I remember my first experience of a manager who applied the coaching methodology in response to a question I posed to him. Instead of giving me an answer he simply asked me “What do you think”? I was taken aback. My first instinct, which thankfully remained inaudible, was "Isn’t it your job to give me answers?" However I quickly discovered how critical his approach was to my development. It focused me on honing my analysis and problem solving skills. It forced me to make my own judgement calls. It started me on the path to determining what I stood for and greatly accelerated my confidence as a professional with my own point of view.
Coaching is a critical skill for managers, particularly given our need to build the capability of team members to make good decisions autonomously and as a by-product get more done with positive results. Whilst coaching is an integral part of any good leadership and management program, what we don't want are participants in 'Manager as Coach' programs perceiving coaching as their panacea so much so that it becomes their entire management approach. The trap of latching onto 'the' solution is ever present in the management and leadership space and development programs must caution participants from seeing specific methodologies as total solutions.
Instead, it is important for managers to be versatile. They need to have the insight to know that in many scenarios they may need to switch between approaches - sometimes in the same conversation - in order to achieve positive outcomes.
The emphasis on versatility and giving managers an opportunity to practice switching between approaches is neglected too often in development programs. It's a great real world test. Unfortunately in the often unrealistic world of workshops our development activities are artificial and somewhat limited in scope.
So, in addition to coaching what are the approaches that people managers need to switch between to demonstrate their versatility I hear you say? To me there are four that stand out.
Advisor. Whilst coaching is useful when the employee legitimately has the capability to identify their own answers through a guided process, advising is required when an employee doesn't have the answers and needs the information to move forward. Switching between coach and advisor is one of the most challenging switches of all for managers. This is particularly so for those who like to be the experts. Experts are used to demonstrating their knowledge and not so used to listening and questioning.
The great advisors are those who can pinpoint the knowledge, skills and behaviours that produce the biggest bang for buck in the shortest amount of time. In other words they know what works and they can fast track your success. Paul Keating once commented that he specifically sought out the leaders of each industry as advisors because they had the capability to distil decades of experience and vast bodies of knowledge into a micro-package of quality advice that saved Keating endless hours working with sub-standard strategies.
A great advisor becomes a great people manager when he or she knows when to switch back to being the coach to allow the employee to solve the problems with their newly acquired knowledge.
Enabler. In whatever way we interact with employees our goal should always be to facilitate their propulsion forward - to new ground, new capabilities, improved results. The enabler does this by encouraging the employee to go where they haven't gone before. The role of the enabler is to give the employee the confidence to push themselves beyond current capabilities. The enabler reminds the employee about their goals and past achievements, puts the employee in positions where they have a choice to stretch themselves and then inspires them to take a leap out of their comfort zone. The enabler is there to congratulate but is also willing to spend time evaluating the leap to identify learning for the future.
The people manager must be alert to the right time to switch between any management approaches. When it comes to the enabling role this should happen at the point where new business critical tasks intersect with the employee's stretch goals. This is the time where the people manager makes an important intervention. He takes action to ensure the employee is alive to the challenge and well positioned to take the leap.
Of course, the enabler must be ready for the employee to fail and the impact this may have on the manager's own goals. They must allow for the possibility of some short term pain - whether to revenue, customer satisfaction or reputation for the sake of employee development.
Empathiser. Each of the approaches outlined so far require the people manager to use their intuition, reading the play to understand what approach is required at any stage. This understanding of the 'lay of the land' is arguably most critical when an employee experiences any degree of distress.
The empathiser knows the mood of his or her employees and has the ability to turn a slump in motivation into renewed energy or to help reframe despair into hope. So often managers are either oblivious or impatient to the emotions of their team members. As a result the emotions can fester and can lead to range of unwanted outcomes. A great people manager understands that everyone has their highs and lows and knows the power they have to be a catalyst for renewal for their employees.
A great manager knows when to switch to empathiser because he or she is alert to the idiosyncratic changes in employee temperament. One could compare the empathiser to a good waiter at a restaurant. They are tuned into the subtle signs that attention is required, they engage with the person at just the right times, they don't intrude into unwanted territory, and they find the solution that works for right now.
Visionary. Finally, a great manager knows how and when to play the role of visionary for their employees. In particular, the ability to help the employee articulate a vision for their future success.
Unfortunately high quality career discussions between managers and employees are rare. This is a major lost opportunity for managers. There is no better way in my opinion to solidify the psychological contract with your employees. It shows a deep care that few other practices can match. It inspires much discretionary effort. Employees consider their career path to be pretty special and when someone takes an interest in it a great bond can develop. As such a visionary manager can really set themselves apart from the pack.
The time to switch to visionary manager is at those times when new development opportunities arise, when the discussion turns to goal setting, and importantly when you need to check in with the employee as part of your ‘stay’ interviews – the check in that assesses desire and intention to remain with you. As such there are numerous points in an employee’s tenure with you where you can assist them in shaping their future for mutual gain.
Managers come in all shapes and styles but the ability to hone and flex between these five approaches is essential to great management practice. A manager’s potential to impact on other’s lives is enormous. In my mind, the role of manager is a great privilege. Whilst managers are only human and will make plenty of mistakes, it is good for us all to remind ourselves occasionally about what good we can do in the role.