Coaching a Direct Report

As we’ve argued elsewhere in these pages, what leaders think of as “coaching” their direct reports often consists largely of steering them while trying to “make them feel like it’s their idea.” Disguised steering of this sort is pervasive, and it’s often thought to be a component of good coaching. Before showing what better coaching looks like, let’s start with an example of disguised steering:

LEADER: So, Jen, I see your growth plan involves increasing the number of contacts your team makes.

JEN: Yes, I think that’s what we need to do.

LEADER: Hmmm, do you really think that’s the best approach?

JEN: What do you mean?

LEADER: What’s going to be the best investment of your time – more contacts or better targeting?

JEN: Well, of course a higher success rate is the goal, but the targeting has to be accurate.

LEADER: Exactly.

JEN: So… you think the solution is better market intelligence?

LEADER: I want to know what you think.

JEN: I see your point.

LEADER: But do you agree?

JEN: Yeah, makes sense. Thanks.

In this exchange, the leader subtly (or perhaps not so subtly) steers Jen in a different direction. As noted above, this type of steering is often regarded as effective coaching, and in some circles it’s considered textbook. While crafty steering like this sometimes “works,” it has a number of downsides, especially lack of buy-in and little learning.

Compare the above interaction with the coaching exchange shown below. Notice the transparency of the leader’s approach and the absence of any crafty steering:

LEADER: So, Jen, I see your growth plan involves increasing the number of contacts your team makes.

JEN: Yes, I think that’s what we need to do.

LEADER: Okay, I was thinking the main focus should be on market intelligence and better targeting – because our costs ought to be lower in the long run – but maybe I’m missing something. Tell me more about why you see contact volume as so critical.

JEN: Sure, um, is this some kind of test?

LEADER: No, not at all. All I’m saying is you may have thought this through more than I have. So I’d like to start by hearing more about why you’re focusing on contact volume. Like I said, maybe what I had in mind isn’t the best approach.

JEN: Okay, well, I initially thought market intelligence was the key too, but then I looked at the numbers on [such and such] and realized that…

In this exchange, notice the leader’s desire to understand Jen first, as opposed to immediately steering her toward the leader’s way of thinking. The leader is not assuming s/he has the correct answer and needs to “coach” Jen in that direction. Rather, s/he is open to learning from Jen if it turns out Jen has done her homework. The leader is also ready and willing to teach Jen if it turns out teaching is warranted.

In comparison to disguised steering, the latter approach is much more likely to generate buy-in and mutual learning between leader and subordinate. This approach can be adjusted, of course, depending on the nature of the work relationship.

Please note that we’re not saying steering itself is inappropriate. Leaders often need to steer or direct their subordinates, but they ought to let their subordinates know when they’re doing so, as opposed to trying to “make them feel like it’s their idea.” Over time such steering is generally seen through, eroding the leader’s credibility.

Transparent coaching, on the other hand, creates opportunities for the leader and subordinate to learn from the exchange, strengthen their work relationship, and accelerate each other’s development.