Be a better manager: How to coach every member of your team

Written by: Karl Sakas

A friend coaches roller derby, volunteering to help a coed youth team ages 6-17. Although my coachees tend not to throw temper tantrums, there’s a key similarity—as coaches, we’re both helping people reach their full potential.

Are you making time to coach your employees? If not, you should—employee coaching can improve morale, boost employee retention, help clients, and increase agency profits.

And if you already are coaching your employees, here are 9 ways to get better results—plus 3 bonus ideas when employees are doing work you don’t entirely understand.

Why coach your agency’s employees?

A Harvard Business Review article describes four reasons managers make time to coach their employees:

  1. They see coaching as an essential tool for achieving business goals.
  2. They enjoy helping people develop.
  3. They are curious.
  4. They are interested in establishing connections.

That first point—about coaching helping you reach your business goals—is key. You’re helping yourself—in the form of agency success—as much as the team. (H/T to Casey Cobb on the article.)

How to be a better coach as an agency owner

I coach my clients, and I help them become better at coaching their employees. Here’s my overview on how to be a better coach.

1) Build a baseline. Start by understanding where people are now. In learning, people start at the delightfully-named “unconscious incompetence,” which is a fancy way of saying, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” You need to know what they know—and what they assume. This baseline gives you an opportunity to adjust along the way.

2) Talk about their goals. What do they want to learn? Where do they want to go? The key is to ask questions—and then listen. In my experience, some employees will be more forthcoming than others. Sometimes people aren’t sure where they want to go—in this case, you have an opportunity to help them figure that out. Sometimes people are concerned about job security if their true goals don’t fit their current job—in this case, you need to create a safe space for people to share. Better to help people find a new role—at your agency or otherwise—than have someone stay for years when they’re not engaged.

3) Talk about company goals. Do people know where you want to go, and your values in getting there? They should anyway, but it’s especially important in coaching. Your team is more likely to help you meet your goals if they know your goals—they can’t read your mind. People want to understand how they fit into your agency’s future.

4) Find ways to align your and their goals. Ultimately, you need them to meet your agency’s goals, but think about how your and their goals align. For instance, someone might want to get experience in event management, and you need someone to organize an upcoming event—sounds like a promising overlap. In cases where there isn’t overlap—say they want to learn a skill that’s unrelated to their work—think about ways they can fulfill that need outside of work, through volunteering or other opportunities. This is part of why I encourage agencies to allow employees to freelance—it’s a “safety valve” to do things they can’t do at work.

5) Make a plan. Don’t over-complicate it. There’s a reason my coaching framework focuses on a maximum of 3 major goals each month—you can juggle only so much. The plan should have concrete goals, with deadlines. Senior employees will have further-out deadlines, with monthly or quarterly check-ins on those goals. Junior employees might be working a month or two at a time, with weekly or biweekly check-ins.

6) Help them find their own resources. You can suggest resources—for instance, agency PMs should read Interactive Project Management and Project Management for Humans, and agency account managers should read The Art of Client Service—but the real goal is to teach people to find their own answers. Maybe it’s a lineup of industry blogs, or people to follow on Twitter, or certain online communities. When they can find resources on their own, you go from teacher to coach—which is a more scalable shift as your agency grows.

7) Check-in regularly. If you set goals and never talk about them again, you aren’t doing people any favors. Schedule check-in meetings now—you need a standing meeting. Consider meeting for coffee or in another setting outside the usual office, to shake things up. Make employees responsible for sharing their progress and bringing a list of questions for you. You’re busy—you’re there to facilitate, not micromanage. Manager Tools recommends weekly 30-minute “one-on-one” (O3) meetings.

8) Don’t reschedule coaching meetings. Your team is what makes you an agency owner instead of an individual marketing consultant. Everything you do to help your team has a multiplier effect—getting them moving in the right direction and doing it better means they’re accomplishing things while you’re elsewhere. Do everything you can to avoid rescheduling internal coaching meetings.

9) Decide how far to take things. Some people just aren’t a fit, no matter how much coaching you provide. In those situations, set a timeline for improvement. At the end of the timeline, decide whether to continue—or to cut your losses.

You’ll need to adjust your approach as you grow your agency. You can coach everyone if you have 10 employees. If you have 20-25, you’ll focus on coaching your direct reports. If you have 50+ people, you’ll spend your time coaching your directors on how to better coach their direct-report employees.

Bonus: Helping employees working outside your skillset

A client mentioned it’s easier for him to coach his designers—he started as a designer himself—than to coach his developers, project managers, and marketing strategists. That’s understandable, but you have some tools available:

Get advice from colleagues who do understand the work. Maybe it’s a fellow agency owner who knows that area better. Maybe it’s me as your business coach. Maybe it’s a more-senior team member doing similar work. If you’re a non-technical person managing technical people, read Managing Humans: Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager. Ultimately, you need to understand enough.

Ask employees to explain things to you, in ways you can understand. This is harder when you have junior employees (the “unconscious incompetence” problem I mentioned earlier)—but frankly, you shouldn’t be hiring junior people if other people at your agency have no understanding of their role. Using a “throw them in the deep end” recruiting approach leads to lots of mistakes on your agency’s dime.

Commit to studying management. Management isn’t entirely interchangeable—there are common skillsets, but it’s harder when you don’t understand what your employees do. But ultimately it’s about sharing your vision, giving people long-term goals, and removing blockages to let people get things done. Don’t use “I don’t understand what they do” as an excuse.

Applying this at your agency

Your next step depends on where you are now.

  • Not coaching your employees yet? Read the HBR article, and then follow my steps to get started.
  • Coaching employees now? Adjust your process based on my advice above… and get my Made to Lead “pocket guide” book to extend the impact.

Remember, coaching helps you get the best results from your team—improving morale, getting better results for clients, and improving agency profits. It provides an excellent multiplier effect to make your life easier.

Question: What’s your approach to coaching at your agency?

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