How Do You Develop a Learning/Coaching Environment?

I enjoyed reading What to Ask the Person in the Mirror: Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential by Robert Steven Kaplan. Below is an excerpt from the book. Are you creating a learning atmosphere in your company?


How Do You Develop a Learning/Coaching Environment?

What to Ask the Person in the Mirror
What to Ask the Person in the Mirror

If you’re convinced that coaching is a critically important function — at least as important as sales skills, financial skills, communication skills, strategy skills, and the like — then the next question is, how can your company train its senior leaders to become more effective coaches?

I can point to four key elements.

Preparation and Incentives

Coaching takes time. Your managers need to know that you believe it is important that they take the time during the year to be up to speed on the strengths and weaknesses of their direct reports, discuss with their subordinates what they can do better and actions to address those issues, and follow up on a regular basis to monitor progress and give additional advice.

Excellent companies view being a great coach as a criterion for promotion to higher managerial levels, as well as an important determinant of compensation. Think about the feedback you’re giving your key managers regarding the importance of their being a good coach in your overall assessment of their job performance.

Specific, Actionable Feedback and Proposed Remedies

Effective feedback should be very specific and focused on skills. It should be actionable. It should avoid veering off into the ad hominem (that is, a personal attack), and it should steer away from being amorphous and vague. Similarly, the follow-up remediation advice needs to be specific and actionable.

To illustrate with a bad example: one piece of advice that professionals often hear is that they need to “raise their profile” in the company. Honestly, I have no idea what this means. This type of vague advice often comes from a coach who has “impressions” of the recipient but hasn’t done the homework necessary to give the subordinate actionable feedback. This kind of amorphous advice is confusing. Worse, it may actually distract the recipient from confronting the two or three skill-based weaknesses he or she really does need to address.

Similarly, telling someone that they acted “stupidly” is not very helpful feedback if they’re trying to dissect what they should have done, and determine what they might need to do differently in the future. It risks insulting and upsetting them, without giving them enough specifics to chart a clear path forward.

Again-specific, clear, and actionable!

Updating and Follow-up

No company would adopt an organizational strategy and then fail to update it mer the years. The same holds true for coaching. In a very real sense, coaching is an effort to help drive the specifics of an individual strategy–it demands updating and follow-up.

The needs of the organization change. The dreams of employees also change. Subordinates not only want to be coached on how to succeed in their current job, but also want to develop skills that will help them step up to their next assignment. In order for you to coach effectively, therefore, it helps to have a view on what that next assignment might be so you can help the subordinate develop accordingly.

For example, a great salesperson may want to become a sales manager. To reach this aspiration, he or she will want to be challenged enough today to develop the skills necessary to be ready when the sales manager opportunity arises. What’s the vision for the subordinate’s future, and how will we get there and on what schedule? What coaching and job assignments might make sense to help that person get there? How and when can we check in to gauge progress against that plan?

Creating a Culture of Ownership

As a leader, you want it to be everyone’s job to give feedback and seek out feedback.

Who is responsible in an organization for feedback? I used to tell every new class of Goldman Sachs associates that it was 100 percent the subordinates’ job to seek out feedback-to know their key strengths and weaknesses, and determine action steps to address those weaknesses. At the same time, I regularly told every group of managers that it was 100 percent their job to give feedback to subordinates.

Was I trying to be funny? Was I trying to have it both ways? No. My point was, and is, that junior people have to “own” the challenge of seeking feedback, and senior people have to own the challenge of giving it. Only if both sides have this attitude are you going to create a true learning environment in which effective coaching will occur. In this type of environment, every employee is invested in development, there are no victims, and people can be confident that they will have the opportunity to grow, learn, and develop.

The ultimate goal can’t be that everyone gets promoted or reaches the top level of compensation. Instead, the goal should be that each professional is afforded the opportunity to reach his or her potential. It is worth striving to create the kind of culture in which this can happen. This might include, for example, celebrating great coaches, telling “war stories” about how people got developed in the company, and applauding someone who has made significant progress toward a self-improvement goal as a result of seeking out and receiving effective coaching. Because these types of leadership “shout-outs” and anecdotes tend to get circulated all over the company and take on a life of their own, they can help you make the desired point in a powerful and far-reaching way.

When a company is failing to achieve its goals, that failure can often be traced to having inadequate people in one or more key positions. That deficiency, in turn, can often be traced back to the inability of the enterprise to attract, retain, and develop key people. Dig deeper, and you may find a lack of emphasis on coaching and creating a learning atmosphere in the company. It is no accident that great coaching cultures tend to be a magnet for outstanding people. Give yourself that great competitive advantage.

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