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LEADERSHIP: Exploring the Role of Coaches and Mentors in the Workplace

A few years back I was speaking with someone about the role of the coach in the workplace and the individual was adamant about the coach not providing any advice.  She suggested that the coach was simply to ask questions and allow individuals to make self-directed discoveries and decisions based solely on their own analysis and know-how.  I suppose it could be described as a “learn by doing” approach.

As someone who’s been doing executive coaching for years, it caused me to think more carefully about my own approach to the role of workplace coach.  And just like so many things in life, I find that it is a blend of approaches that seems to work best.  For example, I love watching NFL football and am married to a passionate Saints fan.  Would I expect Coach Sean Payton to huddle with the team during the Super Bowl and just ask pertinent questions:  hey, how do you think we’re doing? Any ideas on how to recover our 10 point deficit?    I know in his case I expect him to give advice – and even correction – if needed.  Other times, if the individual has the competency to self-explore or identify an answer, then asking the right questions is extremely valuable.
So, let’s explore the role of coach in the workplace and see if a definition starts to emerge.

The coach:
1.  Inspires the individual to perform “best thinking” and “best practice.” The coach needs to be very up to date on best practices in the workplace and not allow the individual to continue on a path that has already proven to be out-dated or faulty.  Organizational practices are so often very insular and the coach can be a vital source of new external information.

2. Causes the individual to challenge assumptions and discern facts from opinion. As we move up what Chris Argyis calls the “ladder of inference,” we begin to treat assumptions as facts to the point where we will believe something is true that has very little basis in actual data.  The coach helps to surface erroneous assumptions before decision making occurs by testing the meaning being added, the conclusions drawn and the beliefs formed.

3. Provides encouragement and support. We live in an ultra-critical world with extremely high expectations placed on our leaders.  We forget that they are human, with self-doubts, anxieties, and internal voices that are very self-critical.  The coach is invaluable for providing positive feedback, encouragement and a supportive ear during difficult times.

4. Teaches and directs when experience and competency are lacking. In every coaching situation I’ve had, there have been strategies and tools that I have shared that benefit the individual’s understanding and competency.  Self-discovery is only valuable if there is something inside to discover.  In the case where competency is lacking, self-discovery can be a futile path.  Having a coach who is knowledgeable in areas where the individual is not, opens doors to new understanding and insights.

5. Extracts lessons learned from various experiences. The coach can initiate the reflective conversation related to lessons learned that many leaders actually tend to avoid.  If the individual is one-sided during the reflection, the coach can encourage a balance between the positives and negatives.

6. Provides constructive insight and feedback about the “blind self” areas. For those familiar with Johari’s window, we all have what is called the “blind self” – behaviors that we don’t see in ourselves that others do see.  The coach can open exploration of these behaviors through guided discussion, helping the obscure become transparent and reflecting to the individual how he or she might be perceived by others.  These insights can form the basis of a strong personal development plan for the individual.

7. Guides new learning. I’m always curious about how few books and articles leaders actually read to stay current in their managerial field.  The coach can be a personal librarian of information and resources – books, videos, audio-tapes, articles, blogs, associations and tweets to follow – that might be valuable for the leader.

8. Builds confidence of individual to tackle tough issues. Coaching actually spans quite a few different areas – skill-development, performance, professional development and specific executive agendas.  Leaders often need a confidential sounding board to test out ideas before actually implementing them.  The coach helps to build confidence within the leader to take on tough issues, many times by just helping the leader walk through an approach and filling in the missing pieces.

Coaching others is such a serious responsibility because of the impact it has on others, both intellectually and emotionally.  I’m curious to hear from others and how you perceive the role of coach within your organizations.  As a first step to coaching someone, I encourage you to forward this blog newsletter to someone you think might benefit from our weekly tips and tactics, then have them sign up to receive this free service.  Below are some articles that may be of value to your mentorees as well.

If you liked this, you may want to read these:

• 4 Immediate Ways to Add Personal Success and Power To Your Staff

• Your One Stop Shop

An organization can be defined by the successful mentoring and supervising that takes place.  We’d love to come along and help you build an organization with a healthy mentoring and coaching function.  We have FREE tools and resources to help, as well as classes, trainings, assessments, and coaching that we provide to help you build a high-performance organization.  Contact us today!

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  • This is a great synopsis Deborah. I work as an internal coach for an organization with the majority of my clients being new Managers or Directors.

    I have definitely found myself playing each of the roles you defined above. Additionally, I have come to realize that they don’t always have the answers. However, I don’t want to slip into “training” or too much advice giving. Instead, I would prefer to present concepts and/or personal experience and see whether it resonates with them. If I can do this effectively, then I’m not staying attached to my approach and allowing them to choose what is best for them.

    I know the answer to this question is probably “it depends”, but what percentage of time (or how often) would you say it is appropriate to provide advice?

    J. Matthew Becker, M.Ed., ACC

    Authentic Excellence LLC
    P.O. Box 423
    Oakwood, OH 45409

  • Matthew – I like what you said about presenting concepts and seeing if they resonate. Almost facilitating the flow of new information into the mindset and belief framework. I don’t know that I think of it in terms of percentages, as much as realizing how important it is to expose people to new thinking/concepts. Otherwise, they simply keep repeating the same cognitive biases that perhaps caused the situation in the beginning. So, to me, it’s carefully looking for where to introduce a new and different thought process or pattern and then allowing it to be explored – as you say, without attaching to your own approach. Tricky sometimes to say the least. Thanks for replying. Deborah

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