What Great Bosses Know about Coaching

Why were you promoted to management? Chances are, it was because you demonstrated a high level of performance in your craft. Your bosses admired your work and figured you could help others improve theirs.

It made sense — until you actually started trying to get others to achieve the quality of work you’d mastered. Then, if you were like a lot of new managers, you discovered it isn’t easy. Maybe you tried to improve performance with some or all of these messages:

  • “This isn’t quite right, try it again.”
  • “Let me tell you how I used to do it.”
  • “Here. Let me show you.”

Or you simply said:

  • “OK, just give it to me and I’ll work on it.”

That’s what we call fixing. It happens in newsrooms all the time, when editors, producers and anchors re-write the work of others. They give up trying to help the person and just fix the product. In the process, they add work to their load and stress to their lives. But they do it because in the moment, it is faster and easier. But their fixing becomes chronic.

Are they happy about it? Nope. Does the other person show any improvement? Rarely. Is anybody happy? I doubt it.

There’s an answer, one I learned at my first trip to Poynter back in the early ’90s. It’s called coaching. It takes longer than fixing because it focuses on the person first and the product second. It helps employees discover why and how to take the right steps and make good decisions about their work. It pays off in the long run by growing people who, in turn, improve their own products.

As an inveterate fixer, I found it to be a powerful and successful tool. I stopped grabbing people’s stories and rewriting them. I made a commitment to coaching instead. My personal mantra, which I kept reminding myself, was “sit on your hands.” I did and it worked.

But sitting on one’s hands isn’t enough. Here are some of the tips you need to know about being a coach:

  • Coaches know their students: You need to have an understanding of the person’s learning style, what they’re good at, what they feel their weak points are and what their goals, hopes and fears may be.
  • Coaches check their egos at the door: You may have been a star performer before going into management, but coaching is about the other person, not you. If you must talk about yourself, consider sharing your biggest mistakes rather than your triumphs. Simply put, don’t show off.
  • Coaches ask questions: This is the big one. I was amazed at the power of questions. “Could you tell me about your story? What do you love about it?” (They’d almost immediately tell me what they thought didn’t work, saving me the trouble of breaking to them what they already suspected.) “When you talked about the story, I heard you emphasize the doctor’s concern, but I don’t quite see it in the draft. Is there a way strengthen that?” “What would happen if we moved this paragraph up? Would it make things more clear?”
  • Coaches really listen: They listen for insights into how the employee thinks through a problem and how they feel about their work. They listen for indications that the questions they’re asking are leading the employee to come up with solutions. When that happens, coaches seize the moment and encourage the employee to act on his or her ideas. Why? Because it is human nature to prefer our own ideas and solutions over the ones that others impose on us.
  • Coaches are positive: Employees dread presenting their work to a person whose main interest seems to be fault-finding. That’s a “corrections officer,” not a coach. When people feel their work is improved every time they talk about it with you, they’ll keep growing.
  • Coaches develop a learning lexicon: It’s shorthand language that’s both descriptive and instructive. “Are we revving our engine too long at the start of this story?” “Does the last line really kiss me goodbye?” By developing a coaching language, the coach and the writer have a shorthand way of communicating, one that can be shared with others.

Coaching works especially well for helping writers. My Poynter colleagues and I have written extensively on the subject. But it works just as well for when people come to you, the boss, with questions about anything from craft challenges to their career decisions.

Great bosses master the art of coaching — and then they build it into the culture of the workplace.

Now, I can hear some skeptics asking if this isn’t some kind of wimpy hand-holding, and whether there aren’t some people who just can’t be coached. Fair enough. Listen to today’s podcast: “What Great Bosses Know about Coaching,” to find out my answers:

Poynter’s “What Great Bosses Know” podcast is sponsored by The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. Poynter’s leadership and management expert Jill Geisler shares practical information that’s valuable for bosses in newsrooms and everywhere.

You can subscribe to this podcast via RSS or to any of our podcasts on iTunes U.

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