Friday, June 12, 2009

Raise Performance With Real-Time Coaching

A fundamental problem in our business is managers who are too busy and distracted to manage. Managers, by definition, are appointed to accomplish company and team goals through the efforts of others. They multiply their personal efforts through those they lead (see the principle of "The Time Investment"). When they instead focus on individual tasks rather than their management responsibilities, it stifles organizational performance.

To really impact performance, managers need to get involved at a level beyond the norm. They need to embrace the role of coach. Consider some of the top performers in their respective fields, people like Lance Armstrong, Julia Roberts, Robert De Niro, Michael Jordan, Bill Gates, Luciano Pavarotti, Tiger Woods. What do they have in common? They all worked with world-class coaches.

Could your firm benefit from more coaching? Absolutely. You may not have world-class coaches in your midst, but you do have people who could make a real difference if they functioned more like coaches--your managers. First, though, they have to get up from their desks, out of their offices, and interacting with the people they're supposed to be leading.

I call this role "real-time coaching," which is a redundant term, but emphasizes an important distinction. It needs to be hands-on, in-the-moment, as the work's being done. That's where learning is most effective, where encouragement and constructive criticism is most beneficial, where inspiration is most powerful. Real-time coaching also facilitates collaboration and teamwork.

If you want an example, consider a sports coach. Can you imagine your favorite team's coach giving the team instructions, disappearing into his office, then returning later to check on results? Chances are, you'd be among the majority of fans clamoring for that coach's job. Yet this is the model most common in our companies, is it not?

Successful sports coaches are noted, among other things, for their ability to develop their players. That comes through hours of focused instruction and feedback while the player is actually performing in practice the skills that will be required in the game. In our business, we don't have the benefit of practice. Everything is for real. Yet we still largely develop our staff by osmosis. We put them in the mix and trust that they'll eventually absorb the distinctive flavors of "how things get done around here."

Does it work? To a point. It brings us in line with what most in our industry are doing. But how much potential are we failing to tap?

So what do coaches do? Here's a short list of key responsibilities:

Provide real-time, on-the-job reinforcement of new skills. Classroom training has its place, but people don't learn skills passively. They have to practice them repetitiously. That process is greatly enabled when the coach is providing ongoing instruction, demonstration, feedback, and encouragement.

Help maintain focus on goals and planned actions. Multitasking is sometimes viewed as an asset, but it is more accurately defined as a dysfunction (see my post on "The Myth of Multitasking"). Coaches help staff to stay on task, to concentrate effort until the job is done, and ultimately to help them develop the skill of focus.

Help develop new habits. Habits are the cornerstone of efficiency, and a major obstacle to growth and improvement. The best way to overcome limiting habits is to develop new, desired ones to replace them. That requires sustained effort and attention, which is where an effective coach comes in.

Provide personal attention, advice, and encouragement. These are the essence of coaching. Yes, you're guiding the team, but coaches of team sports still spend a lot of time engaging people one on one. That's necessary for individuals to reach their full potential.

Offer constructive evaluations and critiques of performance and progress. This is much easier and more effective than doing it after the fact. Plus it helps you avoid the painful consequences of mistakes by catching them in the act.

Sound too time-intensive? Probably is given the way most managers allocate their time. But is there a more important management responsibility than helping others improve their productivity? Let me urge you to rethink the role, and how that time is invested. If you can take an hour helping five others double their net output, for example, is there a better way to spend your time?

Finally, some of your coaches could probably use coaches themselves. Despite the dramatic increase of executive coaching in other industries, there are very few examples of it in ours (at least that I'm familiar with). When you consider the multiplying impact of coaching, it's an option worth considering.

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