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Do, Manage, Consult, or Coach

At any given time in the ebb and flow of conducting business, an executive will have to choose one of four courses of action:

  1. Do – many executives climbed to their senior position by being able to perform the tasks of subordinates at a high (often higher than their peers) level.  Rather than spend time developing the skills of subordinates, it is often more expedient in the short-term to just do the task him or herself.  A side “benefit” of the executive doing the tasks of subordinates is that the subordinates do not learn how to do the tasks (which ordinarly, would be a negative).  However, as long as the subordinate does not have the skills, knowledge, or abilities to perform, the executive has the “power” to resort back to what is already mastered and there is a belief that that translates to job security, power, and value to the organization.
  2. Manage – Some executives recognize that they cannot do all or most of the tasks of subordinates and decide that certain tasks can be better handled by managing the efforts of their teams, direct reports, or subordinates.  The focus has moved from the executive being the “super-technician” who is the “best” at something and does it, to assigning, directing, monitoring, and evaluating the performance of others.  The decision-making of, “how, why, and when” to perform are centrally-controlled by the executive and there is little autonomy afforded to the subordinate employee.
  3. Consult – Another approach used is for the executive to perform more of a role of consultant or mentor to the subordinate.  In this role, the executive still retains a level of expertise that is inequitable to the subordinate’s and tries to relate that insight, experience, and expertise to the employee in a quasi-directed, but potentially non-binding way.  The executive makes herself available to the employee and may provide pointers, hints, or techniques to consider.
  4. Coach – For most people, the image of a coach that comes to mind is of a master motivator that rallies a team (usually an athletic team) to achieve greater heights than they would ordinarily achieve.  However, even in that scenario, the “coach” is often the keeper of some master stratefgy or tactic that is then brilliantly executed by the members of the team.  The players become more like chess pieces that are employed and applied according to the whims and wishes of the coach/chess player.

However, that is not the kind of coaching that succeeds in business.  In business, coaching is best applied by developing the skills, awareness, and strengths of the team uniquely and separately from the coach.  The focus is on asking the person to be coached the following:

  1. Empowering questions that help direct the person to their own insights, creative solutions, and perspectives on how to address a situation.  At times, that may mean that the solution reached is far different than the one that the coach would have employed (so it means giving up a sense of control over the inputs, methods, and weighting of factors for the coach).
  2. Providing opportunities for exploration so that the person being coached is able to experience the full weight of the assignment and recognize their own (and the team, unit, division, or total business) strengths and opportunities.
  3. Having the person being coached assume responsibility and control for the outcomes.  Unlike other approaches described above, coaching requires extending the trust that the subordinate will correctly achieve the results sought (even if the methods employed are not the ones that would have been chosen by the executive).

An executive has as many approaches to choose from as a golfer has clubs.

The above are not meant to be a hierarchy of approaches with coaching being the best and doing the worst.  Rather, it is presented to provide a context for understanding the various tools available to the executive to use selectively given the circumstances, skills, and readiness of the organization to employ each at the appropriate time.  Just like a golfer has multiple clubs in their bag to choose from depending on the situation, so too does an executive have more than one approach to achieve results.  Choosing the right one and correctly swinging it will serve the executive and the business far more beneficially than constantly relying on a driver when a putter would be more appropriate.

Knowing when to use each method or approach, and being skilled in how to best apply that approach is far more important to the evaluation of an executive’s influence and skill than their technical competence or previous abilities.  The role of the executive is different than that of the subordinate and should be evaluated on the basis of what expectations the organization has for that role, and not of the subordinates’ roles.

David Zahn