How any executive can become a better mentor and coach to high potential employees

Kirk O’Hara, PsyD, Vice President Consulting Services, Executive Career Services

Business executives wear many hats. Just a few of their roles include strategist, financial manager, process improvement engineer and team leader. Many executives will agree that much of their time is devoted to people. The management guru, Peter Drucker, made the point that as one progresses up the organizational hierarchy, the more important people skills become and the less important specific functional skills are.

Executives need to be leaders and this requires articulating a vision and defining a strategy. One of the next roles, however, is to serve as a coach to help subordinates to fulfill objectives and to develop to take on bigger challenges and consequently to make more significant contributions to the company.

“The problem is that executives are educated in business functions and only acquire coaching skills on an experiential, trial-by-error basis,” says Kirk O’Hara, PsyD, vice president consulting services at Executive Career Services. “Knowing something of coaching skills, roles and procedures can provide the executive with the necessary framework for helping their subordinates develop.”

Smart Business spoke to O’Hara for more on how to improve coaching skills and empower your best employees in the process.

What is the benefit of becoming a better coach?

Let’s begin by taking a look at the benefits of coaching. In a recent study by The Work Foundation (a UK research group) the most common reason for coaching, given by 52 percent of respondents, was to motivate the employee. In a similar vein, respondents indicated that coaching was helpful in showing interest and investment in an employee and also fully leveraging a high potential’s skills and abilities. Interestingly, the study showed that coaching for poor performance was a relatively infrequent reason (garnering a ‘yes’ from only 24 percent). One of the lessons in this study is to keep in mind the two key elements of performance: motivation and skill. If motivation appears to be the issue, then coaching is in order. Skill deficiencies are better addressed through training and development initiatives.

What are the most important elements of being a good coach?

As previously mentioned, business executives typically have skills for management and leadership; they may need to complement this set with coaching skills. First and foremost is relationship building and, in particular, creating trust. Would anyone respond positively to a coach he or she doesn’t trust? Probably not. It is ill-advised to begin any sort of coaching initiative without first establishing a level of trust so that the person to be coached knows you have their best interest in mind.

A second important coaching skill is listening, which is unfortunately not often in the repertoire of many executives. Business leaders are typically verbally expressive and not often patient enough to listen to what others have to say. Unless the person being coached feels they have been heard, they are unlikely to put forth the effort to change. Remember the Covey Principle: seek first to understand before being understood. I encourage executives to actively listen — to what the underlying message is, what isn’t being said and what the person’s body language is conveying about the verbal message.

Another vital coaching skill is proper questioning. While one doesn’t need to be as artful as Socrates, questions can help the coachee to find solutions for themselves. Questions can help the individual explore options as well as understand the motivation and consequences of their behavior. Questioning can be used to put the behavior of concern ‘on the person’s radar screen,’ and as a result foster ownership and commitment to change.

Once the topic of concern has been explored, the coach/leader will want to shift into a goal setting mode. This is the positive and creative phase of coaching where both parties collaborate in identifying new behaviors to develop alternative problem-solving approaches, or enhanced communication techniques. Goal setting works when the goals are challenging, but not unrealistic.

Make your goals SMART. Smart is an acronym to help you remember that behavioral goals should be Specific, Measurable, Action oriented, Realistic and Time bound. Make sure that you gain commitment, or recommitment as the case may be at the end of each coaching meeting.

How can executives help to ensure a successful coaching initiative?

A final, capstone skill for coaching is the ability to provide feedback and support. How hard is it to change? Very! Nothing will extinguish new behavior quicker than ignoring it. The leader/coach needs to be mindful of recognizing new behavior and providing encouragement. Be specific; vague feedback is not usually very helpful developmentally. Your feedback should also be non-judgmental. Remember, the adage to praise in public and criticize in private. Behavioral psychology has demonstrated that all of us respond to positive encouragement in making a change far better than we respond to punishment.

Also consider the behavior change from a system’s perspective. Who are the other coworkers and colleagues who interact with the individual? How is their behavior influencing the person? Conducting a stakeholder analysis to understand how the environment supports or interferes with the attempted behavior change should not be underestimated.

Business executives have a lot on their plate, so adding one more concern can be treacherous. On the other hand, watching for coaching opportunities, adopting mentees and developing high potentials are all ways to leverage your own skills and free up time for more strategic pursuits. Helping others to change — to eliminate counter-productive behaviors or better utilize skills — is not usually easy, but it isn’t rocket science either. It requires basic human understanding, a caring attitude and a willingness to invest yourself in helping someone else become a better employee and a better person.

Kirk O’Hara, PsyD, is vice president consulting services at Executive Career Services. Reach him at [email protected]

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