5 tips for improved coaching skills

Help your employees gain the skills they need to succeed

By Dave Berube September 15, 2014
Over the course of numerous engagements with clients, I see leaders at all levels of the organization struggle with successfully coaching employees. To become an effective leader, you must be an effective coach. Great leaders who are effective coaches can inspire and motivate employees, laying the foundation for the organization’s next generation of leaders.

While traveling around the world, I have enjoyed the opportunity to work with some world-class leaders. These leaders, all well respected by employees, exhibited some common behaviors when guiding the workforce.

I’m going to focus on the five critical behaviors that were exhibited by these effective leaders. If you add these tips to your coaching toolbox, it will help you become a better coach, hence a better leader for your most valuable asset—your employees.


Leadership requires accountability. Who owns employee development? Take a look in the mirror. Coaching isn’t about fixing your employee, it’s about employee development and that owner is you. In an October 2013 article in Forbes magazine titled “8 Ways to Spot Great Leadership,” the author discussed how great leaders are willing to take the hit. He stated that “people do expect leaders to be transparent and accountable. Accepting responsibility for your actions, or the actions of your team makes you honorable and trustworthy.”

When our employees make bad decisions (or even worse, make no decision), avoid taking responsibility, or fail to meet expectations, we need to understand that their failure is our failure. The takeaway should be this: Your people are your mirror. They are a reflection of you. If you don’t like what you see, start with fixing yourself.

Great expectations

One of the most critical activities in effective coaching is setting expectations. Expectations should be extremely clear, never fuzzy or vague. Employees must know exactly what is expected of them. An example of a fuzzy goal I often hear is around meeting production goals. There is an old saying, “be careful what you ask for or you just might get it.

So, when asking your employees to “achieve production goals,” does this mean it is OK to hit the goal even if it’s achieved in an unsafe manner? Do production costs matter? Do costs related to equipment damage and repair matter? How about overtime? Be careful what you ask for because your employees are likely to give it to you. 

Effective coaches ensure that there is clear alignment between actions, outcomes, and accountability. One tool that can be used to assist with this alignment is your company’s performance evaluation system. Without this alignment, employees can stray from the path of goal achievement. Set expectations and revisit goals regularly to ensure continuity and alignment of team efforts toward a common vision.

Go to the Gemba

Gemba is a term often heard in businesses practicing Lean manufacturing. It is a Japanese term meaning "the real place." In a manufacturing setting, the Gemba is the factory floor. The important element of the word Gemba to understand is that it is not in your office! Don’t coach from your office. The best coaching occurs face-to-face, in the field. Don’t meet the employee in your office, go to his or hers. If the employee works in the field, meet the employee where he or she works. If you were to compare this to a sports team, the general manager is usually found in the office, while the coach is found on the field.

A second piece of the Gemba philosophy is related to a phrase often used in the military: “Inspect what you expect.” If I set expectations of my employees, I should “go see” for myself and look for evidence that they are meeting expectations. A third, often-missed, aspect of being in the Gemba is visibility. Leaders at all levels underestimate the level of influence that they posses. The mere presence of a leader can inspire and motivate people. Active leadership is critical to team development, and leadership presence cannot be delegated.

Elicit comprehensive answers with open-ended questions

A critical success factor in being a good coach is being a good listener. Practice active listening. Ask questions and listen, but be sure to ask the right questions (good questions). Are you asking yes/no questions or open-ended questions? Remember that the goal of your questioning is to create a dialogue. You are guiding the conversation, not controlling it. Confirm understanding. Ask questions and ensure what you said is not only heard but also understood.

Be cautious about enabling

While being the solver of all problems might be extremely effective and efficient in achieving results in the short term, in the long run it creates a weaker team through learned helplessness. Too often I’ve worked with organizations that are unable to function when the boss isn’t there to tell them what to do. Remember that every problem is a learning opportunity. Don’t short-circuit the learning process in a rush to the solution.

Allow the employee to create his or her own solution. Provide guidance and insight, but the solution must be owned by the employee, which results in the greatest buy-in for an idea. With great practice and time you will develop a confident, capable, and competent team.

One of the best ways we can demonstrate active leadership is through effective coaching and development of our employees. Great leaders who are effective coaches can inspire and motivate their employees to become great leaders themselves. When we enable our employees to excel and succeed, it is a reflection of our own success. Truly effective leaders are able to create great teams that excel at cooperation, communication, and collaboration—teams that deliver exceptional results.

Dave Berube is a principal consultant for Life Cycle Engineering (LCE). You can reach Dave at dberube@LCE.com.