This year’s Olympics got us thinking: how do we as coaches and leaders become coaches who elicit greatness in others? A study of the coach-athlete relationships that yield successful performance, released by the Canadian Olympic Committee in 2010, has some findings worth adapting to the coaching of corporate performers. Authored by Penny Werthener, an Olympic athlete herself, the reports reveals that, to produce champions, coaches must deliver in five critical areas:
- Help the athlete cultivate self-awareness.
- Build a strong coach-athlete relationship.
- Create an optimal training environment.
- Provide financial and other support systems.
- Manage the Olympic environment.
Of these key contributions, Number two was cited as “the most crucial factor in winning an Olympic Medal or producing a personal best performance.”
In the corporate milieu, we can leverage these findings to encourage strong showings among our employees. Our experience suggests that as a manager/coach, you can help your employees live up to their promise by adapting the five Olympic coaching principles in the following ways:
Build your employee’s development plan on her natural talents and interests. Truly get to know the employee you are charged with developing, from her temperament to her motivators. Work with each individual to encourage honest self-assessment of her strengths and areas of challenge. Resist the urge to create development targets based solely on the needs of your organization. Rather, be creative and think of how you can get the best out of your employee while still fulfilling corporate needs. Stars are built on strengths, not on remediation of weaknesses. What really excites and interests your employee? How does she like to be rewarded? How does she like to be challenged? How can you help her become a star?
Create a relationship of trust and respect. This is the foundation of all of the work you will do together; without it, both of you are on shaky ground. Demonstrate the willingness to listen and an open mind to hearing whatever is shared. Create a pattern of honest, two-way communication. Don’t be afraid to show weaknesses and be who you are. Authenticity is key to building trust and respect. And remember: good coaches win by creating winners. Be willing to “share” your coaching role with others as needed: leverage your vantage point as coach by pulling in additional individuals who have expertise you may lack but your employee needs.
Audit your employee’s world at work. Is he connected to key players who can help him? Does he know what their motivators are and how he can influence them? Does his role encourage visibility that can propel his career? Are there individuals in the organization who are less than helpful in advancing his agenda? What changes in his work content, setting or other variables would integrate her development goals into her daily work life? Play an active role in helping to create a context that primes the pump for your corporate athlete to succeed.
Remove obstacles to success. Is there time in her schedule to devote to pursuing her development? Are there financial resources to underwrite her efforts (and is she aware of them?) What other obstacles might preclude her successfully executing on the plan that you and she have co-created? Your job as coach is to clear the decks so that your employee can focus on working on—not getting access to—the development she needs; it is also a vote of confidence if you articulate your willingness to ensure that she has the requisite resources.
Provide the perspective on the organization that your employee can’t possibly see from her position. It’s a simple organizational truth: some things can only be seen from sufficient height. An important element of coaching is one ring out from simply communicating good information: helping your employee to see the organization in new, more sophisticated ways is a key component of “value added” coaching activity. Your knowledge of key players and organizational history and politics is truly valuable. But your ability to help your employee learn to make sense of your organization in new ways or to reframe her understanding of his situation in the company so that he sees new alternatives and strategies—that is invaluable. In fact, that’s true development.
We had lessons we took home. Firstly, that winners are born in difficult times. Second, that sports coaches are really tough on their athletes, but they never stop believing in them. In our experience, this is just as valuable in organizational settings, but sadly not always practiced. How many of us walk in to the office and exude a genuine belief in the success of our employees … and that we are committed to helping them get there? There have been numerous articles written about how difficult it is to manage the new generation of employees and managers (Millenials/Gen Y), but at the heart of it, is it not this authentic belief and dedication to the betterment of not only the company but also the individual and society that’s challenging traditional management thinking and practice?
One final lesson from the study of coaching winning Olympians relates not only to what the coach does, but how she does it. And, in a wonderful turnabout, this behavior will encourage coaches themselves to stretch and develop. Good coaches don’t shoot from the hip. They are thoughtful and deliberate about their style in a given situation. To do this, they must capitalize on their understanding of the employee they are coaching, and communicate with them in the way that will be most effective at conveying their message. One scenario may benefit from a directive approach, another from self-revealing sharing. Or inspiration may be what’s required. Ultimately, the coach needs to make this call, and to do so effectively, she must be able to get outside herself and view the situation through the eyes of the person she’s coaching. In this area, great corporate coaches and great Olympic coaches must be similar: they must truly know and understand the individuals they seek to coach.
By Marcie Schorr Hirsch and Therese S. Kinal
Harvard Business Review