieved. If the senior leader does not hold his or her executive team accountable, subordinate leaders are likely to think “Why should I?” Assessments help people learn what they are doing well and what needs to improve. Assessments help leaders learn priorities for training and development. Leaders genuinely interested in growing cannot be reluctant in seeking honest feedback on their performance.
There are significant consequences when people are not held accountable for achieving goals or otherwise performing to standard. Integrity disappears. Discipline erodes. Morale evaporates. Leaders are not taken seriously. Relationships suffer. Problem employees become a cancer in the organization. The best people leave. Missions fail.
When goals are achieved – celebrate! Acknowledge outstanding work by showing gratitude.
Coaches must have the courage to address unsatisfactory performance. All too often, good people serving in leadership positions fear the task of confrontation. They don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. They hope, magically, that something will happen which will turn the underperformer around and all will be well in the end. Magic seldom happens.
Just like we expect physicians to correctly diagnose our health issues, leaders must correctly diagnose the rational for substandard performance. Start by understanding what was the intended outcome. Compare intentions with what actually happened. Was there a competence issue? Or a commitment issue? Was there a miscommunication? Were there resource shortfalls? The biggest mistake leaders make is never addressing the issue. Leaders who fail to take action to create positive change in an underperformer or remove them are doing a great disservice to their institution.
Competent, dedicated people who fail at a task can be devastated by the experience. Coaches can make a huge impact, positive or negative, by how they handle their people in these situations. One of the most dramatic lessons of competitive sports is dealing with the downside of losing; no one wins every contest despite having the talent and will to win. You learn how to get back up after being knocked down. I adopted a leadership philosophy of underwriting honest mistakes in the pursuit of excellence.
I enjoyed good coaching experiences as a brand-new lieutenant fresh out of West Point as well as colonel with over twenty years in the army. The coaching lessons I learned from colonel Fasulo stayed with me for the rest of my career and remain with me still today.
I wish you the best in your leadership journey!