Preparation is the game plan for developing talent

Employee coaching is a methodology used to develop talents and skills within your employees that leads to promotion, increased productivity, and career longevity. Successful coaching techniques help you to retain top talent, and that talent helps drive and expand the business.* But good coaching takes knowledge, forethought, and—most of all— planning.

“Be Prepared”—A Motto Not Just for Boy Scouts

The old motto “Be prepared” applies to coaching sessions. The topic of preparedness reminds me of an episode in my life when I entered a situation completely unaware of my basic responsibilities.

Sweat ran into my eyes on that hot summer day under the merciless sun. I was slouched in my bulky shoulder pads on the sideline of the junior high football field during that awkward time in life just before the seventh grade. “Get in there,” said a voice, interrupting my daydream. “Is that voice talking to ME?” I thought to myself. Half of me wanted to sprint home as fast as I could, but the other half was curiously drawn to the unknown. Without much forethought, I obediently trotted toward the commanding voice. My football coach was yelling even louder, “Taylor, get in there and play quarterback!”

Me?! Our coach wanted me to go in at quarterback in our first live action! Quarterback, the coveted position, the star who gets all the glory and leads his team to victory! One problem—I had never played football before, much less in the position that required me to actually know what I was doing. Luckily, my best pal was a teammate and a veteran of sixth grade football—practically a Hall of Famer in my mind. I adjusted my oversized helmet that had slipped down over my eyes during my hurried scamper out to the huddle. “What do I do?” I asked. My buddy, wise beyond his years, offered this piece of profound advice: “I don’t know, just say ‘down-set-hut,’ I guess.” What genius! All I had to do was say “Down-set-hut” and everything would be fine.

I got into position to take my first snap. “Down,” I said, my high-pitched voice cracking under the pressure. “Set!” I shouted, gaining a little confidence. “Hut!” In a flash, the ball smashed into my fingers and fell to the ground—I don’t think I moved a muscle. I had no idea what to do, so I stood frozen. Over the next six plays, I went on to fumble every snap. Seven fumbled snaps in a row. I heard it was a junior high record that stands to this day.

Like playing quarterback, coaching an employee is an important—and sometimes overwhelming—task. Your role as the coach is to leverage your experience, business savvy, and wisdom to prepare the employees under your guidance for the tasks and situations they confront over the course of a career. Coaching is an honor, and not to be taken lightly. Think of it this way: most of what you have learned and achieved can be traced back to a mentor, coach, or someone willing to invest a little time and wisdom in you.

Through employee coaching, you have the chance to invest in the success of others. I would like to share some of the fundamentals that will help your coaching session go smoothly and be more productive. If only I had read a white paper on quarterbacking in junior high, I would have been ready to take the ball and run! Armed with the knowledge on the following pages, your coaching session will be a win-win proposition, and not a “fumbled” opportunity.

Five Considerations for a Good Coaching Session

1. Know the Situation

Success in any coaching session stems from a productive interaction between the coach and the employee. Prior to starting the session, one of your jobs is to understand the employee’s situation and their motivation for attending the coaching session. The motivation of the employee will drastically alter your preparation and delivery strategy for the coaching session. Keep in mind that motivation changes over time, which means that the employee’s attitude toward the coaching session may also change.

Employees often have very different motivational reasons for participating in a coaching or development session.

Source of Motivation
The first factor to consider is the source of the employee’s motivation for attending the coaching session. This factor will provide you with specific insight into the mindset of the employee.

• Internal Source – This is defined as an employee wanting to improve by his or her own choice. This source of motivation drives those who truly want to improve in their role through any means necessary. This type of employee needs very little, if any, encouragement to learn and develop different aspects of performance related to the job. Look for:

--Unprompted descriptions of other development activities
--Verbal expressions of the importance of their role
--An observed pattern of going the extra mile to be successful in the role

• External Source – The other side of the spectrum represents the employee being pressured or mandated to participate in the coaching session. A manager may be forcing employees to participate, or an employee who is having performance issues may be assigned mandatory participation as a condition of continued employment. Look for:

--Many scheduling conflicts and/or canceled coaching sessions
--Initial contact from their direct supervisor
--A history of work-related problems

As you might expect, most employees approach coaching sessions from somewhere between the two extremes—that is, being internally as well as externally motivated in varying degrees.

Coaching Interest
The second and equally important situational factor is the employee’s interest in the coaching session. All employees will have an interest level as it relates to the upcoming coaching session, and that level will fall somewhere between engaged and disengaged.

• Engaged – These employees will enter into the coaching session fully prepared to discuss, share, and learn ways to improve. Most often, these individuals will soak up the conversational exchange. Look for these behaviors in the engaged employees:

--They ask good questions in a positive tone about the session
--They have few negative misconceptions about how the
information will be used
--They ask for preparation instructions, homework, etc.

• Disengaged – These employees may be mistrusting of the coaching session. This may stem from a previous experience, a belief that the session lacks value, or simple mistrust of how the information shared in the session might work against them. Look for:
--Negativity pointed toward the coaching session
--Guarded conversation coupled with negative body language
--Negative questions aimed at discrediting the process

Determining interest will help you to identify the employee’s perspective while guiding your expectations and approach to the coaching session. Remember your job is to make the session as productive as possible.

2. Stay Focused

When you enter into a coaching session, be sure to focus all of your attention on the employee. You expect the employee to take the coaching session seriously. Show them that you take the session seriously as well. Below are a few tips to maintain the focus of the coaching session.

• Schedule plenty of time on your calendar to ensure that no other activity cuts into the coaching session. Slowing down the schedule will help to relax the session.

• If possible, choose an environment that is conducive to conversation. Make sure you do not have to yell or talk over distracting noises. Conference rooms or offices are often good choices. However, in some situations, an office or conference room may seem overly stuffy and the employee may feel as if the big boss is reprimanding them. In those instances, a change of venue where the employee feels relaxed may be the better choice. Perhaps you have a sitting area somewhere in the office, or a nice atrium that serves the purpose.

• Provide the employee with a warm greeting and natural eye contact. Overly intense eye contact often projects intensity, which might be construed as reprimanding. At the same time, maintaining little or no eye contact might be misinterpreted as lack of interest or, even worse, that you are the courier of “bad news.”

• Be sure to turn off all electronics or any other potential distractions that may inhibit your ability to actively listen and respond to the needs of the employee. Ask the employee to do the same.

• Let the employee know what the time commitment is and be sure that you stick to it. Unless you and the employee jointly agree to an extended meeting, continuing beyond the allotted time does not show respect for the employee’s time. It also tends to be a distraction to the discussion.

• Try to remove any physical obstacles (furniture, table centerpieces, and computer screens) between you and the employee. This will set the tone of an open one-on-one session.

• Ask them if you can take notes. Note taking will promote active listening on your part. During the conversation, you may also identify a few topics to revisit in future sessions.

• Listen more than you speak. Use questions to start conversations, then probe deeper to understand their perspective.

3. Keep it “Real”

The effectiveness of the coaching session is often gauged over time by observing improvements in the employee’s on-the-job behavior. Theoretical discussions often promote academic discussion but rarely bring about actual improvement on the job. To maximize the opportunity for employee improvement, the coach should focus on translating discussion topics to job specific improvements. The magic of the session comes when the employee understands how their behavioral preferences relate to and affect their actions and outcomes on the job.

Coaches need a means to identify specific behaviors—both opportunities and strong points—to discuss. At first glance, this task may seem daunting, but there are at least two primary resources from which you can draw your developmental material. The first source is a science-based, validated behavioral assessment (like PeopleAnswers). Behavioral traits are extracted from employee responses to a questionnaire. Using the underlying software of the assessment, developmental strategies are customized to the assessed individual. Your second source of material involves building your own coaching curriculum based on the job description and your personal observations of the employee’s specific job. Whichever method you use, a thorough understanding of the dynamics of the job is required to reveal what behaviors help or hinder the employee’s job performance.

Once you select a specific set of employee behaviors, be sure that you fully define each behavioral trait. Use any and all material related to that characteristic to be sure that you fully understand it. This is an important step because individuals assign the same name to different things. For example, being analytical may be defined as a cognitive ability measurement of a person’s skill with numbers and words. Conversely, to others analytical may be how individuals process, sort through, or structure information in the decision-making process. In this example, a person may be very good with numbers but have no real defined structure for making decisions and sorting through information. Different perspectives require that you identify and define the topic so you and the employee are on the “same page.”

Next, think about the job requirements (or research the job description) and determine where this characteristic fits into that job. Determine specific tasks where the characteristic would be used, and how (is it used a lot, or a little?). Think of and prepare a few real-world examples to explore during the coaching session.

For example, if you are coaching a salesperson to adopt more detail-oriented work habits, outline how the sales process succeeds or fails based on the recorded details, or the lack thereof. Some details to consider are:

• Scheduling multiple appointments and phone calls
• Logging phone calls with the important points of the conversation
• Noting a prospect’s new contact phone number
• Assigning a tag of “Hot,” “Medium,” or “Cold” to a sales lead
• Keeping track of dozens of prospects in the sales pipeline

Finally, examine the employee’s daily tasks and determine concrete ways to apply the behaviors being coached. In the example above, encourage the employee to regularly enter contact details into the organization’s sales tracking program, which helps to document the sales process and keep future sales calls on track. Failure to use detailed sales management tools will only reduce the employee’s production because potential deals may be lost for lack of information.

Your coaching efforts pay off only when you have motivated the employee to initiate long-term, positive changes in his or her daily activities.

4. Keep it Balanced

Put yourself in their shoes when thinking about the coaching session. No one wants to feel like a failure. Conversely, if you only spend time on strengths as they relate to the position, the employee will not receive actionable steps for improvement in the coaching session. Therefore, you should work to spend an equal amount of time discussing both strengths and opportunities during the coaching session. Your end goal should be for the employee to leave excited about ways to improve and looking forward to a future coaching session.

Delivery of the information is the key. A balanced approach is a great delivery strategy. A useful tip when delivering the tough information is to provide positive-corrective-positive information. Alternate the content presented so that you discuss a strength, then an opportunity, followed by another strength, etc. This simple technique keeps the employee from becoming defensive and shutting you out. The last thing that you want as a coach is the employee to shut down and ignore any constructive criticism.

As part of the balancing process, prepare to cover a reasonable amount of material in each session. The idea of “less is more” applies directly to coaching sessions.

Think back to the last time you walked into a kid’s pizza restaurant and arcade. Lights flashing, loud noises, sirens going off, kids running around, shrieks of joy, smells, and every other sensory stimulation you can dream of bombarded you at once. If you are not careful, your employee may encounter a similar sensation in a coaching session packed with too much information. Prevent overloading your employee by narrowing the volume of material to be covered. Keep the session simple by sticking to the few topics that are the most important.

5. Maximize Time and Quality

Within the confines of corporate responsibility, a primary but practical concern is being able to provide the highest quality coaching session balanced with the amount of time needed to prepare for each session. As with anything else, the more time spent preparing, researching, and collecting information on the employee in relation to the job, the higher the quality of the session.

Before you get overly excited (or disturbed) about countless hours in preparation that are necessary, it is important to remember there are still day-to-day deadlines, projects, and other general job-related activities that demand your attention. Below are a few tips designed to help you maximize your time while maintaining quality.

• If possible, save any information (job descriptions, performance evaluations, work samples, task lists, etc.) related to positions for which you provide coaching. This will be a valuable resource for you in the future. Over time, you will be able to shorten your research time for future sessions and the information will help you quickly get up to speed.

• Focus on understanding the employee and their primary job functions in a few specific areas. Try to be deep and not wide. Do not bounce around attempting to research the employee’s interaction with every aspect of the role.

• Obtain any behavioral or personality assessment information prior to the coaching session. You will find that assessment information provides a deeper understanding of the employee and their preferences as they relate to the position. That being said, the assessment information is not magic. Instead, the assessment output is a direct reflection of their responses to different questions (items) related to a specific topic. Think of it as “behavior research” prior to the coaching session.

• Create a mini-research plan for each employee. Identify aspects of the position where you already possess the information you need as well as areas where you lack information. As a rule of thumb, the instances where you have less direct knowledge of the role will require a little extra research—focus your time on those areas.

Know the situation, stay focused, keep it real, keep it balanced, and maximize time and quality. I hope that you will find these five fundamentals helpful during the preparation phase for each coaching session you conduct.

For more information on coaching, behavioral testing, or the PeopleAnswers assessment, contact:

Jason Taylor
p: 214-445-2181

*The Coaching at Work Toolkit: A Complete Guide to Techniques and Practices, by Perry Zeus and Suzanne Skiffington, McGraw-Hill Australia, 2006, pp. 2-3.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Jason E. Taylor is the Chief Science Officer at PeopleAnswers Inc. Following a successful college football career and coaching stint at Division I and II universities, Taylor refocused his coaching and recruiting passion from the football field to the world of talent assessments in business. After receiving his Ph.D. from Texas A&M University, Dr. Taylor has pioneered the development of several Artificial Intelligence technologies since the late 1990s. His research on Web-based selection systems has been published within the scientific community. His historical perspective, expertise, and track record of delivering bottom-line results to organizations further establishes his credibility as the foremost thought leader in the development, implementation, and validation of behaviorally-based selection and development tools. From the boardrooms of Fortune 50 companies to field offices across the country, his solutions always empower organizations to make practical improvements that maximize overall performance.

About PeopleAnswers: PeopleAnswers provides next-generation, Web-based hiring assessments to help companies maximize the quality of every hire, reduce turnover and hiring costs, highlight coaching opportunities, and streamline the selection process.