Great managers, like great coaches, bring out the best in their teams. That’s the foundational tenet of Art Harding’s leadership style as Chief Operating Officer of People.ai. The second might be that great coaching attracts and retains great talent.
“I think the best talent knows they will be compensated. They know they’re going to be challenged,” Harding asserts. “They want to know, are you the type of organization or leader that can hire raw people with potential and develop it? The more you build a reputation for being that type of an organization, that type of a leader, you start attracting more of that top performing talent that wants to get developed.”
The good news is, you don’t need to possess special charisma or natural talent to be a great coaching-style leader. Like any skill, it requires some preparation and practice. These are three of Harding’s best concrete strategies for adding more coaching to your management.
1. Back up evaluation with concrete action.
When you provide feedback to direct reports, are you merely evaluating outcomes? Or, are you translating those outcomes into actionable steps?
“I tell people, I don’t hire a financial planner to tell me I’m broke or a trainer at the gym to tell me I’m unfit,” Harding quips. “What I’m looking for is coaching on actions, preferably while I’m making decisions that would actually change the outcome before I get there.”
His advice is to think of your management like a fitness app that provides data in real time: It’s much easier to improve your mile time if you know your pace is slowing down as it’s happening, rather than evaluating the data at the end of your run. . And if you’re going to measure it, you’d better have a plan for improving the numbers.
“Especially in large organizations, everyone’s very quick to say, ‘I need a measurement of this, I need a measurement of that.’ Great, but are you ready to coach?” Harding poses. “Make sure you’re actually offering some coaching on the other side of that evaluation.”
2. Ask yourself, is it pancakes or bicycles?
One of the trickier aspects of coaching to master is proximity, or in other words, how hands-on they must be when delegating a new task or responsibility. Too much information at the wrong time can turn into stifling micromanagement, while too little guidance and support can set up teams to fail in a sink-or-swim scenario.
Harding has a simple question to determine how much proximity to take as a manager: Are we making pancakes or riding bicycles?
There are two types of instructions you could be giving the team: Are we making pancakes or riding a bicycle? If we’re making pancakes, I can give you a step-by-step set of instructions and with a very high degree of confidence, expect that we will get some edible pancakes at the other end of this. When you start producing pancakes consistently, then you can start to add some bananas and other things. But if I’m teaching you to ride a bike, I can explain inertia, gravity, momentum, balance. We could do weeks and weeks of instruction on mechanically how to ride a bike. But I know that you are going to fall. It does not matter how much instruction I do, until you experientially learn, you’re not going to develop the skills it takes to ride a bike. My role as a manager when someone’s about to get on a bike, is to let them know they’re going to fall. It’s to let them know that it’s okay and tell them, “I’m going to be there when the bike falls over and we’re going to talk about which of the concepts we discussed. Your main role is to encourage them and get them back on the bike, so they can fail fast.
3. Coaching can be more than transferring hard skills.
The role of a coach is often more than successful knowledge transfer and skill building. It’s also about providing the guidance and resources necessary to get the job done, and establishing yourself as a consistent source of both expectations and support.
“I was working with one leader to broaden his idea of what made him a leader worth working for. Eventually he said, ‘People like working for me because I’m predictable,’” Harding recalls. “There’s nothing more exhausting for a team or an organization than if the leadership is not predictable or consistent in terms of how they solve problems or celebrate success.”