As a young co-op student with General Motors, one of my first assignments was to work in the personnel department (we now call it HumanRelations). People would come in to apply for work. We would tell them to fill out an application and we would keep it on file. One day I was standing at the counter talking to a supervisor in the department when an applicant came through the door and asked, “What are the qualifications necessary to work here”. The supervisor replied, “Just a strong back and a weak mind”
Decades ago those were the qualifications for many jobs in the manufacturing sector. But today our requirements for employees, even in the manufacturing sector, have drastically changed. Those simple repetitive job functions have been replaced by robotic or computerized devices. And when automation is uneconomical, the job has been transferred to a low-skill, low wage geographic area of the world. This trend is evident not only in manufacturing, but in all other sectors of the economy.
Employees now need to make decisions, do problem solving, and be creative. Delegation and empowerment are the keys to flatten organizational structures and increasing productivity. The need for a strong back has given way to the need for a strong mind. This drastically changes the role of a manager or supervisor from that of giving intimate direction and control of their staff, to that of encouraging them to think for themselves. This calls for leaders to become the coaches of their team members, requiring new skills and attitudes.
In increasing employee performance, some have adopted the iceberg model, which suggests that although some of behaviors are visible, most of our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings lurk below the surface.
Many employees are highly capable individuals who want to work and be smarter. They are crying for help and it is up to business leaders to learn how to ask the right questions and conduct truly engaging coaching conversations. Dr David Rock, author of Quiet Leadership, Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work, suggests the following five-steps for establishing a coaching conversation and enabling self-directed learning:
Let the employee think through his specific issue. Avoid telling him what to do or giving advice. Ask questions about his though process.
Keep him focused on solutions not problems.
Challenge him to expand his thinking and stretch himself, instead of clinging to his comfort zone.
Focus on what he is doing well so you can play to his strengths.
Make sure there are clear processes behind every conversation. To be truly helpful, a coaching conversation requires permission to ask questions and explore possibilities.