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Ten tips on coaching your staff

I was very fortunate to sit next to Ben Hunt-Davis at a dinner last week. Ben is an Olympic gold medallist for rowing, with an inspirational story for both the sporting world (as we prepare for 2012) and for business.
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Ben, having failed to win medals at the two previous Olympics, was faced with the most important race of his career at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Against all the odds, he and his crew of eight were the first British winners of the event since 1912.

What resonated for me was the way he explained it.

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Firstly, to paraphrase, the team (and their coaches) recognised that “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. To win, they’d have to change their game plan.

Secondly, they needed single-minded focus. The team was only allowed to spend their time on activities that answered the question “Will it make the boat go faster?” If it didn’t make the boat go faster, they didn’t do it.

To put this into context, replace the word “boat” with “business”.

It’s clear that managers can improve team performance by investing time in coaching and inspiring mental perseverance.

Yet so often in business, this just doesn’t happen. So what’s the excuse?

Everybody is so task focused, they don’t get around to it. I regularly ask our managers how much time they feel they should be spending, at the very minimum, coaching their teams. If they’re not doing enough, I suggest they ruthlessly block that time in their diaries and re-prioritise the urgent but less-important activities. It’s tough and painful to do this in practice, but how else can you get the best performance out of your people?

So my top ten tips on smarter coaching are as follows:

1. If you manage people, treat coaching as one of your top priorities.
2. Ask open questions (what, how, when, who, why, where?) to encourage/challenge innovative thinking.
3. Don’t respond to problems until your team have identified some solutions and recommended their preferred one.
4. Encourage personal accountability, perseverance and pride in ownership of a project/challenge/task.
5. Don’t just give tasks without guidance on what you expect the result to look like. Offer feedback/support along the way.
6. When collaborating as a team (rather than acting alone), we almost always deliver the best result. Mentors can help, too.
7. Encourage staff to focus on the few things that matter the most, or what I call “ruthless prioritisation”.
8. Wherever possible, have a Plan B or contingency plan in case Plan A doesn’t work.
9. Communication is only effective when you’ve checked that your message has been received and understood as you originally intended. Otherwise your effort is wasted.
10. Listen and learn from your people. Remember, you don’t have all the answers.

… and finally, thank your team for a job well done.

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