What a Mama Bird and Manager (Should) Have in Common

I'm pretty sure that truly avid birdwatchers would never claim me among their numbers. I don't go birding. I can't distinguish a flycatcher from a phoebe, nor a robin's call from that of a house wren. But I feed birds in my back yard, and I enjoy watching their comings and goings.

One sunny, early August morning as I sat at the dining room window with my first cup of coffee, the birds – chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, finches and cardinals — were unusually active.

Perhaps you can imagine why I sat contentedly watching. And those of you from Minnesota, of course, know why we take pleasure in a morning like this. Winter with its blustery snows and frigid temperatures is right around the bend!

But I digress. I want to tell you about how the parent downy woodpeckers were teaching their young ones to fly and feed themselves.

The clumsy juveniles couldn't land on the feeder, so they impatiently hopped on the deck railing nearby begging for food. Obligingly, their parents popped peanuts into their open bills. At the same time, however, the adults coerced their young ones to try, try again to get to the feeder on their own. They bribed them with peanuts, and coached them through encouragement and by example to find a way to reach the goal of feeding themselves.

A few days later, the juveniles were as adept as their parents in flying and feeding, and they were on their own. It took patience and perseverance, but the parents had succeeded.

It occurred to me then, that the best managers in business are a lot like parent downy woodpeckers. They coach rather than manage.

Now bear with me as I attempt to explain the difference between managing and coaching. The differences are subtle, but important.

When managing, a person generally identifies and stresses solutions, and gives his employees overall direction. He is the expert. He tells people what to do.

Coaching, on the other hand, is helping employees discover their own answers. It means teaching employees how to perform their jobs, rather than telling them what to do.

Indeed teaching independent thinking is the cornerstone to coaching.

Managers who coach work with employees so those employees can make changes in order to achieve a particular goal or develop specific skills. Further, they successfully find the weaknesses within each of their players and then help their employees develop weaknesses into strengths.

Coaching requires patience, adaptability and knowledge of the business — just ask the mama and papa downy woodpeckers.

Successful businesses are increasingly turning to coaching techniques in developing employees. Indeed, according to the 2010 Executive Coaching Survey conducted by the Conference Board, 63 percent of organizations use some form of internal coaching and half the rest plan to.

Managers are the office coaches. Are your managers coaching as well as they could?

Tips: Seven Guidelines to Help You Coach for Improved Work Performance

Businesses dismiss employees all the time for poor performance. But consider this: Perhaps these employees are not reaching their full potential because their managers are unable to coach.

Here are seven guidelines to help you or your managers coach successfully in your business:

1) Make sure an employee understands the performance you expect for a job. Try to describe desired performance in terms of the results you expect. Also describe what good performance looks like by providing concrete examples of good work, if possible.

2) Make sure your employee understands why it is important to the business for him to perform well.

3) Review an employee's past performance and point out areas where she must improve. Use constructive feedback as much as possible in this process.

4) Ask for the employee's view. Why or where does his performance fail to meet standards? Does he believe there's a problem?

5) Discuss possible solutions. What does your employee think she might do? Ask her to develop steps to solve the problem. This will create a sense of ownership in the solution.

6) Use the employee's steps — or if your employee is unable to develop steps, use steps you develop — to devise an action plan with specific goals and timetables for meeting those goals. You and your employee should agree to this action plan. Make sure you both have copies of the plan.

7) Follow up. Provide constructive feedback on how the employee does. Offer suggestions to improve performance. Praise instances where performance has improved. Ask your employee for her assessment and where she thinks further improvements are necessary.

If a department fails to meet its goals, no one employee is at fault. Instead, you can place blame on how the manager has coached the department.

Make sure your managers always remember the importance of coaching and developing employees. Further, follow and expand the above steps and you will be well on your way to successful coaching.

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