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Want to be a better boss? Think like a coach

If you're not sure how to manage a team, take a lesson out of a coaches' playbook.
Image: Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils celebrates with Grayson Allen #3
Take a note from coaches on the sideline at a sports game and give feedback to your employees on the spot.Streeter Lecka / Getty Images

A good boss has to wear a lot of hats — mediator, air traffic controller, gatekeeper — but experts say one is particularly important for being a successful manager: coach.

Productivity is connected to ‘learn it alls’ not ‘know it alls,’” says Rich Feller Ph.D., a counseling and career development professor at Colorado State University. “Managers who nudge internal motivation, tap natural aptitudes, and free talent to add value most succeed.” How exactly can a manager tap into this coach mindset? Here are a few easy steps.

First: sit back and listen

Often managers are promoted into their roles because they’re excellent at their particular job, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have the ability to help others improve their skills. That’s why asking a lot of questions of your subordinates to understand their perspective on their job’s challenges or ideas they have for how to improve things is important, says Monique Valcour, Ph.D., an executive coach, management professor and keynote speaker. “What coaching involves is kind of sitting back in a curious and nonjudgmental mode and inviting the other person to give their thoughts,” she says. When presented with a problem at work (or an opportunity to improve things on your team), it’s a good time to ask open-ended questions of your employees to tap their creativity and see how they can contribute to a better end result.

Once any issues are brought to your attention, Valcour cites the “GROW” model as one method for problem solving if you’re new to the managing world. It consists of setting a goal (G), assessing the reality of where you are now (R), reviewing your options (O) and deciding what will you do (W).

Know the right way to give feedback

Feedback gets a bad rap, but it doesn’t necessarily always have to entail a big formal conversation, says Elaine Varelas, managing partner at career consulting and coaching development firm Keystone Partners. Take a note from the coaches on the sideline at a sports game, cheering on athletes when they score a goal, and give feedback to your employees on the spot.

If you see something positive from a team member, like an excellent customer interaction or a major sales win, give praise right then and there, Varelas says. If you see something you’re disappointed in or have a concern about it, pull the employee aside and note it pretty soon after (but not in front of others) — there’s no need to wait for a formal review. “I think the focus needs to be on communication, where a manager is having conversations on a regular basis about performance … so it doesn’t become a shock when it is provided every six months [at a formal review],” she says.

Asking questions is important here, too. When a mistake occurs, you should inquire about what the employee’s line of thinking was that led them to make the error. If for example, a subordinate lacks attention to detail, you’ll want to flag that and explain that that skill is important for someone to succeed in the job, provide some examples of when the skill was lacking (like a missed meeting or a typo-riddled report) and ask the employee how he plans to remedy the problem.

Don’t feel comfortable having those conversations? Script out what you plan to say and role play with a peer or tap your own manager as a resource for how to have those tough talks, Varelas suggests.

Set goals that will keep your team happy

Famous athletic coaches are known for plotting out a strategy that helps their team win — and that’s precisely what a good boss should do, too. According to Cynthia D. Marco-Scanlon, Ph.D., CCC, PCC-S, director of credentialing and special programs at the National Career Development Association, one of the most important things a successful manager should focus on is the career development of their employees. You don’t want to set people up for failure, so you want to help workers define realistic, practical and achievable goals about how they’ll stretch themselves in their current role, she says. (Think: what skills can an employee add to his repertoire in the next year? Not how he can become CEO.)

One of the biggest mistakes managers make is forgetting that people aren’t tools.

Valcour notes it’s important to do this on a formal and informal basis: both at scheduled annual reviews where development plans are formed and in regular one-on-one or team check ins where a manager, for example, delegates parts of a project to an employee. “It’s about inviting the employee to talk about the experience they’d like to gain in the next six months or projects they’d like to take on,” she says.

Ultimately, goal setting can have a major positive impact on workers’ happiness, according to Feller. “[One of the biggest mistakes managers make is] forgetting that people aren’t tools,” he says. “They’re motivated to learn when tasks increase their autonomy, use their natural strengths and promote their future.”

Be a cheerleader for your employees

Listen to any hot mic at a close sporting event and you’ll know that coaches are sometimes known for their colorful language. That has no place in the workplace, though. Marco-Scanlon says regular updates with your team sans negativity can help avoid ill will. “If you drop the ball on [communication] that does not bode well for your employees wondering what’s going on,” she says, adding that updates should take the forms of informal conversations, one-on-one check ins and team meetings, depending on the situation.

“That communication needs to be constant and empowering,” she says. “If you can, keep a positive attitude about things.” That doesn’t mean you can’t address problems — in fact, it’s important to address them head on — but you should steer clear of an “everything and everybody stinks” attitude.

“With that type of environment, people are going to leave,” Marco-Scanlon says. “They’re going to think ‘I’m going to take my talents elsewhere.’ And constant turnover leads to your wasting a lot of time retraining people.”

Give your team the tools they need to succeed

A great manager can be described as a tug boat. You continue to nudge them towards the goal but not come in and tow them someplace.

Figuring out what tools your employees’ need can take a number of forms, ranging from giving them equipment that will make their jobs easier to approving continuing education opportunities, conferences or networking membership fees, according to Varelas. This is once again an instance when establishing a dialogue comes in handy, so you can figure out if someone who works with Excel often could use a bigger computer monitor, or whether an employee wants to take a class to improve their public speaking skills. Whatever the resource, it should be something related to the job and provide a clear positive impact on the company in the long-term.

Bottom line: a boss’ job is to steer their employees towards their goals and the company’s overarching aims. “A great manager [can be] described as a tug boat,” Varelas says. “You continue to nudge them towards the goal but not come in and tow them someplace. But you continue to straighten them out and get them where they need to go.”

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