February 2024

Coach the Person, Not the Problem

By Ken Smith

Have you ever had a conversation with one of your direct reports that goes something like this?

You may be thinking what a great leader and coach you are by imparting such wisdom, but what if told you that is not good coaching?

One of the inherent challenges when coaching your direct report is getting caught up in solving the problem you are coaching them on. It is natural for us to want to solve the problem. There are three reasons why this is a detriment:

  1. It takes the focus from your direct report and shines it on the problem. People will easily allow the spotlight to veer away from them and onto someone else. This may be more comfortable for both the leader and the direct report, but it does not maximize the impact you can have with coaching.

  2. You are not helping them grow. It is the adage of giving them a fish vs. teaching them to fish. You are solving one problem but not creating an environment for sustained long term growth.

  3. You are setting an expectation for the future. You are telling your team that all they need to do is come to you and all will be taken care of for them.

It is especially difficult when you are coaching a person about a performance item with one of their team members. It is very easy to fall into the trap of talking about the other team member and not the person you are coaching.

I had one client whom, when we started our coaching engagements, acknowledged that she was frustrated because her team would always come to her needing answers and would not figure things out for themselves. I asked her "what do you do when they ask for answers?" She admitted that she was very experienced, knew exactly what to do, and gave them the answer. I then asked her, "what behavior does that reinforce?" She quickly understood that she had to change her approach to see a change in them. I coached her on how to behave differently and let her practice. A while later, I was coaching her when one of her direct reports called her with a challenge and wasn't sure what to do. She didn't mute our call so I was able to hear her side of the interaction. She asked this series of questions:

In the brief interaction, she demonstrated she had mastered the technique of coaching the person, not the problem. She resisted the easy and tempting response of giving the answer. She took more time, pulled vs. pushed, and created a more lasting impact.

Coaching is the pinnacle of effective leadership. To coach well, a leader must do all the other skills well, such as setting good goals, providing feedback, asking questions, and holding them accountable. Coaching is not training. Coaching is empowering people to find solutions for themselves and to implement those action items. Coaching follows the construct of:

  1. Determine what is going on.
  2. Determine what is really going on.
  3. Identify the best possible outcome.
  4. Create actions to make that outcome happen.

Coaching as a leader does not require any certification. It requires a leader to invest time and energy into their team members, making it a priority and having a deliberate process. You too can perfect this skill as part of coaching your team. Like any skill you want to improve, it works best if you have a coach to help you during the journey.