Recently, more public sector managers have
incorporated techniques used by leadership and executive
coaches into their management toolbox. Whats the payoff for
becoming a manager-as-coach in todays busy workplace?
One perception of using coaching techniques is that they take
excessive timetime away from performing real work. The book,
Anytime Coaching: Unleashing
Employee Performance, reveals how coaching
conversations in the workplace actually take very little time to
get real workplace gains. Indeed, exploring how to unleash the
power of coaching conversations with employees creates stronger
performance, accountability, and results.
The term anytime coach describes a successful manager who
understands the value of having short, targeted coaching
conversations when they are needed. The anytime coach views each
employee-manager interaction as an opportunity for coaching in the
moment for micro improvements that, when multiplied over many
interactions and many employees, yield the desired organizational
What does it take to be an anytime coach? It begins with a heavy
dose of self-awareness, followed by skillful observing, inquiring,
listening, and responding. With practical tools in each of these
areas, any public manager can become an anytime coachand boost
employees performance day by day.
Four Key Practices
The anytime coaching approach to managing people is practical. The
model draws from a series of interviews with successful managers in
the public sector, including such agencies as the U.S. Government
Accountability Office (GAO), the Central Intelligence Agency, NASA,
the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of
Education, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
University. The mid- to senior-level executives interviewed were
identified because of their strong reputation for delivering
outstanding results for their agencies and their successful use of
coaching techniques. In other words, these leaders were already
outstanding managers and coaches.
The model derived from these interviews has four key practices:
observing (both yourself and your workers)
inquiring (asking incisive questions)
listening (becoming an extreme listener)
responding (being deliberate in how you
respond to employees).
Look In and Out
A manager committed to improving employee performance uses coaching
strategies whenever possible. In doing so, the manager becomes an
anytime coachopen and available to capture a coachable moment.
Managers should begin by first looking inward and then looking
outwardin other words, to pay attention to what they are paying
attention to. What they discover may shed light on how their
actions, voice, and general demeanor affect others in the
After becoming clear in how to view their own work, managers should
practice observing others. Managers who refine their coaching
skills will be more deliberate in noticing the nuances in how
employees talk, work, move, and respond. They will observe all
forms of communicationverbal, nonverbal, and emotional cuesgiven by
employees, because all three provide critical information. Managers
using anytime coaching techniques should pay close attention to
incongruence in their employees words, tone of voice, and nonverbal
Consider a case involving the director of a small agencys federal
data warehousing department, who relies heavily upon his talented
deputy director: On Friday morning, before a long holiday weekend,
he informed the deputy director that she would have to come into
the office all weekend to ensure that an important data warehousing
transaction would run smoothly. He explained that it was unexpected
and that he was also going to have to give up his weekend.
As he spoke, the deputy director lowered her eyes, her posture
slumped, and her voice grew quiet. Sure, Im happy to help you this
weekend and come in on Saturday and Sunday, she said. Usually, the
deputy director maintained direct eye contact and spoke
confidently. Being preoccupied with the data project, her manager
did not observe the incongruence between her words and her body
language and voice. She said she was happy to help, but her voice
and posture conveyed the opposite.
A practiced manager-as-coach would notice the contradiction between
his employees words and body language and would speak to the
employee about his observations, exploring the underlying issues
she had about working the weekend. A short, 10-minute coaching
conversation would explore, and potentially address, her concerns.
An experienced manager-as-coach would also recognize the importance
of ensuring an employee has a chance to voice what her body
language had already conveyed to ensure that open lines of
communication and trust are preserved.
Inquiring Minds Want to Know
With observations of positive possibilities and expanded focus on
all forms of communication, a manager will next want to learn as
much about an employee or situation as possible. In the anytime
coaching model, the second stepthe practice of inquiring-involves
asking incisive questions that engage employees.
Years ago, we worked with a popular supervisor of a team of
procurement analysts who was promoted to take on a much larger team
from across the division, including managing analysts with
different technical specializations. The supervisor was effective
managing a smaller scopein which he could retain greater control as
a subject matter expertbut struggled when his team size increased
from 15 to 40 people. He also realized that managing outside of his
technical area of expertise made him very uncomfortable.
Working with his own executive coach, the supervisor learned that
he was not asking incisive questions, but rather simple factual,
yes-no questions. Instead of becoming frustrated with the
responses, he decided to change his own practice of inquiry. When
he began asking more open-ended questions to learn about how
employees approached their procurement analysis, his new employees
opened up and shared their ideas.
The benefit was an atmosphere of greater trust within the team of
procurement analysts. The supervisor enjoyed learning and hearing
more about the employees technical capabilities, without having to
be the subject matter expert himself. More importantly, the
information he gained enabled him to make smarter decisions on
L Is for Listening
Many managers fall into the trap of overreacting when employees
open up and share their views openly and honestly. Before reacting,
managers need to acknowledge their own thoughts and focus solely on
the person speaking.
One way to turn off the noise in our heads is to step into a
neutral zone. Neutral zone listening is like turning in clearly to
a radio stationwith no interference from other frequencies. To stay
in this neutral zone
set aside any judgments you have made about
the person or situation
commit to hearing all of what the other person
focus on getting more facts and asking
work to move the conversation forward
be aware of your own and others emotions.
In a neutral zone, managers will be able to hearemployees speak in
a way that a cluttered mind cannot. Most people truly appreciate
the opportunity to be fully heard, and what managers learn may be
the critical facts needed to guide others or make important
Be Intentional in Responding
Managers who can both lead and coach have inspected their own
viewpoints and preferences, and they have observed, inquired, and
exercised extreme listening. So far, there has not been an
opportunity to share wisdom, directions, or opinions. That is
because managers-as-coaches make intentional choices when relating
to employeesand telling is often the last choice. There are a
number of other, specific choices managers can make when
responding. Enter the invitation.
Managers who coach anytime the situation demands it will typically
seek the involvement of others. The invitation makes this easy.
Some sample invitations might include: I am curious about how you
see this situation, and I would like to hear your ideas, or in a
team setting, There are still some team members who havent given us
their input, and I am asking for your best thinking on how to solve
the budget shortfall.
By using the invitation, the manager transforms what could be a
difficult battle of my ideas versus your ideas into a level playing
field where employees get to contribute their best thinking and, as
a result, feel valued and heard.
It is generally acknowledged that not being heard is one of the top
reasons people to leave organizations. Making frequent use of the
invitation helps create a work environment where employees know
they are expected to share their thinking and managers are ready to
Once an employee has shared a point of view or a proposed action,
the coaching manager wisely uses three responses before presenting
new ideas. A cluster of responses includes statements that
acknowledge, affirm, and appreciatethe three As.
A dialogue might go like this:
Employee: I have found that having each
department cut its budget by the same percentage is the
fairest way toaddress the shortfall.
: I hear what you are saying
(acknowledgment). So, your thinking is that the same
percentage cut from each department budget is the fairest method,
right (affirmation)? I can understand that point of view, as I have
worked that way in the past and it does look fair (appreciation).
Only after the three As should managers offer their perspective.
Public managers who actually pause for a moment of extreme
listening, look directly at their employee, and respond with the
three As will be seen quite differently from one who barely looks
in the employees direction and issues opinions and orders without
acknowledging, affirming, and appreciating what has been said.
Obviously a managers role is complex, involving listening and
appreciating as well as giving direction. Another important
responding tool, for example, is the request. As with a directive,
a request implies do this to the employee, but asking is very
different from telling.
Employees need to be able to understand and differentiate when
managers are directing and requesting. A clear request must be
specific, and include a description of expected results and any
deadlines. A well-phrased request opens up dialogue so both the
requester and the person receiving the request understand what can
and will be doneor not done. That said, when there is absolutely no
room for dialogue or negotiation, give direction.
Giving directions is certainly a key part of being a manager, but
many well-meaning managers are strong to a fault in this skill, and
direction-giving crowds out more effective coaching behaviors. This
is sometimes perceived as simply being a highly directive manager
who tells employees what work to do, when to do it, and how to do
it correctly and quickly.
You might be wondering, Whats wrong with that? Of course, part of a
managers role is to ensure employees know their jobs and general
methods for accomplishing tasks. But a manager who only directs and
fails to observe, inquire, listen, and respond intentionally is
likely to fall prey to the fast results gene (FRG).
Taming the FRG
The FRG is that impulse to take shortcuts to get the fastest
results possible. It supports the best of intentions getting quick
results. But unless it is tamed, employees working for a manager
with a strong FRG learn to be passive and await the next cascade of
orders. Employees gradually lose their interest in innovating and
exploring new options, and they certainly do not feel heard.
For example, a manager in a federal agency highly valued for its
accurate analysis said this: My FRG is definitely dominant in my
genetic makeup, and I have struggled in the past with slowing down
my own internal thought process long enough to hear what my team
members have to contribute. I spend a lot of time thinking about
and putting into practice the techniques for slowing down my own
thoughts and encouraging my staff to get very engaged.
As a result, this manager-as-coach developed a process for
particularly difficult team meetings that has worked wonders. He
starts each meeting by outlining why the team is meeting and what,
at a very high level, they are trying to accomplish. Then he opens
the floor to discussion, sits back, and quietly performs breathing
exercises while he listens to the team.
Sometimes it takes a painfully long time before anyone speaks, and
it is interesting and instructive to watch how different team
members deal with the silence. However, once the dam breaks, he
almost always hears good ideas coming from team members. The
manager can then focus his energy on asking open-ended questions
that direct the team to anything they may not yet be dealing with
but that are important to success.
Coaching for Micro-Performance Improvements
What distinguishes the anytime coaching approach to managing people
is the emphasis on micro-performance improvements. It may be
tempting to want to coach on larger performance and development
issues and transformational change.
However, research behind the anytime coaching approach indicates
that smaller achievements in employee performance are the building
blocks that increase confidence, improve morale, and gain traction
with employees. Building on micro improvements, the employee can
take on more difficult challenges. With the emphasis on
micro-performance improvements, anytime coaching conversations are
highly focused and yield positive results for the employee and
ultimately the organization.
Consider the case of a mid-level public manager in a state
educational operations division who had recently transferred to a
federal government job with comparable work: She inherited a small,
four-person team. One team member seemed disengaged and
unmotivated. Although her work quality was acceptable, it was
almost always late, which affected the entire team. The manager,
who had had training and experience in anytime coaching, decided
that the micro improvement for this issue would be to complete
weekly status reports on time and with greater accuracy.
Rather than coaching the employee on the larger themes of low
energy and disengagement, the manager held two 10-minute coaching
conversations on the topic of improving her performance on timely
and accurate reports. She asked, What would need to happen
differently to get the report in on time? She also asked how, as
the manager, she could support her employee. The manager used
straightforward conversational tools, such as requests and offers,
and observed nonverbal cues while listening intently.
As it turned out, the coaching conversation revealed that the
employee needed a critical piece of information from another
department and was simply too timid to ask for the data. The
employee was uncomfortable because she perceived that asking for
the information might initiate conflict.
The manager brainstormed with the employee about ways to get
information from the other department. The manager-as-coach then
helped the employee work on the difficult conversation that needed
to take place with other members of the other team. The coaching
conversations were brief, but they had a tremendous impact on the
employee. The employee seemed more engaged and involved than in
previous discussions. In the end, she was able to get the
information she needed and submit the report on time.
Anytime Coaching at Your Agency
The anytime coaching approach is a simple, timeeffective, and
powerful management method that builds on what public managers
already know how to do: observe, inquire, listen, and respond.
Bringing out the best in people and helping them feel acknowledged
and heard takes time, but the payoff in employee performance
improvements is valuable time well spent. Anytime coaching is quick
and focused, and the skills are ones any manager can learn.
Together, public managers and their employees will find anytime
coaching an enjoyable way to interact, and more importantly, the
catalyst for the day-to-day improvements that transform
organizations. Public managers and the constituencies they serve
will both benefit.