Tag Archives: coaching

More Practice

“Practice makes perfect,” Melanie grinned.

“No,” I replied. “Practice does NOT make perfect. Practice may make you feel better, repeating grooved, routine behaviors, but, those behaviors may still miss the mark. Practice does not make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect. It’s not the repetitions, it’s the right repetitions.”

“But, you always say that we learn from mistakes,” Melanie chided.

“Learning is making mistakes, but you have to learn from the gap. What is the future state of performance, what is the current performance, and what’s the gap?”

“So, there is some analysis going on?” Melanie confirmed.

“And, often that analysis is invisible to you because you are getting comfortable with repetition. But, it’s just a feeling. What’s the difference between training and coaching?”

“Training gets you started, but practice makes you better. Learning from mistakes only works when you recognize the mistake, and figure out how to do it differently. And, sometimes we can’t see the mistake, or the correction, as easily as someone else. That’s where a coach comes in.”

“You said you had been through training,” I nodded, “and you were able to describe the training, as scheduled, with a curriculum. What about coaching? How would you describe coaching here?”

Melanie paused for a very long time. “In my days here, coaching seems elusive. I don’t know if I can put my finger on it. Underperformance is more likely met with reprimand and training, more training, back to training. I don’t need more training, I need more practice, perfect practice.”

Beginning of Competence

“What’s the difference between training and coaching?” I asked.

Melanie was a new manager. “I’ve been to training,” she replied. “It’s scheduled, it has a curriculum, it’s disciplined. Someone thought through the sequence of learning, identified specific skills.”

“And, when you emerged from the training program, certificate of completion in hand, did that make you a high performer?”

“That’s was my impression,” Melanie said. “But, that impression turned out to be wrong. The training gave me insight into the way we do things around here, but I was certainly not a high performer.”

“You seem to be comfortable in what you are doing now,” I nodded. “That wasn’t the result of the training?”

“Not hardly. I learned, possessed some technical knowledge about our methods and process, but I was very much a newbie.”

“Technical knowledge, but not competence? On the other hand, you appear competent now. What happened?”

“Practice,” Melanie smiled. “Technical knowledge will only get you so far. Competence requires taking those first steps, hands on, then practice, lots of practice.”

But, Training is the Easiest Option

“But, training is my easiest and fastest way to get James some help,” Marie protested. “I told you I don’t have time to coach.”

“There is a short story about someone, at midnight, looking for the keys they dropped in the parking lot,” I started. “Where did you drop your keys was the question. Over there, by my car, was the response. Then, why are you looking over here? Because there is more light over here.”

“You are saying I am looking in the wrong place?” Marie asked.

“Training is the easiest and fastest. You can shove James off to someone else, but that may not be what James needs. Training only gets you so far. Did you know I was a champion ice skater?”

Marie was surprised at this turn in the conversation.

“Little known fact,” I said. “At least I will be a champion ice skater if you will agree to be my coach. Two things you know about my ice skating behavior – I have a strong right push off the skate, and my bootlaces are untied. As a habit, I am sloppy about my equipment. The knots in my laces are loose and within minutes, they come apart, the laces drag the ice. As my coach, you want to be positive, but my laces are untied. Do you ignore this weakness, or is it part of your obligation, as a coach, to deliver some negative feedback?”

“Well, yes, I have to tell you to tie your bootlaces,” Marie was hesitant.

“So, I tie my laces, secure. Am I now a champion ice skater?”

“No,” Marie was more sure of her response.

“Training only gets my bootlaces tied. Champions only come through coaching. You have to get my bootlaces tied, but if you want me to be a champion, you have to work with my strong right push. James may understand, through training, about schedules, workloads and capacity, but if you want James to become a champion, it requires coaching.”

No Time to Coach

“But, I don’t have the time to coach James,” Marie complained. “He should be able to figure this out on his own. I’m a manager, not a mentor, we have work to do. I don’t have time to be a counselor to everyone on the team. Can’t I just send him to training?”

“Interesting use of mixed metaphors,” I replied. “Let’s look carefully at the four managerial processes you used in the same sentence.”

  • Coaching – is a process where you work with the team member to fully understand the role, the scope of the role, required behaviors, supportive habits to get the work done.
  • Mentoring – is a process, usually performed, not by the manager, but the manager-once-removed (MOR) to help the team member discover their own potential, and seek opportunities to apply that potential in training, stretch projects and career ladder progress over time.
  • Training – is a process, usually prior to an expected behavior to learn, step by step, the mechanics of that behavior and the skill required to competently engage in that behavior.
  • Counseling – is a process where a manager only has a limited scope. Usually centered around a personal, issue, the manager may seek to clarify, share a similar experience and then, if appropriate, refer to a professional skilled and experienced at assisting people with those types of issues. Don’t play amateur psychologist.

“All of these processes are valuable, but the application will depend on the context.”

A Shift in Coaching Strategy

“When you talk to James about his new way of checking project status the day before his crew is supposed to work, what does he say?” I asked.

Marie had to think back to her last conversation. “James is right. There is no sense showing up if the project isn’t ready, even if our contract says we are supposed to show up according to the project schedule. He still documents the delay, but says he looks for a more productive use for his crew, rather than having them stand idle waiting for the project to catch up to us. He used to look only at the project schedule, but now, he says, he looks for buffers in the schedule where another team might take longer than expected. He used to be a stickler with the schedule, now he says, why get so upset, go with the flow, plan for the schedule, but execute for reality.”

“And?”

“I guess I do the same thing,” Marie said. “It’s just such a change for James.”

“Are our projects different, now? Are the other project teams different? Are we using different materials? Are we using different equipment? Are our project schedules any different? What has changed?”

“You’re right,” Marie concluded. “The thing that is different is James.”

“My guess, as James’ manager, you didn’t have to coach James very much because he was always predictable, by the book. But, James woke up one morning and saw, sometimes, the book was wrong. The schedule was not right. He began to see the schedule, not as black and white, but something variable, you used the word buffers. And, you admit, you do the same thing in your role.”

Marie nodded, so I continued. “James is maturing. It’s not just that he is gaining more experience, he is maturing in the way that he sees the world. He used to see the world as a set of unbending rules. He now sees the rules as a set of intentions embedded in reality. You observed this new way has created some problems with his crew, not knowing, for sure, what they are supposed to do. Your job, as James’ coach is also shifting.”

The Mentoring Conversation

“So, what does the mentoring session sound like?” Brendon wanted to know. “If it is different from the direct manager coaching session, what does the manager-once-removed talk about with the team member?”

“First, this is NOT a coaching session, so the mentoring session does not happen as often, perhaps once every three months,” I replied. “This is a longer timespan discussion, so more reflective than action oriented. They talk about the role, the role’s contribution to company, where that fits. They talk about the decisions the team member makes, the problems the team member solves and their capacity to do so. The purpose of this conversation is to create a clearer picture of the team member’s current contribution and their potential contribution. When the team member has a clearer picture of their potential contribution, their current contribution improves.

“In this conversation, the MOR also asks about the aspirations of the team member. Some team members have no idea of their own aspirations, never thought about it. The MOR is looking for intersection between the team member’s aspirations and the company’s aspirations.

“Most of all, this is not a psychotherapy session. The focus is on the work, challenge in the work, learning opportunities, advancement opportunities, to create a vivid picture of where the team member stands and steps forward.

“People feel fulfilled when they can see their future and opportunities to pursue it, and, they feel frustrated when they do not.”

Best Position for Mentoring

“I am still having difficulty with this,” Brendon pushed back. “It’s all up-front, the manager knows the MOR is having career-ladder discussions with individual team members, but why is the manager-once-removed (MOR) the best person to have these discussions?”

“I know you still think the manager, being closest to the team member, would be the most likely person to have these discussions,” I replied, “but the manager is largely focused on productivity, workplace safety and output. It is the manager-once-removed who has accountability for creating and maintaining an effective talent pool.

“It is the manager-once-removed whose scope covers more than the immediate team, who sees opportunity in other areas of the organization. Simultaneously, the MOR has an accurate judgement from the immediate manager on each team member’s current capability and potential capability gleaned from 1-1 meetings with the team’s immediate manager.

“It is the MOR who is the perfect position to conduct these mentoring conversations.”

In the Open

“But won’t James feel uncomfortable, maybe distressed if he knows I am talking directly with his team members,” Brendon shifted in his chair.

“You and James are part of a team. As the manager-once-removed to James’ team, you expect James to talk to you about each team member and their career progress. James will notice things about his team that you won’t see. By the same token, James and the team have work to get done, so James, by design will focus on shorter term issues, while you focus on longer term issues. And, just as James is the coach for his team in their current roles, you are James’ coach for his current role. No one is talking behind anybody’s back. It’s all out in the open.”

“Shouldn’t HR do this instead?”

“Some companies think that,” I replied. “The problem is that HR is not in the accountability loop. As James is accountable for the output of his team, you, as James’ manager are accountable for James’ output. This chain of accountability puts you in the best position to have individual mentoring discussions with James’ team, and individual coaching discussions with James.”

Fulfillment or Frustration

“But, if I have discussions about career path with James’ team members, wouldn’t that undercut James’ authority with his team. Won’t it appear that I am going around his back?” Brendon was concerned.

“You might think that,” I replied. “On the other hand, if you set the context properly for the conversation, it is a reasonable explanation, that you are curious, and interested in them, as a person. While there is a well defined working relationship between the team member and James, there is an appropriate conversation, an appropriate relationship between the team member and you, as the manager-once-removed. It is not your purpose to coach them on productivity in their current role, but you want to talk about the future, their aspirations, their interests, their curiosities, their future role in the company. It’s a perfectly legitimate discussion that demonstrates the care of the company in the career paths of their team members. People feel fulfilled when they can see their future and opportunities to pursue it, and, they feel frustrated when they do not.”

Who Has the Larger Picture?

“I think we may have a problem with James,” Brendon started. “Turnover in his department.”

“And?” I asked.

“And, he says team members are quitting the company because of pay. We’ve had a competitive pay program that has worked for several years, with reasonable increases, but some of the numbers James is claiming don’t seem reasonable for the people he is losing.”

“So, you think the problem is with James?”

“It’s his department,” Brendon shrugged.

“Does James have the authority to offer pay increases beyond the thresholds in your comp program?”

“Well, no. But, whenever I hear it’s about the money, money is only part of it. I think it’s that some of our project managers just don’t see the longer term picture here that they are promised somewhere else. Pay may be part of it, but it’s their longer term career path.”

“And, you think James should be talking to his team about their longer term career path?” I prodded.

“Look, I know James has a lot on his plate. He’s in charge of all of our projects, they’re complicated with lots of moving parts, but he also has to pay attention to his team,” Brendon shook his head.

“So, James is in charge of complicated projects, coaching his team for faster throughput, maintaining quality standards, AND you want him to be a mentor?” I smiled. “What if you went to James’ team members, occasionally, and you talked to them about their career, challenge in the work, and what their professional life might look like in the future? With James’ full knowledge about that conversation?”

“Isn’t that James’ job?” Brendon questioned.

“Sounds like James has plenty on his plate dealing with what’s going on today, this week and this month. Besides you have a better perspective on the larger picture of the company, the larger picture of role opportunities, where lateral moves make sense, where promotion makes sense. On these longer timespan issues, I think you are in a better position to have that discussion. In a very real sense, as James’ manager, for James’ team, you are the manager-once-removed.”