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10 Tips to Becoming a Better Business-Team Coach: From Supervisor to Mentor

My recent work with a traditional organization looking to become team-based has afforded me the opportunity to dig deeper into the role of the coach and its importance in the operation of a team. During a transition like the one above, the title of coach can many times be seen as symbolic, as in just a new name to make it sound more ‘teamy,’ but in actuality, the title and the role change dramatically when switching from a supervisory approach to a coaching approach.

Let’s take a moment and ask the age old question ‘why?’  Why is the change from supervisor to coach significant and what purpose does it serve? When considering the two roles, I want you to acknowledge the fact that for many, their supervisor role and approach is one that is constant and directive.  The only change or flexing in this situation is on behalf of the individual, with the focus for many supervisors being on the completion of the task. Many times what I hear in these types of scenarios is a phrase like “well that’s just how I manage, and they’re going to have to deal with it.”  It is also a mindset that is focused on the individual employee’s performance not the collective.  With the coaching approach, we see a change in style and approach based on the maturity of the team and its members.  The focus in this style is on the success of the collective by creating synergy among the members.

The best way I’ve found to explain the transition a coach goes through is to imagine being the coach of a sports team, maybe a baseball team for example.  It’s pretty apparent that you wouldn’t coach a t-ball team the same way you would a major league team, but begin to think about why and how that relates to a work team.  In the early stages of a team, t-ball being the example, a coach is much more directive, clear about what the goal and purpose of the game is and focused on building the competency of the players (rules of the game) so that they perform better. As the team develops there’s a shift from directive to supportive. The team now knows the rules of the game and the coach is there to support, give guidance and continue to build the depth and breadth of the team’s knowledge base.  By the time the team has advanced to the Major Leagues, they are clearly competent and require little direction from the coach. By this time the coach is focused on helping the team strategize about not just the current year, but years to come. The coach is a confidante, a mentor and someone the team respects as being the team’s representative to management.  The coach goes to bat for his team and vice versa. (no pun intended)

So what does it take to be a dynamic, proficient and highly-skilled coach that is able to propel a team forward?  Based on recent experience and in collaboration with our team here at New Directions, we’ve developed a list of ten tips for becoming a better coach.

1) Recognize that a team functions on three planes: Task, Process and Relationship.  As coaches, if all we do is focus on winning the game, but never teach our players how to be a better team, we will never actually win.   As a coach it is our responsibility to develop the skills of our team members to help them do their jobs better, build trust among members and develop systems that help guide them to the right conclusion.

2)Be able to identify which of the four team phases your team is in at any given time and know the right coaching style to apply.  Whether Forming, Storming, Norming or Performing (B.W. Tuckman), it’s up to the coach to be able to assess the team at any given time and know the exact approach he/she is going to use to help the team constantly strive for the Performing phase. Use the NDC Team/Coach Development Wheel to figure out the phase and your approach.

3) Be sure that all preliminary processes are complete to ensure that your team doesn’t have to back track.  If we imagine that the three planes identified above are trains leaving a station all at the same time, we will eventually realize that if all we do is focus on the success of one of those trains (typically the task train), there will come a time when we can no longer achieve more because the other two trains need to catch up. There will come a day when you can’t work any harder. An individual cannot operate at 110% indefinitely without failures.  It is up to the coach to ensure that things like the team charter, which gives purpose and direction, and the team’s protocols (i.e. conflict resolution, decision-making, problem solving, etc) are all in place so that the team doesn’t need to figure out how to handle a situation when they’re in the middle of it.  It will be the synergy among members that will allow for more production, reduced cost and the minimization of mistakes.

4) Allow your team to run with the ball (pardon my switch to a football metaphor).  I’ve never once seen a football coach pick up a fumble and run for a touchdown. So as the coach of your team, stop doing the job just because the team dropped the ball.  By using guiding questions, help your team review what happened and develop a solution to prevent it from happening again.  Remember, questions should be designed to help them come up with the answer or solution.

5) Begin to recognize behavior that advances the team instead of behavior that only advances the individual.  Reward and recognition are tricky when it comes to teams.  We are used to recognizing a person when he/she has done something well, but now we must be able to recognize when team members do something selfless and for the betterment of the team.  Begin to think about what those behaviors look like and how you will praise them for a job well done.

6) Expect the unexpected.  Teams struggle and as a coach you must be prepared to assist the team and move them forward. Coaches must have enough foresight to know when a team will struggle and be willing to spend some time in advance preparing them to handle that situation.  An example of this would be how a highly-skilled coach would be able to recognize that a team is moving towards the performing phase, and how the team may need to have an understanding of process improvement and problem-solving skills so that they can perform at the optimal level.  It would rest with the coach to help build that skill in the team so that they could handle that situation when it arises. Another typical slip usually occurs around conflict resolution. Many coaches don’t put conflict resolution protocols in place ahead of time, so when a conflict occurs, team members look to the coach to resolve it for them. By developing a protocol and practicing how to handle conflict when it arises, the team will be able to quickly and adequately handle conflict when it comes up.

7) Know your metrics and ensure that your team is clear about what they are trying to accomplish.  Edward Deming used to say “In God we trust; all others must bring data.” As a coach, just like keeping the score of a game, your team wants to know whether they’re winning.  What are important metrics for your team to know, and ask yourself, what real-time numbers should they be receiving in order to course correct on the spot? Examples of strategic metrics v. value-added metrics are: End of month production numbers v. cycle time, balancing a check book at the end of the month v. balance announcements at the point of sale, shipments completed by end of day v. shipments completed by hour.  The idea of team metrics is that they afford the team the ability to see a trend and make a correction.  If all the team gets is a number at the end of a shift that tells them they missed their mark, but they can’t do anything about it, the coach is not equipping the team with the tools to move the team towards its goal. Metrics that cross multiple functions also allow for collaboration among position, department, and business area.  (Other areas that should be tracked are, information sharing between team members, ability of the team to solve problems, ability of the team to resolve conflict, etc.)

8 ) Champion the cause even when the team doesn’t want to. I’ve never heard a sports coach say, “You know what, I’m just not feeling it today, so feel free to do whatever you guys want.”  Part of our role as a coach is to lead by example.  You just first believe that there is no other way to achieve your goal than through teaming, but once you’ve made that decision, you cannot waiver.  Especially for new teams, having a confident and dedicated coach is paramount to the team’s success.  Retired General Colin Powell describes this type of selfless service by reflecting on his days of leadership training: “No matter how cold it is, you must never look cold as a leader. No matter how hungry you are, you must never appear hungry as a leader. No matter how terrified you are, you must never look terrified as a leader. Because, if as a leader you are scared, terrified, hungry and cold, your team will be scared, terrified, hungry and cold.”

9) Like the instructor of the class, always stay a chapter or more ahead of the students.  Don’t ever let the team lap you in their understanding and skill, not simply because it might look bad, but because there is an obligation a coach has to his/her team.  That obligation is to be able to continue to provide value to the team, push them to the next level and give support and guidance when needed.  In addition, and this relates back to number eight, if a team feels as though they are more engaged then  than their coach, the credibility of that individual will begin to wane.

10) Demonstrate being humble and work towards the success of the team, instead of the success of self. Everything I’ve read about leadership somewhere along the way incorporates something about being selfless and putting the team, organization or individual first.  Pat Lencioni identifies the lack of trust as the most fundamental dysfunction that a team can have.  Made up of character and competency, trust becomes the determining factor in the success of a team, and more so, the most significant trait a coach can possess. As a team matures, so must its trust for the individual members and its coach. As the coach, it becomes increasingly important to be able to demonstrate confidence in your team, as well as trust in their ability to get the job done right.  The ability for a team to do this will depend on how well you’ve prepared them for the task ahead.

If you have seen other characteristics that you believe make a dynamic, competent and committed team coach, I encourage you to share those thoughts in the discussion part of this blog.  Not all teams are created equal, nor do they all require the same attention, and so, as a coach, our ability to evaluate need, adjust our approach and grow the capabilities of our team become our most significant attributes.

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