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How to develop good managing skills
Harvard Business School Press

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December 12, 2007

Good managers use coaching skills as part of their repertoire. The focus is on cooperation and facilitation of the other person's development. Coaching involves crating a comfortable environment where action plans can be developed together.

To become the most effective coach possible, work on mastering the following skills:

"I never could figure out why people didn't seem to follow my advice much. When I started to learn about the true art of coaching, it became painfully clear that my brilliance was failing on deaf ears because I hadn't done a bit of inquiry to learn what they were thinking, what they'd already tried, what their biggest priority was. Inquiry has made all the difference. It turns out most people want less advice but more opportunity to explore their own thinking with a caring coach who is paying attention." -- PattyMcManus, consultant, Interaction Associates

Tip: Those who coach regularly, coach better. Find opportunities to develop your coaching skills

Listen actively

As a coach you need to be tuned into the other person's feelings and motivations. You do this through active listening. Active listening encourages communication and puts other people at ease. Active listening also clarifies what's been said to avoid misunderstanding. As an active listener, give the coachee your full attention by following guidelines:

What Would you Do? No Sign of Change

As Paula Sat through Tony's presentation, bored as a rock, the sad truth slowly dawned on her. He was making the same mistakes now that he had been making six months ago! His nose was buried in his notes. He was droning on and on, and he had not incorporated a single visual into the entire presentation! Yet they had spoken about his need to work on this very skill.

Tony had told her that public speaking was something he just couldn't do. Paula had assured him that with hard work and practice he could do it. He believed her and he kept trying. So why, then, was he still so bad at it? Was there something more she could do to help him improve?

Tip: Coach your direct reports; don't play psychologist. It's not appropriate and you are probably not qualified.

Ask questions

Asking questions is a valuable tool for understanding the other person and determining his or her perspective. Use both open-ended and close-ended questions. Each yields a different response.

Notice how this manager asks open-ended questions to uncover the employee's perspectives, listens actively to what is said, and then checks for understanding.

Ilka: Gonzalo, how do you feel the project is going?

Gonzalo: Pretty well. We're on schedule.

Ilka nods her head.

Gonzalo: But it's tight. There's no room to spare.

Ilka: Because�?

Gonzalo: Because when Jenna left, no one was hired to replace her.

Ilka: And because you've lost one person�?

Gonzalo: It's going to be really hard to meet the deadline.

Ilka: Are you saying that you'll deliver on time, but it will be difficult? Or that you may not be able to meet the deadline?

Gonzalo: Well, I think we can make the deadline, but there is a chance we might miss it.

Ilka: And if we want to be sure to finish on time�?

Gonzalo: We'd need more help.

Ilka: Perhaps we could look into getting some temporary help.

Tip: Ask a lot of open questions

Most managers ask too few.

Ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions invite participation and idea sharing. Use them to:

When you want to find out more about the other person's motivations and feelings, think of open-ended questions. Though this type of questioning you can uncover your coache's true concerns. This, in turn, will help you formulate better advice and ideas about how you can help her.

Use close-ended questions carefully. Close-ended questions lead to "yes" or "no" answers. Use them to:

Advocate for your opinions

Effective coaches offer their ideas and advice in such a way that the person receiving it can hear them, respond to them, and consider their value. It is important to advocate for your opinions in a clear and balanced way.

Your collaboration with the coachee will be most successful if you use both inquiry and advocacy in your communications. Over-reliance on inquiry can result in the participants' withholding important information and positions. Conversely, if you emphasize advocacy too heavily, you create a controlling atmosphere that can undermine the coaching partnership.

Give feedback as a coach

Feedback differs from advocacy in that you are responding to a specific behavior or action rather than presenting and arguing your position on the overall problem or need for change. Giving and receiving feedback is a critical part of managing in general, but it is an especially important part of coaching. This give-and-take goes on throughout the coaching process as you identify issues to work on, develop action plans together, and assess the follow-through.

When giving feedback -- whether positive or negative -- try to do the following:

Focus on behavior -- not character, attitudes, or personality: Describe the other person's behavior and its effect on projects and/or coworkers. Avoid judgmental language, which only makes people defensive. For example, instead of saying, "You're rude and domineering," say, "I observed that you interrupted Fred several times during each of our last three meetings."

Be specific: Avoid generalizations. Instead of saying, "You did a really good job," you could say, "The transparencies you used for your presentation were effective in getting the message across."

Be sincere: Give feedback with the clear intent of helping the person improve.

Be realistic: Focus on factors that the other person can control.

Give feedback early and often in the coaching process: Frequent feedback that is delivered soon after the fact is more effective than infrequent feedback.

"Good coaches have coaches of their own. I can remember one time when I received timely and exquisite coaching. My boss gave me feedback about a self-defeating communication habit I'd gotten into. Because she was compassionate, caring, and clear as a bell in her description, I was able to see exactly what she was talking about and explore why I was caught in this pattern. I was then able to shift my style and get the kind of results I intended."
-- Patty McManus, consultant

Receive feedback as a coach

You also need to be open to feedback on how effective you are as a coach. Coaches who are able to request and process feedback about themselves learn more about the effectiveness of their management styles and create greater trust among members of their groups. To improve you ability to receive feedback:

Ask for specific information. For example, "What did I say that made you think I wasn't interested in your proposal?" or "How were my suggestions helpful to you?"

When you ask for clarification, do so in a way that doesn't put the other person on the defensive. Instead of saying, "What do you mean I seemed hostile to your idea?" say, "Could you give me an example?"

Be willing to receive both negative and positive feedback.

Encourage the other person to avoid emotion-laden terms. For example, "You said that I am often inflexible. Give me an example of things I do that give you the sense that I am not flexible."

Don't be defensive. Only justify your actions if asked. Tell the other person when you've gotten all the feedback you can effectively process.

Thank the person for being willing to share feedback with you, both positive and negative. This will improve trust and model productive behavior to the person you are coaching.

Building agreement

Agreements are the foundation of coaching. You build agreements in the beginning as you commit to working together, and throughout your relationship as you pursue the coaching objectives. The agreement process includes all the above activities from initially recognizing the need for coaching to observing to listening actively to one another and collaboratively coming to agreement about the issues and resolutions.

There has to be agreement between the coach and the coachee for the coaching process to work. However, agreement can range from skeptical acceptance to wholehearted involvement. When your coachee sees progress being made on changing behavior or building skills, then agreement will become easier to achieve.

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Copyright 2006 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. 

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