5 Tips for Becoming a Better Coach and Leader

There’s a reason why Bill Gates launched his Ted Talk to educators with the statement: “Everyone needs a coach.” Data shows that 70 percent of employee learning and development happens on the job, not through formal training programs.

Yes, coaching is important to individual and team performance. Nevertheless, surveys indicate that employees aren’t receiving valuable coaching. If you’re a manager who wants to become a better coach of tech pros and teams, here are five best practices to keep in mind: 

Focus on Coachable People

Despite your best efforts, sometimes an employee is just not “coachable,” warned Kris Plachy, coach for female founders and tech startups. You can only be effective if the person you’re trying to coach is interested in improving and receptive to feedback.

“Warning signs that you could be wasting your time with an ‘uncoachable’ team member include [their] defensiveness, blaming others for their mistakes and refusing to take ownership of their work and growth,” Plachy said.

Also, don’t try to coach someone once you’ve put them on a performance improvement plan. When a team member’s competence is low, the best approach is to offer specific direction and time-bound goals. If they improve, then you can move into a coaching mindset.

Build Relationships First

The tech professionals you manage will prove much more receptive to your feedback and guidance if you earn their trust first. Build credibility by asking questions, listening, and observing the team before you begin coaching.

If you’re stepping into a team leader or management role, don’t show off your skill set; offer to share your expertise to get new relationships off on the proverbial right foot. Getting people to open up about their development needs and accept feedback takes time, mutual respect and trust.

Coach, Guide… But Don’t Direct

Coaching isn’t telling someone what to do or giving them advice. It’s a communication process that managers use to guide and help employees come up with their own solutions, suggested Joe Czarnecki, PMP, SCPM, coaching instructor and VP of Product and Sales Support for Strategy Execution.

It’s also about challenging people to come up with the answers they may already know intuitively by asking a series of thought-provoking questions that will lead to solutions and build their mental processes. If you want to become a better coach, learn how to ask the right questions at the right time.

As the old proverb states, you don’t want to give someone a fish, Czarnecki noted: “When you teach them how to fish, they learn how to extract and apply their knowledge in ways that help them grow and conquer new challenges throughout their careers.”

Flex Your Coaching Style

As a manager, be ready to offer data to support discussions about ways to improve performance or solve technical problems. Tech pros generally respond best to evidence and data.

“An abstract idea that can be interpreted in different ways may not resonate or make sense [to] a logical thinker,” Czarnecki said. “You need to structure your coaching style and language so that it appeals directly to the needs and interests of your audience.”

Effective coaches also vary their approach and style to match the type of challenge facing the individual or team. For instance, the GROW model (an acronym for Goal, Reality, Options and Will) is an all-purpose structure that can help non-technical leaders improve team and individual performance. The POSITIVE model is designed to improve motivation and help teams set effective goals, while the OSKAR coaching framework (which stands for Outcome, Scale, Know-how, Affirm + Action and Review) or PRACTICE model is designed to help them find solutions to technical problems.

Although a matter-of-fact approach may work best with technical professionals, keep in mind that you’re still coaching human beings, Plachy added. Don’t dismiss an employee’s concerns or ideas; keep an open mind, or you risk coming off as condescending or patronizing.

Embrace Mistakes

People actually learn more from their successes than their failures; with that in mind, highly effective coaches encourage risk-taking, failing fast, and treating mistakes as a learning opportunity… to a point. You can’t allow your team to go down a path that will result in the catastrophic failure of an entire project, even in the name of a “learning experience.”

“Always have an escape route in mind,” Czarnecki said. “Coaching is situational; you have to know when to step in and how to help your team get out of a bad situation.”