Good coaching is more than simply providing feedback

Try these 3 tips to become an effective coach for your people today


Shane Kinkennon

2 years ago | 5 min read

Most good business leaders know thoughtful, constructive feedback is crucial to cultivate top performers. It’s even tempting to pat yourself on the back the times you do it consistently.

Yet the truth is you can provide feedback to your team all day long without ever approaching the magic of coaching.

This point may surprise you. Feedback, even when thoughtful and constructive, really is only as good as what it follows. If you give feedback to a conscientious staffer after they complete a task that they felt compelled to do your way, then it’s debatable what they really learn.

Do they learn to perform the function independently and with excellence, even in the face of changing circumstances? Even without you around? Or do they simply learn how to satisfy your endearing quirks as a boss?

The point is you can be vigilant with constructive feedback and still manage to only teach your staff how to please you.

That does little to help your people build capacity to perform the function, and future functions, better than perhaps you could have imagined. An August 2018 article in Harvard Business Review by Julia and Trenton Milner put it bluntly: “Manager tend to think that they’re coaching when they’re actually just telling their employees what to do.”

I had a phase in the not-so-distant past in which a group of very capable senior staffers endured a lot from me on the precision, or lack thereof, with which they brought forth whatever new idea was on their mind.

There I was, a chief strategy officer at the time, providing feedback not on the virtue of creative ideas but on the methods of broaching the subject.

No detail went undirected nor uncritiqued from me — I locked in on who they floated out their idea to first, how much or little detail they shared, what communications medium they used, how casual or formal their tone, the enthusiasm with which they invited input, and on and on.

All the suffering for those poor folks, and it’s quite possible all they learned was to avoid proposing new ideas with me around. The problem with the entire situation was that I was not building their capacity, even though I felt certain I was transferring critical skills.

I was failing to do the more important thing, which is cultivate their best thinking on what would effectively move their idea forward. It seemed I needed them to do things my quirky way. I was failing to coach.

The real upside of constructive feedback is only unlocked when it follows the worker’s own formulation of why to perform the task and how to perform it well. Drawing out that formulation from the worker is the secret sauce of coaching. It requires us leaders to get over our preferred ways of doing things and, in place of those, become utterly fascinated with what our team members might do if not trying to be more like us.

Coaching, put simply

Coaching is the use of specific techniques — namely motivational interviewing and active listening — to help another person unlock their own capacity to solve problems. It’s asking questions, listening, withholding judgment, reflecting back what you hear, and then asking more questions until their light bulb switches on.

Coaching is not a synonym for directing, instructing, teaching, providing feedback, or advising. Each of those things also has a place in the leader’s toolkit at times.

But when it comes to really developing the capacity of your people to help the business achieve great outcomes, coaching is the key. The more you apply yourself to doing it, almost without exception, the more good that follows.

Stop, Start, and Don’t

If you want to become a better coach for your brightest stars right now, I’ll spare you the academic guidance and offer some immediately useable truth.

1. Stop talking. We executives and other leaders have an almost overwhelming need to remind our people that we earned our place. So we take advantage of the fact that most of our staff members will dutifully stop talking as soon as we start. And then we talk. And talk some more. We fill the air with our perspectives, our experiences, our ideas, our needs.

We think the people who work for us sit at rapt attention because what we have to say is so compelling. And it might be. Or it might be that they’re politely listening because we’re the boss.

So, just stop. And listen. Your staffers already know you’re smart and accomplished. Let them have their turn. And when they talk, let your curiosity be stirred. Be intrigued enough to dig deeper, with openness.
Don’t judge or formulate opinions on what they say. Don’t quietly question their motives. Don’t allow your brain to get distracted by what you want to say next.

Just listen, openly, and ask more questions, and then listen again. It may seem strained at first. Or awkward. In fact, it probably will. But don’t give up. You’ll create a moment to remember for them, and you’ll see problems solved.

2. Start with this simple question. If you’re unsure where to begin, use this question at the very moment you’d otherwise launch into something more directive.

Ask, “What do you think we should do?”. Pose the question, and then implement #1 above. Don’t talk, even if they bait you with something like, “I don’t know.

What do you think?”. (If this behavior is new for you, they’ll definitely try that. Be ready.) If the question doesn’t get them going the first time, try asking it in a slightly different way, like “Well, what’s the best idea you’ve right now?.” Or, “What would you try if no one were watching?”. They’ll start talking. When they do, listen with curiosity and without judgment.

3. Don’t add a thing. “Yes, and…” is better than “Yes, but…”. But what’s best of all is simply “Yes.”

Once they’re done talking, you might have the urge, possibly an overwhelming one, to talk about how their thinking could be made better by some additional idea of yours. It would feel so good to offer up that morsel, wouldn’t it? Surely they want to hear how you, brilliant boss, would make their idea even better! Don’t do it. You might add a bit of value, sure.

But you’ll send the signal that their ideas only stand to be great once they look a bit more like yours. It’ll become about you once again. So, refer to #1 above. Just stop talking. (If you’re intrigued by this particular idea of avoiding the natural urge to “add value,” Marshall Goldsmith teaches it to great effect in his stellar book What Got You Here Wont’ Get You There.)

Putting it into practice

Anyone can do this stuff. That definitely includes you! It’s not rocket science. True, it can feel exhausting at first. Then after the newness wears off, the first time you get in a hurry, it’ll be tempting to return to more command-and-control ways.

The way to prevent backsliding is to focus yourself on sharing the joy you’re almost certain to see in your star performers’ demeanors as their potential is more fully tapped. Smart, ambitious people love being engaged in this way. And in time, they’ll move mountains. You’ll see..


Created by

Shane Kinkennon

Certified Executive Coach. I work with CEOs of company up to $500M to help them get the most of their human capital and to lead change.







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