Think back over all of the supervisors, bosses and managers for whom you've ever worked. Pick out the ones who were truly exceptional. What characteristics did they have in common? Of all the things that might be named, chances are that you’d find that the best managers consistently performed these two functions effectively:

  • setting clear expectations with staff members
  • coaching employees to help them master skills

Let's consider how these two managerial functions are applied to develop staff members, and how the combination of the two can create a highly engaged and productive team.

Setting clear expectations

Effective managers and supervisors don't make their employees guess what is expected or learn through a series of trials and errors. Instead, they make it a point to be clear with what is expected. This process is consistently applied with employees, with the manager personally explaining the following details about what is expected:

  • They set specific quality and quantity guidelines for the employee to deliver when performing each of the duties or assignments associated of his or her position.
  • They explain why each well-performed duty and assignment is important to customers and the department, as well as how they fit into the overall mission of the organization.
  • They identify the resources available to successfully complete assignments and perform duties.
  • They establish clear timelines for what is due when it is due.
  • They outline how and when progress will be measured.

When employees understand all of these aspects of the work they are to perform, they are confident that the standards will not arbitrarily change from day to day or mood to mood.

Coaching effectively

Effective managers understand that teaching is not coaching or correcting.

Teaching is the initial process of equipping someone to perform his/her duties and assignments when performing something new. Teaching always should include clear expectations, along with a verbal and physical demonstration of what correct performance looks like. Let the employee try it and verify he/she can perform it correctly. Teaching isn't complete until someone can correctly perform something multiple times.

Coaching is the process immediately following teaching that helps employees to master what they have been taught. This is such a critical step, yet many managers and supervisors may skip directly over this step and immediately begin to correct employees who are not performing what they have been taught. When coaching is skipped — or done poorly frustration and disengagement is often an undesired result.

Effective coaching requires the supervisor or manager to patiently lead someone (who has been properly taught) through the process of self-discovery when evaluating his/her own performance. It is not telling the employee what the manager has observed. It is asking the right questions in order to measure specifically what the employee understands about his or her performance relative to what was taught.

A manager cannot learn anything about what someone knows if he/she is doing the talking!

Great supervisors and managers use several coaching question areas to lead this process of self-discovery. Each question area will likely require some follow-up questions to fully explore the area. When consistently asked in the following order, employees tend to master skills more quickly and willingly:

1. "You just completed (task/step/assignment). Tell me, what things do you think went well for you?"

a. This question and its follow-up questions allow the employee to express the positives first, and for the manager to identify if the employee understood expectations as well as the quality and quantity deliverables of the work.

b. When asking this question, be silent and encourage the staff member to explain.

2. "What things went less well than you would have liked?"

a. This question and its follow-up questions allow the manager to identify how aware the employee is about things that could and should be improved.

b. It also identifies areas that could have been taught better.

c. It also encourages the employee to identify corrective action following the self-assessment.

d. Like before, allow the employee to do the talking.

3. "If you could do it over again, what specifically would you do differently?"

a. This question and its follow-up questions allow the employee to take ownership for both the needed improvements as well as the plan to improve.

b. Ask the employee for a commitment to the new standards/methods, and next time when coaching, use the new standards when asking the coaching questions.

Only after a staff member has had a chance to fully answer each of the three question areas should the manager add his or her own observations (plus encouraging the employee for his or her progress). Over time, employees who are managed with this coaching approach begin performing their own self-assessments on their own work, leading them to become more self-directed and self-reliant.

Managers and supervisors who excel at setting clear expectations and effectively coaching their employees soon find themselves leading a highly engaged team of contributors who are passionate about performing to the highest standards.