Huddle Up!

Hey, coach! No, your employees don't need a swift kick in the butt to reach their goals; they just need some personal attention.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the December 1999 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Most managers just don't know how to coach. They don't even see development of their people as their responsibility. But when you do develop your employees, they'll be willing to walk through brick walls for you. That's how powerful a motivator coaching is." So says Jeff Lugerner, a vice president at the Growth and Leadership Center, an executive development firm in Mountain View, California.

How will employees get to their next level of performance? Proactive owners and managers know the only reliable way is to provide individual employees with a boost by offering the coaching--disciplined, one-on-one counseling--they need to learn the path to take and the how-to of overcoming the obstacles they'll find along the way.

What's more, today's low unemployment rate means you have to do something to help your employees because you probably can't hire new ones--"at least, you can't do it easily," says Janelle Brittain, executive director of Dynamic Performance Institute, a consulting firm in Chicago that specializes in coaching and team-building. So if you want better workers, nowadays you've got to help make them yourself.

Robert McGarvey writes on business, psychology and management topics for several national publications. To reach him online with your questions or comments, e-mail

Go, Team

Are you a good coach? Don't be too quick to nod in the affirmative. Entrepreneurs, say the experts, often come into coaching with several strikes against them. "You can't do this if you have a need to be right; you must be open-minded," says Cheryl Richardson, former president of the International Coach Federation and author of Take Time for Your Life: A Personal Coach's Seven Step Program for Creating the Life You Want (Broadway Books). Of course entrepreneurs are strong-willed--that's part of the package--and that means you may have to work extra hard to coach right.

Strike two is that the surest way to derail even well-meaning coaching is by not committing the time needed, says Richardson. Time-pressed entrepreneurs, she says, are notorious for letting coaching meetings slip off their calendars. But even good intentions won't produce results if you don't commit the time.

"For coaching to bring benefits, you've got to be patient," says Chuck Popovich, a business professor at Robert Morris College in Moon Township, Pennsylvania. "You won't see results in 45 seconds."

Strike three is the fact that many entrepreneurs feel they have to act like a cop to successfully coach. Rich Russakoff, president of Bottom Line Consultants in Richmond, Virginia, and a coach for owners of small and mid-sized businesses, explains: "Too often, coaching happens only as a way to criticize an employee. But that's not being a coach; it's being a cop. A cop focuses on the past and finds fault. A coach focuses on the future and looks at past behavior only to find better ways to perform in the future. But many entrepreneurs think they're coaching when they're simply being cops."

Have you struck out? Even if you have, don't despair, because the coaching experts are quick to offer up the tips you need to coach more efficiently and effectively.

Getting Started

Where do you begin? "Formalize the relationship," says Lugerner. Coaching doesn't happen on the fly; it's a methodical approach to employee development. "Tell the employee `I want to meet with you regularly to help develop you and your career path.'"

How often you meet depends on the employee. For some employees, a weekly session is a must; for others, once a month is adequate. The time required varies, too. With some workers, a 15-minute session is plenty, while others will require half an hour, maybe longer.

Which employees should receive coaching? "All your people need it," says Lugerner. "Coaching is how we all get better." In a very small business, that means it's your job to make regular time for every worker. In bigger companies, other managers can take on some of the coaching (with you coaching the managers). If it sounds like a lot of time, remember: Your benefit in this is an ever-improving work force--which translates into mounting productivity and profitability. So the payoffs are real.

The next step in effective coaching is to set an agenda. "You need to establish a checklist of to-dos and benchmarks for progress," says Lugerner. That doesn't mean you do all the work, but, by working with the employee in the initial coaching session, the two of you establish goals as well as criteria for measuring progress toward those goals and a timetable for reaching them.

When you set goals and benchmarks, "suggest, don't tell," Lugerner advises. "Telling [your employees what to do is] coaching in a hurry. It doesn't get results."

If you limit your role to making suggestions, you'll put more of the work in your employee's hands--hands that may actually be more suited for the particular task than yours. Say you want the employee who handles shipping to reduce errors by 25 percent. You may not have many concrete ideas about how to accomplish that goal, but the employee who does the work will have dozens of ideas. So use the first coaching session to consider all the options available, and, still working with the employee, pick out the best ideas of the lot and find a place for them on that worker's to-do list.

Let The Coaching Begin

Once you've set an agenda, complete with a to-do list, goals and a timetable, it's time to get down to actually coaching the employee. Although individual sessions will vary, there are a few hard and fast rules to keep in mind:

  • "Make sure you do more listening than talking," says Brittain. "A rule of thumb is that the coach should listen 60 percent of the time."

Popovich agrees. "One thing I see in so many managers is a lack of listening skills," he says, "but those are skills you need to develop to coach effectively."

  • Let the employee do most of the problem-solving. When the employee says, "Well, I have a problem because . . ." don't jump in with solutions. Instead, ask "What are some possible ways you know to solve the problem?" Coaching is helping an employee do his or her job better, not doing the job yourself.

"Managers are too quick to offer solutions, but that doesn't develop their employees," says Richardson. "Challenge your people to solve their own problems--with your help--and they probably will."

  • "Protect the employee's self-esteem," urges Popovich. "Be honest in what you're saying, but also watch what you're saying. Don't come across as too critical." Employees, he adds, are just like you--under a lot of stress--which means everyone involved is hypersensitive. But your employee can't do a better job without believing that he or she can do it, and letting a few offhanded critical words slip can undermine that.
  • Tailor your coaching sessions to the individual. "Coaching is one-on-one, and it takes into account the personality and skills of the individual employee," says Popovich. Make sure you have a clear idea of what the employee's strengths and weaknesses are before you begin trying to coach that person.

What should you do as the coaching starts to take hold and the employee begins to actually produce better results? "Recognize, recognize, recognize," says Brittain. "Recognition is a powerful motivational tool that isn't used nearly enough."

But don't just say "Good job." That's only a start. To make the recognition more powerful you have to be specific. "The more exact you are about why you're offering praise and recognition, the more likely you are to see that positive behavior strengthened," says Brittain.

Coaching may sound like harder work than you imagined, but the results are likely to be well worth the effort. "If you know the skills it takes and come into it with patience, you can do it," says Russakoff.

Brittain adds that there's a sweet benefit in coaching for any boss who puts in the effort. "It's a marvelous feeling to watch somebody grow and know that you contributed," he says. "It's very rewarding to be a good coach."

Contact Sources

Bottom Line Consultants, (804) 741-5771,

Dynamic Performance Institute, (888) 262-8686,

Growth and Leadership Center, (650) 966-1144,

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