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Lessons from the Road: The Leader's Role as Coach

Oct. 17, 2012
Improving your coaching skills offers rich rewards for you and your people.

I spend most of my time coaching. And I've recently picked up a head coaching job for a soccer team (although I only get paid with time with my kids). Parents, teachers, volunteers, coaches, bosses and others have numerous opportunities to be a coach. Because of the ample opportunities to coach, we often take coaching for granted.

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Coaching, however, deserves careful thought and practice. Here are some specific opportunities to improve our daily coaching efforts.

1. Coach method versus solution. When someone comes to you describing a problem, what are you doing besides listening? Most likely, you are thinking of the answer. Now that you have an answer and start to coach, you might try to steer, or "coach," the other person toward his or her answer. Not only is it natural, it feels rewarding because the other person accepts your brilliant answer.

But this is not how people learn to think, improve and solve problems. To learn, it's not about a set of answers for a narrow set of problems, but about how to develop the answers.

Instead of coaching people toward a solution, we need to coach people through a method or technique. A method is what is repeatable, and it's a very different and harder form of coaching.

2. Make developing people your job. How many of you have stated goals for the year? Now, how many of you have a specific goal related to developing people? Based on my observations, not many do.

In talking with a Toyota manager, he made a point about how he knew that developing people wasn't just lip service but actually his No. 1 priority. He said, "I can't get promoted until my team members can do my job." That may not have been an official policy, but it's what he was taught, and it's how he operated.

If you don't have specific objectives or goals, then all you have is intent. There are a lot of things I intend to do. But unless I have an action plan or a specific objective I am measuring or monitoring, they remain only good intentions. Develop specific objectives of what you will do to develop your people. This moves it past intent into action.

3. Coach for what they need, not what you need. If you need someone to do or think something, that's not coaching. That is advocacy. If you are doing it for you, then you are not likely coaching. When coaching, you are focused on helping that individual succeed. And when coaching deeply, you are focused on their success as they define success.

4. Observe. Directly observing the current reality of a process is a critical lean skill for improving a process. It is also a critical skill for improving a person. It's hard to know what to improve until you know more about the current state.

Observing the person you are coaching gives you an understanding of how he or she really operates and works, so you are better able to help that person in a unique way. A baseball hitting or pitching coach doesn't give the same advice to everyone. The coach's first job is diagnosis: understanding why you are getting the results you are currently getting. This is the role of any coach.

But observing is also critical to the Check step of Plan Do Check Act. Once you help a person choose a path, you observe again to evaluate the results of what that person does. Only then do you know if your coaching was effective. You evaluate coaching not based on how the person feels when she walks away, but whether she gets the results she is trying to achieve. And a coach has the responsibility to help the individual understand if they achieve the desired results. This is one of the reasons that coaching effectively is truly an investment in that person.

It's wonderful that so many people want to be coaches. But let's raise the standard of what coaching means. We can achieve so much more through stronger coaching.

Contributing Editor Jamie Flinchbaugh is a co-founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, Mich., and the co-author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road."to monitor the process continuously throughout the day," Micklewright says. "Developing a lean culture involves daily accountability meetings, visual management and oftentimes being on the production floor."

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