Coaching is a Participative Sport

“I didn’t like you much after that,” said a former colleague and now friend as we reminisced about our early days in management.

Back then, we were both newly promoted managers working for the same boss. One day, I accidently observed my colleague coaching one of her employees. I thought she didn’t handle the interaction correctly. A fan of peer-to-peer coaching (I’d been to a seminar!), I told her one day after a staff meeting how she could have been more effective in coaching her employee had she done thus-and-so. As a new (and clueless) manager, I possessed that blissful unawareness that sometimes envelops us and facilitates doing stupid stuff.

My colleague was cool to me after that. I chalked her distance up to embarrassment. Blast that self-absorbed unawareness.

It was some years and many mistakes later before I realized my well-intentioned peer-to-peer coaching hadn’t been coaching at all. What I’d done was pass off my opinion as procedure. In retrospect, I acknowledged my desire to help as a good thing. However, that good thing was offset by a bad thing—and that was my belief that my approach to coaching was the right one and that she should be using it.

I have the right answer!

Ever have that sentence flash like a neon light in your head? You should listen to me—I have the answer!

Horrors. One of my biggest and hardest life, love, and leadership lessons was learning the power of seeking to understand and doing so before offering advice or solutions. Understanding comes only after asking questions and listening to answers. Understanding goes hand-in-hand with assuring you have a well-rounded view of the matter, and then balancing logic and emotion in addressing it.

When I tried to coach my colleague those many years ago, I didn’t have a full understanding of what she was trying to accomplish with her employee. I’d simply projected my thoughts, my perspective, into her situation. Those thoughts weren’t steeped in the facts, nor were they delivered in a way that encouraged my colleague to want to hear or engage with me.

I wasn’t coaching; I was telling her to do things my way, the right way. She kept her distance, not out of embarrassment, but because she thought I was a jerk. Can’t blame her. (To all those employees, colleagues, and others whom I “coached” before learning to seek to understand, I’m sorry.)

Coaching is a two-way street where there’s flexibility, openness, and vulnerability from both people involved. Helping, learning, and change only happen when there’s a willingness—from both parties—to explore without the certainty of rightness and wrongness. Effective coaching is a partnership, not a me-focused activity over-populated with you should directives. Save the you should directives for clear-cut policy or procedure violations that warrant disciplinary action.

Leadership, as it’s often practiced today, rewards people for having all the answers, being right, and being assertive in sharing those right answers. I think it’s time that that approach be tempered with a measure of humility and curiosity. What do you think?