Effective Coaching

Recently I was asked to give a small talk about what I think it takes to coach effectively, and want to share those thoughts here.

Effective January 1, I was promoted to Software Engineering Manager at Healthwise. That said, even though I have not been in this role at Healthwise very long, I’ve been able to work with several different teams and have been able to coach them to greater software development abilities.

The best experience I’ve ever had was to sit down and pair program with a senior level developer. We did not do pair programming in the way that it is defined today. We had two separate workstations set up right next to each other at a very large desk. Sean would assign me tasks to do, and after the task was completed we would go through and review what I had done. This was great for my confidence, because occassionally I did things right. A lot of times though, Sean would be able to point out areas that things could have been differently and I would learn from that. As time went on, those tasks became more and more significant, until ultimately, we would end up bouncing ideas off of each other. Interestingly enough, four years later, with both of us at different employers, we still bounce ideas off of each other.

Im reminded of an old proverb that says if you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day; if you teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime. Ive noticed that in my experience with coaching people that there are two distinct personalities at play. There are people who want to learn how to fish, and there are people that just want to be given fish.

When working with the group that wants to learn how to fish, I think there are two things that absolutely need to be present for the coaching to be effective. The first is passion. That passion has to originate from the person that is doing the coaching. When you are passionate about something, you will actively seek out knowledge in that area. Having that knowledge will put you in a much better position to teach someone else about that area.

I love to develop software, and because of that, Im constantly seeking out new technologies or better ways to do things. Learning about these things helps me to teach others. Recently, I developed a passion for photography. Again, because of that passion Im going out and learning everything I possibly can about photography. While Im far from an expert, I know that Im able to coach someone on how to take a nice picture. I know that Im able to talk to them about f/stops and apertures. Conversely, I dont have a passion for things like water ballet or line dancing. I’ll never be able to effectively coach someone on how to do those things.

Teamwork is another key aspect to coaching people. One of the things I always like to do is put people together and keep everyone informed about whats going on. People tend to absorb information this way.

Within every team, there is this symbolic “bar”, a level of expectation. Most people tend to do just enough to maintain the level that is expected of them. However, in most teams, you have a few people that tend to rise above that expectation. Because that person rises above the expectation, the level is actually raised. When that expectation is raised, again people will do what they need to do to achieve that expectation.

You can use coaching as a team-building excercise. If I think back to the experience that I had with Sean when we were pairing up, not only did we build a comraderie, we also built up the quality of our team. His sitting with me and spending time helping me get to where I wanted to be was of value for the team, and ultimately the organization. Like I found out, the education that I received while working with him increased my confidence in being able to accomplish my tasks in the best way possible. This confidence from any person is not only invaluable, but it slowly helps to raise the teams level of expecation that was previously discussed.

I’ve talked about the people that want to learn to fish, and did say that there are some people that just want to be given fish. I’m reminded of a Stephen Covey quote which says, “Those convinced against their will are of the same opinion still”. If you are forcing someone to go through a coaching episode that doesnt want to be coached, youre not going to get maximum benefit out of that. So, I tend to spend the time with the people that want to learn to fish, and look to the level of expectation of the team to bring the others to where they need to be. Obviously, sometimes this doesnt work, and people stay where they are at. At this point, you probably need to look at other options outside of coaching.

In summation, keep in mind that when coaching anyone make sure that you utilize teamwork and passion. If the person truly wants to learn, you will be amazed with the results.