Being a Great Coach
Bringing out the Best in Others
Every sports team needs a coach, and the best coaches make good teams great. The same goes in business: any company that wants to succeed must have team coaching as part of its culture. Everything great in a company happens in teams, and coaching is the best way to mold effective people into powerful teams.
However, it’s not possible or practical to hire a coach for every team in a company, nor is it the right answer. The best coach for any team is the manager who leads that team. Being a good coach is essential to being a good manager and leader. After all, the higher you climb, the more your success depends on making other people successful. A great leader goes beyond the traditional notion of managing that focuses on controlling, supervising, evaluating, and rewarding/punishing to create a climate of communication, respect, feedback, and trust. This is all done through coaching.
A manager’s job is not to tell people what to do—far from it. New managers quickly learn that when direct reports are told to do something, they don’t necessarily respond. In fact, the more talented the subordinate, the less likely she is to simply a follow authority. In such a scenario, you have demanded respect, rather than having it accrue to you. A manager’s authority emerges only as the manager establishes credibility with subordinates, peers, and superiors. Your title makes you a manager. Your people make you a leader.
Leadership is something that evolves as a result of managerial excellence. How do you help people flourish in your environment? It’s not by being a dictator. It’s not by telling them what to do. It’s by making sure that they feel valued by being in the room with you. Listen. Pay attention. This is what great mangers do.
Great managers bring out the best in others. They are simultaneously supportive and challenging. And they give more than lip service to the notion of putting people first. Whereas mentors dole out words of wisdom, coaches roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. They don’t just believe in our potential; they get in the arena to help us realize our potential. They hold up a mirror so we can see our blind spots and they hold us accountable for working through our sore spots. They take responsibility for making us better without taking credit for our accomplishments.
Great coaches lie awake at night thinking about how to make their people better. What are they thinking and feeling? How can I make them the best they can be? They relish creating an environment where you get more out of yourself. The top priority of any manager should be the well-being and success of her people.
You want to create a remarkable environment with an atmosphere dedicated to making the people you work with better. A company needs great people who want to do well, are capable of doing great things, and come to work fired up to do them. Great people flourish in an environment that liberates and amplifies that energy. Managers create this environment through support, respect, and trust.
Support means giving people the tools, information, training, and coaching they need to succeed. It means continuous effort to develop people’s skills. Great managers help people excel and grow. Respect means understanding people’s unique career goals and being sensitive to their life choices. It means helping people achieve these career goals in a way that’s consistent with the needs of the company. Trust means freeing people to do their jobs and to make decisions. It means knowing people want to do well and believing that they will.
A manager must also be good at making sure her team delivers. She should have good processes. She should make sure her people are accountable. She should know how to hire great people, how to evaluate them and give them feedback, and then pay them well. She should bring people together and create a strong team culture without losing sight of the fact that results matter. And perhaps most importantly, she should know what to share and communicate and with whom.
Communication is critical to a company’s success. A good manager makes sure a team is communicating, that tensions and disagreements are brought to the surface and discussed. This helps ensure that when the big decisions are made, everyone is on board, whether they agree or not. Done right, this “knowledge commonality” helps the team perform better and is well worth the time it requires. Getting the 1:1 right and getting the staff meeting right are tops on the list of the most important management principles. These meetings are the most important tools available to executives in running the company and each one should be approached thoughtfully.
Staff meetings should be a forum for the most important issues and opportunities, more so than 1:1s. Use meetings to get everyone on the same page, get the right debate, and make decisions. Most important issues cut across functions, but, more important, bringing them to the table in team meetings lets people understand what is going on in the other teams, and discussing them as a group helps develop understanding and build cross-functional strength. This applies to some issues that perhaps might be solved in 1:1s, because they give the team practice in tackling challenges together. Meetings are a terrific opportunity to engage people. The relevance of the meeting, giving everyone a voice, and managing the clock are key factors to achieving that engagement. Being thoughtful about preparing for staff meetings is an important management practice.
A manager also wants to have structure for 1:1s and take the time to prepare for them. The most important thing a manager does is help people be more effective, grow, and develop. The 1:1 is the best opportunity to accomplish that. Bill Campbell had a standard format for 1:1s. He always started with the “small talk,” but in Bill’s case, the talk wasn’t really that small. Oftentimes, small talk in a work environment is cursory: a quick “how are the kids?” or chatter about the morning commute before moving on to the business stuff. Conversations with Bill were more meaningful and layered; you sometimes got the feeling that a conversation about life was more the point of the meeting than other business topics. From the (not so) small talk, Bill moved to performance: What are you working on? How is it going? How could he help? Then, he would always get to peer relationships, which Bill thought were more important than relationships with your manager and higher-ups. From peer relationships, Bill would move on to teams. He always wanted to know: Was he setting a clear direction for them, and constantly reinforcing it? Did he understand what they were doing? If they were off on something, he would discuss how he could course correct them and get them back on track. “Think that everyone who works for you is like your kids,” Bill once said. “Help them course correct, make them better.”
In addition to getting 1:1s and staff meetings right, another important communication-related management principle concerns decision making. It’s the manager’s job to run a decision-making process that ensures all perspectives get heard and considered, and, if necessary, to break ties and make the decision. When his team was confronted with a challenging decision, Eric Schmidt liked to use a management technique he called the “rule of two.” He would get the two people most closely involved in the decision to gather more information and work together on the best decision, and usually they would come back a week or two later after having decided together on the best course of action. The team almost always agreed with their recommendation, because it was usually quite obvious that it was the best idea. The rule of two not only generates the best solution in most cases, it also promotes collegiality. It empowers the two people who are working on the issue to figure out ways to solve the problem, a fundamental principle of successful mediation. And it forms a habit of working together to resolve conflict that pays off with better camaraderie and decision making for years afterward.
Getting to the Best Ideas
A manager should strive for a politics-free environment. An environment where the top manager makes every decision leads to just the opposite because people will spend their time trying to convince the manager that their idea is the best. In that scenario, it’s not about the best idea carrying the day, it’s about who does the best job of lobbying the top dog. In other words, politics.
Striving for the best idea also doesn’t mean consensus. Consensus leads to “groupthink” and inferior decisions. The way to get the best ideas is to get all opinions and ideas out in the open, on the table for the group to discuss. Air the problem honestly, and make sure people have the opportunity to provide their authentic opinions, especially if they are dissenting.
To get those ideas on the table, the manager should sit down with each individual before the meeting to find out what they are thinking. This enables you to understand the different perspectives, but more importantly, it gives members of the team the chance to come into the room prepared to talk about their point of view. Discussing it with a manager helps them gather their thoughts and ideas before the broader discussion. Maybe they would all be aligned by the time they got there, maybe not, but they will have already thought through, and talked through, their own perspectives.
Getting to the right answer is important, but having the whole team get there is just as important. A good rule is for the manager—or most senior executive—to be the last person to speak every time a team discusses a decision. The manager may know the answer and they may be right, but when they just blurt it out, they have robbed the team of the chance to come together.
When the best idea doesn’t emerge, it’s time for the manager to force the decision or make it herself. A manager’s job is to break ties and make their people better: “We’re going to do it this way. Cut the shit. Done.” Failure to make a decision can be as damaging as a wrong decision. There’s indecision in business all the time, because there’s no perfect answer. Having a well-run process to get to a decision is just as important as the decision itself, because it gives the team confidence and keeps everyone moving. Making decisions with integrity means following a good process and always prioritizing what is the right thing for the business rather than any individual. Make the best decision you can. Then, when you make the call, commit to it, and expect that everyone else do so as well.
Managers should also focus on building trust. Perhaps the most important currency in a relationship—friendship, romantic, familial, or professional—is trust. It is the first thing to create if you want a relationship to be successful. If you don’t trust someone, you can’t have a relationship with them. But if you do trust them, and vice versa, that trust is the basis for all other aspects of the relationship. In most business relationships, trust takes its place alongside other factors: personal agendas, mutual exchange of value, etc. However, trust should always be first and foremost. Establish trust and honor it.
Trust is a multifaceted concept. One academic paper defines trust as “the willingness to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations about another’s behavior.” That’s a bit of an academic mouthful, but it captures the essential point that trust means people feel safe to be vulnerable. Trust means you keep your word. If you tell somebody you’re going to do something, you do it. Your word should always be good. Trust means loyalty. To each other, to your family and friends, and to your team and company. Trust means integrity. Always be honest and expect the same in return. Trust also means ability—the trust that you actually have the talent, skills, power, and diligence to accomplish what you promise. Trust also means discretion. This is very valuable to a coach who always needs to know what’s going on, but also needs to be seen by his coachees as someone who honors their privacy.
Establishing trust is a key component to building what is now called “psychological safety” in teams. Team psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It’s a team climate in which people are comfortable being themselves. The best teams are the ones with the most psychological safety. And that starts with trust. However, trust doesn’t mean you always agree. In fact, it makes it easier to disagree with someone. Teams are a network of people, learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and learning to trust each other is a primary mechanism of achieving goals.
Being a Great Listener
Being a great listener is another key trait of great managers. Listen to people with your full and undivided attention. Don’t think ahead to what you’re going to say next. Ask questions to get to the real issue. Asking questions is essential to being a great listener. People perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight. Don’t tell people what to do. Instead, ask more and more questions to get to whatever the real issue is. This form of “respectful inquiry,” where the leader asks open questions and listens attentively to the response, is effective because it heightens the “follower’s” feelings of competence (feeling challenged and experiencing mastery), relatedness (feeling of belonging), and autonomy (feeling in control and having options). Those three factors are sort of the holy trinity of the self-determination theory of human motivation.
When you listen to people, they feel valued. Mundane, almost trivial things like listening and chatting with employees are important aspects of successful leadership because “people feel more respected, visible and less anonymous, and included in teamwork. Listening well also helps to ensure that all ideas and perspectives get surfaced.
Be relentlessly honest and candid. Couple negative feedback with caring, give feedback as soon as possible, and if the feedback is negative, deliver it privately. Be transparent and don’t have a hidden agenda. Make sure there is no gap between your statements and fact. You can keep someone’s respect and loyalty while delivering tough news about their performance. Candor works well if it comes from a place of caring. Being a great boss means “saying what you really think in a way that still lets people know you care.” An important component of providing candid feedback is not to wait. This makes it more real and more authentic, but so many leaders shy away from that. Many managers wait until performance reviews to provide feedback, which is often too little, too late. Also make sure that if the feedback is critical to deliver it in private. Never embarrass someone publicly. The formula of candor plus caring works well.
You want to be supportive and demanding, holding high standards and expectations but giving the encouragement necessary to reach them. Basically, it’s tough love. It’s okay to be gruff and tough on the surface if, underneath, you have others’ best interests at heart. Great coaches give the critical feedback no one wants to hear but everyone needs to hear.
On a similar note, help people. Be generous with your time, connections, and other resources. Be an effective giver. Being an effective giver isn’t about dropping everything every time for every person. It’s about making sure that the benefits of helping others outweigh the costs to you. People who do this well are “self-protective” givers. They are generous, but they know their limits. Instead of saying yes to every request for help, they look for high-impact, low-cost ways of giving so that they can sustain their generosity—and enjoy it along the way. Do favors. Apply judgment in making sure that they are the right thing to do, and ensure that everyone will be better off as a result. Then do the favor.
It’s also important to remember that in business, layoffs and firings are inevitable, perhaps more so in the world of startups and technology. Letting people go is a failure of management, not one of any of the people who are being let go. So, it is important for management to let people leave with their heads held high. Treat them well, with respect. Be generous with severance packages. Send out a note internally celebrating their accomplishments.
It’s also a manager’s job to push the team to be more courageous. Courage is hard. People are naturally afraid of taking risks for fear of failure. It’s the manager’s job to push them past their reticence and blow confidence into people. A great manager believes you can do things, even when you’re not so sure, always pushing you to go beyond your self-imposed limits. A great manager believes you can do stuff that you don’t even believe you can do. Be the person who gives energy, not one who takes it away. This quality of constant encouragement and of being the person to give energy has been shown to be one of the most important aspects of effective coaching.
A great coach sets high standards for his coachees. He believes they can be great—greater than what they believed. This creates an aspiration for each of the coachees, and disappointment when they aren’t living up to that aspiration. A great coach sets the bar higher for coachees than they set for themselves. When you approach people with that mind-set, they respond. In summary, be the evangelist for courage. Believe in people more than they believe in themselves and push them to be more courageous.
The Team is Paramount
You can’t get anything done without a team. The team is paramount, and the most important thing to look for and expect in people is a “team-first” attitude. Teams are not successful unless every member is loyal and will, when necessary, subjugate their personal agenda to that of the team. That the team wins has to be the most important thing. Perhaps Charles Darwin said it best in his book The Descent of Man: “A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.”
As a coach of teams, you are responsible for shaping them, putting the right players in the right positions (and removing the wrong players from the wrong positions), cheering them on, and kicking them in their collective butt when they are underperforming. Further, your first instinct should always be to work on the team, not the problem. In other words, focus on the team’s dynamics, not on trying to solve the team’s particular challenges. That’s the team’s job. The coach’s job is team building, assessing people’s talents, and finding the doers. Run toward the biggest problems—the stinkers that fester and cause tension—and bring resolution by filling the gaps between people, listening, observing, and then seeking people out in behind-the-scenes conversations that bring teams together.
As managers, we tend to focus on the problem at hand. What is the situation? What are the issues? What are the options? And so on. These are valid questions, but the coach’s instinct is to lead with a more fundamental one. Who is working on the problem? Is the right team in place? Do they have what they need to succeed? “When I became CEO of Google,” Sundar Pichai says, “Bill advised me that at that level, more than ever before, you need to bet on people. Choose your team. Think much harder about that.” Work the team, then the problem. When faced with a problem or opportunity, the first step is to ensure the right team is in place and working on it.
In building the “right team”, look for four main characteristics in people. The person has to be smart, not necessarily academically but more from the standpoint of being able to get up to speed quickly in different areas and then make connections. The person has to work hard and has to have high integrity. Finally, the person should have that hard-to-define characteristic: grit. The ability to get knocked down and have the passion and perseverance to get up and go at it again. If you are creating a high-performing team and building for the future, you also need to hire for potential as well as experience. Basically, the top characteristics to look for are smarts and hearts: the ability to learn fast, a willingness to work hard, integrity, grit, empathy, and a team-first attitude.
Peer relationships should also be highly valued. An important, often overlooked, aspect of team building is developing relationships within the team. This can happen organically, but it is important enough that it should not be left to chance. Look for any opportunity to pair people up. Take a couple of people who don’t usually work together, assign them a task, project, or decision, and let them work on it on their own. This develops trust between the two people, usually regardless of the nature of the work. The deliverable matters, but what matters just as much is the opportunity for the pair of teammates to work together on something and get to know and trust each other. That is invaluable to the team’s success.
Leaders also fill the gaps between people. It happens every day: the offhand comment, the quickly drafted email or text, and people careen off in emotional directions way out of whack with reality. This is when a coach can really come in handy. A coach’s job is to see little flaws in the organization that with a little massaging they can make better. A coach listens, observes, and fills the communication and understanding gaps between people. The coach can spot those fissures before they become deep and permanent, and act to fix them by filling in the information gaps and correcting any miscommunication. This is the power of coaching in general: the ability to offer a different perspective, one unaffected by being “in the game.” A coach can see all the chess pieces all the time, because he has the luxury of not being on the board. Listen intently, watch body language, and sense mood shifts. You have to listen and watch. And while the skill of observing tension is a challenging one to develop, simply going around and talking to people is not. It simply takes time and the ability to communicate well with colleagues. It’s so easy to forget to have these little conversations in a busy day, but a great coach makes it a priority.
The essence of a successful manager is the essence of just about any sports coach: team first. All players, from stars to scrubs, must be ready to place the needs of the team above the needs of the individual. Given that commitment, teams can accomplish great things. That’s why, when faced with an issue, the first question shouldn’t be about the issue itself. It should be about the team tasked with tackling the issue. Get the team right and you’ll get the issue right.
Caring About People
Leading teams also becomes a lot more joyful when you get to know and care about people. It’s freeing. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the work of what we’re producing, and not how we’re doing it. Taking the time to understand what’s going on with an employee’s family or what motivates him is important. Make the human connection first, then approach the work with that understanding. Get to know and care about team members as people, pump them up, push and implore them, then help build momentum as they start to achieve important milestones. There are small choices like treating everyone you meet with dignity and respect. And there are bigger commitments, like taking the time to show a sincere interest in the lives of your team.
What really matters at the end of the day is how you live your life and the people in your life. A great coach treats everyone with respect, learns their names, and gives them a warm greeting. A great coach cares about their families, and his actions in this regard should speak more loudly than his words. When we get together with colleagues, we often inquire about their families. The hard thing to do in a business environment is to somehow find a way to get to know the families. Many times, this can be accomplished simply by taking the questions a few steps beyond the “how are the kids?” norm. It’s not just how is the family; it’s how did Hannah do at her latest soccer game? Which evolves into where she is thinking about college? Which evolves into some detailed and thoughtful input on where she would fit best. Develop this habit early in your career. You have to take the time to smell the roses, and the roses are your people. Recognize that. People want to talk to you about other things than just the job. Ask the questions about the family, learn people’s name, then ask more questions, then look at the pictures, and, above all, care. To care about people, you have to care about people. Ask about their lives outside of work, understand their families, and when things get rough, show up.
A great coach creates a culture of what people who study these things call “companionate” love: feelings of affection, compassion, caring, and tenderness for others. You can do this by genuinely caring about people and their lives outside of work, by cheering demonstrably for people and their successes, by building communities, and by doing favors and helping people whenever you can. Love is part of what makes a great team great.
So how does someone who isn’t so naturally inclined to love people do it? Practice. Try to remember people’s names. When you run into someone in the elevator, start up a dialogue, how’s it going, what are you working on? Go out of your way to have lunch in the cafeteria with new people. Put yourself in interactions that are not natural for you. It will make a difference. The principles outlined in this essay may not feel natural, but they can be learned. The key is pushing yourself to do it. When you’re in the elevator, passing someone in the hallways, or seeing a group from your team in the cafeteria, take a moment to stop and chat. In time, it becomes natural. Trying to develop that personal connection may not come easily, but work at it, and it will get easier.
There are things we all care about as people—love, family, money, attention, power, meaning, purpose—that are factors in any business situation. To create effective teams, you need to understand and pay attention to these human values. They are part of who we all are, regardless of our age, level, or status. A coach of teams gets to know people as people, and by doing so he can motivate them to perform as businesspeople. He understands that positive human values generate positive business outcomes. This is a connection that too many business leaders ignore. It is counterintuitive in the business world, but essential to success. The world faces many challenges, and they can only be solved by teams. Those teams need coaches.