April 23, 2012

Wanted: Good Coaches

In March 2011, the New York Times ran a lengthy piece about Google’s 8-Point Plan to Build A Better Boss. Based on massive amounts of data culled from employee evaluations, the plan sought to do two things: first, it sought to name the top eight characteristics of their team leaders; secondly, and more interestingly, it sought to rank these characteristics according to importance.

The final list yielded a few surprises.

For one thing, technical expertise was ranked dead last among the characteristics. The article describes how this upended many of Google’s long-held beliefs about leadership in their company. Instead, skill sets related to the human touch were much further up on the list. Topping the list was the ability to be a good coach.

Since coming across this article last year, I’ve had the chance to participate in two leadership trainings that addressed the tenets of coaching. Learning to give constructive feedback was a part of the Organizing for Mission training led by Devon Anderson in the Diocese of Spokane. Coaching was also a significant piece of the Facilitative Leadership training I attended in New York led by Interaction Associates. Both these trainings helped me to better understand coaching as an ongoing back-and-forth, a dynamic conversation.

According to the Facilitative Leadership training I attended, coaching takes place when we

  1. Offer specific feedback about performance
  2. Engage in problem-solving with an individual or group (as opposed to on their behalf)
  3. Explore and take into account your team's long-term personal or professional goals
Of the three, I suspect that most of us struggle with the first. We need to learn how to praise liberally when people are performing well, but we also need to be able to offer constructive criticism of people’s performance. How can we practice doing this well? And how can we avoid critiquing someone’s person when what we need to stay focused on is their performance?

Of course, many will point out the fact that most churches don’t operate like Google, but to my mind this simply underscores the need for good coaching. While there is some talk about “firing volunteers” who don’t perform well, I suspect that most church leaders would prefer to address performance through a different route. In this respect, coaching isn’t just a handy leadership technique. It’s a way of cultivating the gifts of those whom God has sent our way.