Connect First, Coach Second

By Kristen Bakalar , Senior Leadership Consultant

I had the pleasure of working with a group of senior leaders recently to help them refine their coaching skills through our leadership coaching development program, and to help the organization get closer to the coaching culture they desire. As we talked about valuable coaching skills for leaders and reiterated the importance of a healthy relationship as the foundation for good coaching, one participant had a visible “a-ha” moment.


“I don’t even know the names of my employee’s kids!” she said.  While this particular woman was a bit chagrined to admit her reality, in that moment she was forever changed.  She knew that if she didn’t connect with her employees on a personal level – even in the most basic of ways – she would never be successful in coaching them to future success.  This is a common, yet often forgotten, lesson.


You’ve likely talked about wanting a coaching culture – a work environment where coaching is built into the fabric of the organization; where leaders have the coaching skills they need to use coaching techniques all the time, day in and day out.  And, if you’re like most organizations, you’ve likely even invested in some coaching training or content.  But you’re kidding yourself if you think you can rely on just coaching to create a coaching culture.


Without a few “must-haves,” that coaching culture you crave will be more of a griping culture, with employees skeptical of their managers, and managers feeling that their efforts are futile at best, and dismissed at worst. A coaching culture means a manager’s first instinct is to use coaching to influence future performance and behavior.If you want this sort of coaching culture, you have to go beneath the coach-coachee relationship and first build the manager-employee relationship.


Trust is key.  But trust is something that needs to be felt, not taught.  It’s something that happens organically.  Yet, we’ve identified three criteria that are present when there is a trusting relationship.


Those criteria are:


  1. a manager and employee can laugh together;
  2. they can share a tinge of humility about a feeling or experience; and
  3. they are curious about the other’s life.


So while you can’t teach or engineer trust, there are some things to keep in mind that support the personal human exchange, which is at the core of any successful relationship. 


1. Laughter


We all know it’s true: laughter is the best medicine (even when you’re not sick).  When managers and employees laugh together, the proverbial wall gets lowered, and trust begins to build.  Laughter builds camaraderie and bonding and can have a positive impact on creativity, commitment, and productivity.  Michael Kerr, the president of Humor at Work, says, “…people who take themselves overly seriously are often, ironically, taken less seriously by the people around them.”  And, when we laugh together, our humanness shines through, revealing a more authentic interaction. Find ways to make laughter a shared experience. It is vital part of leadership coaching development and will help build – and sustain – a healthy working relationship.


I was working with a CEO of a small start-up and one of her best and most loyal employees. The owner of this firm was looking for ways to coach and develop her rising stars, so she could promote her into a management position as the company continued to grow [quickly]. In one session, where the CEO was attempting to use coaching techniques, the employee gawked at her overly-formal approach, “outing” her inauthenticity. Together, they shared a laugh (at the CEO’s expense), and it turned out to be the missing piece to enhancing this relationship. Laughter. The laughter brought them closer, and that moment became pivotal in forming this coaching relationship.


2. Humility


Show your humility and, therefore, your humanity! Humility is one of the most overlooked coaching skills for leaders. When managers share a little bit about their experience, it can go a long way.  Too often, managers conflate “professionalism” with “showing no emotion.”  But that actually has the opposite effect.  When we actively hide our emotions or experiences, we build that wall around us, we are perceived as unapproachable, and untrustworthy.  Sharing emotions, even those that are negative, and experiences, especially those that show lack of perfection, is key.   When you share a feeling – even just one – you open the door for the employee to do the same.  And little by little, that person will feel safe enough to share their reality with you.  When you hear “I’m just nervous this won’t be good enough,” voila! You have a coaching moment.


A colleague recently recalled a former manager she had. They had an adequate relationship, but one day the manager, looking a bit defeated, admitted that for weeks he couldn’t figure out why his car smelled bad. And that morning, he finally found it – and old baby bottle hidden under the seat. It was rotten milk! To this day, this employee remembers that story and refers to it as the day she stopped seeing him as the boss and started seeing him as a person. Their relationship changed forever.


3. Curiosity


Be interested in your employee’s life-beyond-work and be willing to share some of yours.  When you ask your employees simple, non-invasive questions about their personal life, it opens up the relationship, and increases the trust between you.  “What did you do for the long weekend?”  “How old are your kids?” “What are you and your partner doing for the holidays?” These sorts of questions demonstrate an interest in your employee’s personal lives. Being curious does NOT mean asking them to reveal their biggest life mistake!  But knowing their kids’ names, and having an interest in what their life looks like outside of the office is a vital component of a healthy working relationship.  It shows humanness, and breaks down that overly-professional exterior that keeps people at bay.


During a fairly recent facilitation, a participant (a manager) came up to me during the break to share a story. He said that in his last one-on-one with his direct report, he asked him, “what would make your life easier?” The employee quietly said, “an opportunity to work from home one or two days a week.” The manager obliged without question. But his curiosity got the better of him, so he asked a follow up question: “what about working from home would make things easier?” The employee then shared that his daughter was going through a very rough time, and if her were able to be home in the mornings and the evenings, it would help her and the family out. That conversation opened up the lines of communication and before long, the manager had arranged a charity event to support his daughter’s cause, and in the process created a trusting, loyal working relationship. This all came from a simple question about what would make life easier.


If you want a coaching culture, work to make sure your people aren’t robots, that they’re not too serious, and that they’re not forgetting that people have lives.  Laughter…Humility…Curiosity – when these three criteria exist in the manager-employee relationship, then your organization has a foundation for the fundamental human interaction that supports trust.  And when trust is present, you can move forward with creating a coaching culture.  You can create that coaching culture by laughing, sharing and asking questions…and then capitalize on the hundreds of tiny opportunities that exist for every manager…every single day.