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Confession: Coaching people off my team is one of my favorite parts about management. Not backfilling or transition plans per se, but supporting people in their development goals. 

Whether your company has a clearly defined employee life-cycle plan, a survival-of-the-fittest mentality, or something in between, managers hold tremendous power as it relates to the success and happiness of employees. 

Two women and two men  high-fiving each other

Image source: Getty Images.

Qualities of an effective coach

If you read the title and immediately thought, oh, I've got some folks I'd love to get rid of -- that's not the goal. The intention of coaching is not to push low performers to other teams or out of the company, and ushering people to the door no better than when you received them is not coaching.

Perhaps you thought, that would kill my retention numbers -- I'd never do that; well, we've got at least one problem, but likely a few others. If the metrics you're measured on are not aligned with supporting the growth and development of your direct reports, this is a fundamental flaw that should be raised with your leadership team. If you have unilaterally decided that your success supersedes that of your team -- shame on you

A true coach understands the following:

  • A productive work environment is one where employees feel supported and are actively engaged in their work.

  • As a company or department evolves, through mergers and acquisitions, leadership changes, or start-up growth cycles, for example, it may no longer meet the needs or goals of the current staff.

  • When you commit to coaching, you commit to taking on additional responsibilities, whether that's serving as an intermediary backfill, making introductions, or working out a flex schedule so team members can shadow another department.

  • If your top performers aren't happy with the responsibilities that are currently in their purview, it's time to help them explore new opportunities.

  • A poor performer on your team might be a reflection of: a poor hiring choice, a misalignment regarding the demands (time commitment, volume of work, etc.), or office environment clash (used to a more active role, physical symptoms that impact performance, etc.). No matter the reason, they're with you now, and perhaps in need of a gentle nudge toward a role that will better suit their needs. 

  • Your success, or lack thereof, as a manager is ultimately measured by the words of those who have experienced your leadership and guidance.

Creating a coaching environment 

Once you've committed to supporting people in their goals regardless of where that might take them, the next step is letting your direct reports know. Through public announcement? Not exactly. 

The best way to communicate support is through your actions:

  • Celebrate promotions and transitions to other teams or companies.

  • Show curiosity about each direct report -- their interests outside the office, path to their current role, etc. 

  • Share previous examples of your coaching experience to highlight the opportunities that can come from success in their current role.

  • Keep the door open for communication and don't show frustration or inconvenience as your team decides if you are trustworthy.

Understand that your team is making a very personal decision to trust you with their dreams. It might take time to earn the honor of not only hearing their true aspirations, but being seen as a conduit to success. Don't be surprised if your initial conversations lead to answers that your direct reports think a manager wants to hear. Challenge their responses, using the information you've learned by showing curiosity about them, and then be patient. If successful in these actions, a mutual respect will develop, and with respect comes transparency. 

Next, you need to be honest. If your team members have goals that don't match their skill set, ask how they plan to close the gap. If their current work doesn't allow you to confidently serve as an internal or external advocate, let them know where you'd like to see improvement and agree upon a date to revisit the conversation in the future. If their aspirations aren't aligned with the company's direction, help them research other companies that are a better match. 

Once an achievable opportunity or goal has been identified, ask how you can help. If they just need a listening ear, accept that as the end of your coaching and don't overstep. If they change their mind or decide not to move forward, this is not a failure for either one of you. Rather, look at the relationship you've built and feel confident that the next time they need help, they'll come back to you. 

On the other hand, should they request that you continue to be involved, it's important that you both agree to a plan:

  • How they will manage their current responsibilities while working toward this new goal

  • What support or coverage is needed from you, understanding that this individual's goals should not lead to additional work for the rest of your team 

Using internal alliances and external networks

In order to best serve your direct reports, it's important to establish strong working relationships with your peers and leaders. Scheduling one-on-ones is a great way to open up dialogue about management philosophy and learn more about the departments within your company. From there, you can begin to identify those that have a similar philosophy and which departments might lend themselves to the transferable skills of the individuals on your team. 

If an opportunity is identified within the company, and your direct report requests to pursue it, reach out to the connections you've made to begin a dialogue. This could include providing a heads-up that a member of your team is interested and confirming they have your full support. If there is a skill set gap, it might be vetting this team's or department's willingness to provide some internal training sessions or opportunities to shadow, so that the next time a position is open, this candidate will be ready.

Externally, your network should be available to your direct reports.

How to capture your wins

So you've coached someone off your team -- is it worth highlighting? Absolutely.

  • Keep track of how many of your direct reports have received promotions or made career changes into new departments or different companies.

  • Highlight any creative tactics used to support the direct report or open doors -- internally or externally.

  • Tie your coaching back to team performance metrics, like how losing top performers actually encouraged other direct reports to step up, leading to an increase in customer retention or quality assurance.

  • Be able to differentiate between how you coach poor performers and those who are excelling.