…and coaching should be at the heart of that relationship

If you ever wonder what it takes to turn good performers into great performers, look no further than Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola coaching star player Raheem Sterling, minutes after he’d scored two goals in City’s 6-0 thrashing of Watford in this year’s FA Cup. While City fans and Sterling’s teammates were celebrating wildly after the final whistle, Guardiola made a beeline for the FA Young Player of the Year and gave him an animated and very public mini coaching session on how he could have better handled some aspect of the game.

It didn’t matter that the eyes of the world were upon them; Guardiola had a point to make and he needed to make it there and then, while the game was still fresh in the player’s mind. To his credit, Sterling took it on the chin. Not so long ago, he was seen as someone with great potential who too often failed to deliver, and it’s through his own efforts and Guardiola’s unstinting support that he’s now winning praise as a far more complete and effective player. “He has shown during the three years here, every year he gets better, so it’s not words, it’s facts,” said Guardiola.  “Everyone can talk perfectly but it’s what they do really. And Raheem, every game he does it. He deserves all my respect for what he’s done.”

“Everyone needs a coach” ~Bill Gates

Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised to see an athlete being coached in the field but what about an employee in the office? Sure, we have weekly catch-ups, quarterly one-to-ones, annual appraisal reviews, but how much actual coaching goes on? In the best companies, plenty.

In 2009, Google formed a team of top notch Psychology PhDs to do a huge, statistical analysis of what its employees valued most of all in their managers and it revealed a wholly unexpected answer – their best managers weren’t appreciated most of all for their technical skills, they were valued for being great coaches. Google staff loved bosses who made time for them, who helped them work through problems without always telling them the answers, and certainly without micromanaging them. So, we’re not necessarily talking about Executive coaching programmes here, we’re also very much talking about coaching anyone at all in the organisation through regular day to day issues where two heads figuring it out are better than one. It sounds simple enough, and in so many ways, it is, but it takes commitment to make it a priority in a busy, fast-paced environment.

The MD of a global bank we worked with told us he one day had the sudden and stark realisation that he was selling his direct reports short by regularly bumping one-to-ones with them for “more important meetings”. “I realised, in fact, that my one-to-ones were the meetings that absolutely mattered most of all. If my directors weren’t working at optimum levels, then their teams probably weren’t either and so on down the line to the detriment of more than 1200 staff. So, from that moment on, I ring-fenced my one-to-ones and fitted everything else around them whenever I could.” 

The idea of an MD coaching his directors might seem strange; surely these are experienced, proficient individuals – why would they need coaching? Well, as Microsoft’s Bill Gates said, “Everyone needs a coach” and he did indeed have one himself. Tiger Woods has coaches to help him with his swing and his putting; Apple’s Steve Jobs had a coach to help him become a better listener and learn how to give his team greater freedom; the CEOs of PepsiCo and Ford Motor Company have coaches, as does Oprah Winfrey. So coaching, then, is not so much about managing poor performers as about looking for opportunities to take performance to the next level wherever there are gains to be made. It’s about encouraging staff at all levels to reflect on what’s working well and what’s not working so well; bouncing ideas off a boss or trusted colleague to find solutions and new approaches; confronting difficult issues or behaviours that are holding us back in some way – becoming even smarter versions of ourselves.

From the manager/colleague-as-coach point of view, the skills we need are by no means unfamiliar; for example:

  1. Giving regular and timely feedback – positive and negative – to create a culture in which feedback is expected and never comes as a surprise
  2. Not shying away from difficult conversations and handling them with empathy and tact
  3. Asking questions that really open the conversation up
  4. Listening more than talking – actively listening – not judging or formulating your response to what’s being said, but really hearing and empathising with what’s being said
  5. Knowing when to offer suggestions or answers to problems and when to help people figure things out for themselves – and by the way, the boss should never have all the answers!

The great thing is, these are all very learnable skills that can be applied in a multitude of different situations, so there’s real value in developing them through training and repeated practise. It’s crucial that we create a culture in which coaching and feedback become familiar and valued elements of how the team operates, and in a companion-piece to this article to be released in a fortnight’s time, we’ll be looking at how we can do exactly that. 

“I realised that my one-to-ones were the meetings that mattered most of all … now I fit everything else around them whenever I can.”   ~MD of a global bank

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