Mentoring and coaching lessons are plentiful when it comes to teaching employees. The question we put to our panel of HR experts is, in short: What about coaching management? Too often, managers don’t know what to look for or what to do when they see an issue developing. HR spends excessive amounts of time on issues that might have been avoided altogether if the manager involved had had management coaching on how to identify issues earlier. We wanted to know how HR can help managers recognize issues and call attention to them sooner.
Developing coaching techniques for managers
In trying to uncover some tips on how to coach managers, we asked our panel the following question:
“How do you coach managers to be more aware so that you’re not putting out so many manager-created fires?”
We specifically asked how they would do this in the face of reluctance on the side of management and executives. Here’s how they responded.
Kate: We need to do two things. First, we need to line the backs of managers’ brains with bells. This means giving them enough information to know when they need to talk to us in HR. The bells need to ding whenever they hear things like “uncomfortable,” “sick,” “cancer,” “boob,” “baby,” “illegal,” “hostile,” “accident,” and “died.” When a manager hears these words, they need to know that we’re here to help and handling this alone might be a problem. So, we gotta train managers, reinforce our roles as partners, and give them the support they need. When they get this support, they’ll know when a fire is truly a fire and maybe even prevent some.
Second, we have to give managers the space and time to actually manage. Managing people is hard—like, really, really hard. People ask for our trust and compassion, so managers need to be able take the time to build trust, starting conversations off with questions like, “How are things going?” and, “How can I help?” These questions foster important dialogue on all sorts of topics, including performance, engagement, culture, and productivity. And, probably most important, they help identify the fires before we’re at four-alarm status. “
Tammy: As with many HR related issues, helping leadership to grow and develop is a key skill for the career human resources professional. Utilizing coaching techniques and methods of persuasion are vital to success in this area. The use of business analytics and business case should be at the crux of the argument if you are looking for buy-in from a pure ROI perspective.
The conceptual acceptance of coaching, like many initiatives which can be perceived as “soft” or “HR-y” must come from the top. Developing champions can assist with convincing senior leadership if needed. For mid-level management, getting them to accept coaching must come from an HR/leadership partner initiative: explaining the business reasons for behavioral change to someone in the group and then asking their assistance to champion a cultural change that is needed. For an individual, direct is generally the best, particularly when the stage is set from leadership that a particular business practice is a requirement, not a suggestion.
Jon: Too often, people are promoted into management because they are strong individual contributors; however, they aren’t given the tools and training to be effective leaders. It’s important that managers understand that not everyone goes to work for the same reasons they do, that people may need to be managed in different ways, and that it’s critical to address performance issues thoroughly and promptly. I encourage managers to be visible, listen actively to their employees, and follow up and follow through on commitments they make to them. If it’s a manager that’s been promoted or transitioned into an existing leadership role, I believe in holding a team “hand-off” session where the new manager lays out their expectations, vision, and level set with the team to make that transition a bit smoother.
Tamara: When facing difficulty getting coaching buy-in (usually due to time or budget constraints or denial that it is actually needed), you have to get creative. This can include having individual conversations with managers instead of group sessions. It can also include providing information and resources via email and/or newsletter. It may also help to provide managers and execs with data/feedback from employees showing what the consistent deficiencies are and why coaching is needed and will be beneficial to retention, which also impacts the bottom line. It’s cheaper to provide coaching/training than to constantly have to fill positions because people are leaving due to poor management.
Katrina: Create an onboarding program for managers before they can make their first hire. I like this strategy for a few reasons:
First, the reality is that most (if not all) managers have never taken a course in being a great manager. That just doesn’t exist widely outside of MBA programs or doctorates in organizational psychology. Build one based on your values, your process and your strategies. It MUST be custom to you—how they work with you. Teach them how you operate and how recruiting works, big picture. Most importantly, make it a standard education step before someone can become a manager or make a hire.
Bigger picture, not only does this create better relationships from the start for hiring managers and talent teams, it also brings the value of education to life and will create a lasting impact on hiring teams. Employees will go to their next three companies talking about their management training with pride.
Sarah: Coaching is better than correction. Providing positive feedback and sincere suggestions for improvement early and often yields more success, better outcomes, and stronger relationships than any corrective action or progressive discipline ever will. Managers generally understand this, so getting them to buy in is not difficult. Teaching them how to coach and how to document coaching conversations in non-threatening ways is the hard part. There are great, simple methods I share with them to help in this area.
Steve: When managers feel that they’re constantly putting out fires, they aren’t being effective. If they feel their only purpose is to solve inevitable problems, they’re behind and it’s a negative approach to work. I think HR (who also falls into this trap) needs to turn the tide and be proactive in their efforts. There are three ways to do this:
(1) HR has to be proactive itself and model the behavior they want to see from managers. You can’t preach to them about being proactive if you aren’t proactive yourself.
(2) Expect the best in others all the time. Instead of looking for what’s wrong, step back and see what’s going well and build on that. Focus on the strengths of what people offer instead of trying to “fix” their gaps and weaknesses.
(3) Allow people to perform. This is a proactive approach because you’re giving people permission to do their jobs and do them well. People will rise to the expectations others have of them. They always do!!
Carlos: “I feel like I spend all my time putting out fires.” That sentiment, or some combination thereof, is shared by many managers. They find themselves caught up in a storm of troubles, each constituting a tax on their time, each commanding attention, and each draining their capacity to lead their teams.
To fight fires is one thing; preventing them or addressing them when they are still small enough to be managed, however, is work worth pursuing.
Here are three ways to do just that:
1. Have Regular Check-Ins
Often, the fires managers face come about because early signals were missed. To help prevent this, managers should set a schedule for regular check-ins with their direct reports.
Regular check-ins create a cadence for direct reports and managers, allowing for both parties to communicate on a consistent schedule that helps dialog get beyond the most pressing needs of the day to long-term planning and forecasting. When communication gets to the latter, it helps the team foresee and (ideally) plan to address challenges as they arise proactively.
Without regular check-ins, employees can’t predict when the next opportunity to communicate with their manager will arise, thus making EVERY communication one of urgency. Urgency crowds out the types of rational decision-making and planning that help managers prevent or address fires before they get out of control.
Set a schedule. Tell your team to be prepared to talk about current and emerging issues, and work together towards addressing them.
2. Relationship Building
Often, the people we spend most of our days with are a bit of a mystery to us. We work with people, human beings that are infinitely complex with incredible talents and abilities, and yet our interactions with them are often centered around the specific tasks and duties of a job description.
We have to get to know the people we work with, and managers need to know enough about the people that report to them to be able to add human context to day-to-day interactions. It’s not that every employee needs to know everything about everyone else; it’s that work relationships based on mutual respect and trust make for incredibly effective teams.
Want to avoid getting overwhelmed by day-to-day troubles? Know your people and help them know each other. People who have a shared interest in one another and the work they do look out for one another and have an inherent stake in building a better team and organization.
3. Planning and Preparation
Every manager knows that planning and preparation are key to their success. Most, however, don’t emphasize it enough at the team level; that is, they don’t set an expectation that the people who report to them should spend an equal amount of time on the key tasks of planning and preparation as they do.
Frontline employees aren’t always expected to plan, but this type of work can’t be left to managers alone. Every employee has a responsibility to plan their day and week and to do the work of preparing to accomplish the most impactful tasks facing them.
Managers should encourage and expect their direct reports to do so, not only because it will help the manager focus more on the big picture, but because it’s an essential skill and practice that empowers everyone on the team to identify and address fires as they arise.
Every manager and every team deserves a chance to do the work that they do best. It’s not only good for the people doing the work; it’s good business.
Fighting fires might always be a part of the work a manager and leader does. Being unprepared or blindsided by them, however, doesn’t have to be. The key is to work on the areas that prevent them from happening in the first place.
Join us next time…
We hope you found these management coaching insights valuable. Be sure to follow the blog to catch our next panel question, and in the meantime, here’s some relevant reading to further hone your skills and boost your knowledge of HR best practices.
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