January 5, 2006

Coaching for Results

“On Managing”

Library Administration & Management

Spring 2006 Volume 20 number 2

Here is my second column on coaching. The first installment was about a student orchestra – the Chamber Sinfonia Orchestra of the Manhattan School of Music  - performing without a conductor. Their coaches were musicians from the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (1).

On the way from the first coaching column to this one, I took a deliberate detour to encourage library managers toward a more proactive leadership. My point was that the seeming excess of reactive leadership serves libraries poorly and leads to imitation and, progressively, to our marginalization. Of equal concern is the stifling effect this can have on leaders and followers in reactive libraries. That column’s title, “Balaam’s Ass”, was derived from the biblical story of the good follower – the ass - who resists and overcomes the wrong doing of his master.

While the Balaam piece does not mention coaching, it does illuminate the terrain in which a proactive leadership can thrive. That same sunny climate of trust and respect benefits genuine coaching.

I defined coaching in my first column as the interactive process by which a library manager helps – by giving sound advice, speaking the truth, and encouraging - a colleague get better in their work.  We’ll see how that definition holds up as I consider the complexities of individual coaching by managers.

While sports coaching analogies rarely apply to the library workplace (e.g. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!” or  “Win one for the Gipper!”) the quotes below from two basketball players suggest a level of coaching rarely found on the playing field or in the office:

"Coach is always going to tell you the truth, no matter what it is. And just to know where you stand is good -- whether it's good or bad.”

 "…it's always good when he can tell you things that you're not seeing….”

"It's always that he's real …, so after you leave you know where you stand, on and off the court.”

The players are talking about their private meetings with Coach Mike Krzyzewski, a distinguished basketball coach and more importantly for this story, the founder of and participant in a center for the study of leadership and ethics. (2)

The players’ words capture what good coaching is about: A good coach is consistent; speaks the truth; is pragmatic; is clear about roles; and, communicates to the player what he is seeing. Implicit in these comments is the players’ respect for and trust in the coach and their desire to be coached.

While not mentioned, the coach’s highly developed “observing” – a form of listening -  is implicit in the reference to his seeing what “you’re not seeing.”

One day I got to observe the intensity with which Coach Krzyzewski watches practice. He listens with his eyes – sorting sense from the blurred images of 10 players going full speed. And, he excels in communicating what he sees to the player. Calmly spoken or tersely expressed, the truth, “no matter what it is,” is shared fully and openly in ways that help the player. The “truth” is not bottled up or avoided.  It helps that these players want their coach to tell them the truth. I recall in my study of Coach Gail Goestenkors, the players’ acceptance of the Coach’s yelling at them in practice.  Her players told me they expect to be held accountable by the coaches: “If the coach is doing her job she has to yell at you.” Players, when verbally blasted with “Your defense sucks”, forgive the vernacular and ratchet up their intensity in ferociously protecting the goal. (3) They hear the coach because they know what good defense is, they want to hear her, and they know her yelling is a carefully used tool, not a personal assault.

Giving feedback is much of what a good coach does. When I lecture in library school about annual performance appraisals, I ask students to reflect on a time when someone gave them feedback that really made a difference, feedback that changed them for the better. I ask them to consider these questions, on paper, about what led to the feedback’s effectiveness:

What were your thoughts and mindset?

How did the feedback giver relate to you?

How did you feel about him or her?

What did you hear?

Then I ask them to complete this statement: 

“I really heard what that person was saying because:”

In the go-around I usually hear these reasons for the feedback’s making a difference:

I saw the information could benefit me.

The giver had my best interests at heart.

I respected the person giving the feedback.

I trusted the person giving me the feedback.

It was important to me; I had a desire to change.

We were one on one in private; the person had my full attention

In other words, you hear feedback only when:

The feedback comes from a credible source. The giver has expertise, is a valid source.

The feedback giver is trustworthy. What they say is sincere.

The feedback is well intended. The giver has the receiver’s best interests at heart or it’s otherwise apparent that the feedback is to serve a worthy purpose.

The feedback’s timing and circumstances are conducive to learning. The receiver wants  to hear what you have to say. I have italicized “wants” because the person may not always anticipate with pleasure what you have to say, but they are resolute in hearing the news, maybe good or maybe bad, just like Coach K’s players.

The feedback is given face to face, preferably in private. The receiver and giver can hear and observe facial expression and body language. There’s opportunity to ask questions and to clarify meanings.

The message is clear. It adds clarity to what the receiver has done, not done, or needs to do.

The feedback is helpful to the receiver. The message contains good information or new insights that are useful or enlightening.

My purpose in using this exercise in a discussion about annual job evaluations is to make clear that if the conditions for meaningful feedback are absent, performance appraisal becomes a futile exercise. And, our coaching during the evaluation, however well intended, will make little difference to the person we are evaluating. (4)

“You can’t coach a pumpkin!”

That’s the phrase that pretty much sums up my experience with coaching the unwilling and the uncertain.

Most readers have been exhorted, as supervisors, managers, team leaders, and bosses, to coach more, supervise less. That sounds appealing, something to aspire to in a humane and participatory organization with trust and respect abounding.

Well, what happens when we try to coach staff who think they are doing fine and that their current level of performance is good enough? Our suggestion that they need coaching might lead them to ask us about when to find the time, in an already impossible schedule. Writers who blithely advocate coaching more – I was name dropping the term in my management articles as early as 1992 – rarely tell us the how, or, the when.

Nor do the experts talk about the changed expectations for those to be coached – what does it mean to be coached?

In my experience, unlike those admirable athletes under Coaches K and Gail and the student musicians coached by Orpheus, few library staff want to be coached, many are uncertain, and some won’t be coached. The last are as unyielding as a November pumpkin. I think the prevalent talk about an inclusive coaching role for managers fails to address the special relationship demanded for genuine coaching.

A personal learning experience: I once led a large library’s experiment with self managing teams. My administrative job description changed – largely to reflect my desire (and assignment) to implement team and self management concepts in our re-invented organization. I boiled down my two page long single space job description into one sparsely populated piece of paper with three headers: Coaching, Consulting and Leading, with each followed by a few qualifying words.

Naturally, as part of my Coaching I wanted to see how the self managing teams and their team leaders were doing, and, how I could help, challenge and encourage, the modifiers in my job description.

So, I invited myself to sit in on team meetings and promised to be little more than a fly on the wall, to observe unobtrusively. And, after observing, I’d give feedback to the team leader about what I saw.

Most of the meetings were conducted in a formal way, seemingly rehearsed, with participants on their best behavior and no controversial items on any agenda. My fly on the wall role felt like that of the jumbo fly in the classic sci-fi horror flick. Still, I did learn. These team meetings were little different from the department meetings I had sat through in previous years. During project reports, there were few offers of help or ideas for improvement coming from the team members. Complaints still abounded – mostly about issues external to their team, including the administration. Nor, had the team leaders adopted new ways of engaging team members, of evoking ideas and opinions.

Another learning: the hierarchy was clearly still in control and that we were far from achieving the highly effective teams we wanted. Our team development was stuck in phase one, immature. To put it euphemistically, most of our teams were developmentally delayed.

However disappointed I felt personally, the meetings were not a total waste. What I saw underscored the difficulties of changing an organization - most team leaders, while saluting the team flag, were rooted in the familiar world of the department head. Another inhibitor was the organization’s not being clear about what was expected of team leaders and team members. Nor, had the library done enough in the way of training teams.

I think many of us – team leaders and administrators - meant well.  We acted in good, if naďve, faith in moving towards a team based organization. But, hoping for an intuitive, spontaneous positive response to the new way – however much endorsed and practiced by the director of the library - was unrealistic.

Reflecting on that time dredges up mixed feelings: an amused embarrassment at my coaching naiveté, irritated bemusement at a few of the team leaders’ intractability, and, ultimately, puzzlement over why few wanted to do anything different, why there was so little receptivity to trying out new roles. I like to think a few could have humored me, borne with me, and given the situation the benefit of the doubt if only for learning’s sake. I did persist in giving each team leader some feedback about what I had observed. That superficial feedback was expressed and accepted with a mutual sigh of relief – or so it seemed.

What Is Genuine Coaching?

A philosophically profound book, James Flaherty’s Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others offers insights into genuine coaching. For Mr. Flaherty the ends of coaching are self correction; self generation; and long term excellent performance. (5)

Flaherty’s five principals of coaching relate to my team observation experience: 

1. Relationship. For the most part, I enjoyed good relationships with the team leaders. Not surprisingly, those most beholden to the boss/worker paradigm were the least willing to be observed. For Flaherty, the relationship has to be “mutually satisfying” and based on “mutual respect, mutual trust, and freedom of expression.” This level of relationship may be difficult to achieve in the workplace. Supervising has an explicit power imbalance (superior/subordinate) that may impede coaching. Still, if strong trust exists I think it is possible for a supervisor to coach a subordinate, certainly in the zone, Venn diagram-like, where their job interests and responsibilities overlap. 

2. Pragmatic. According to Flaherty, coaching is outcome based with relentless correction based on feedback loops. My attempts to obverse group dynamics were superficial, more information-seeking than outcome based, nor was there “relentless correction.” One observation of a team was hardly enough to get my foot in the door.  To begin a relationship or to create a series of feedback loops would need a greater time investment. Had I dedicated my limited time to those few teams that were open to improvement, I probably would have had more success.

3. Two tracks. Flaherty contends that coaching happens only when “both client and coach are engaged in learning.” Good coaches question their own assumptions, vigilantly correct from outcomes, and abandon prescriptive techniques. My observing team meetings was a sort of learning. However, that “learning” was barely reciprocated by a majority of team leaders. At the risk of overstating the obvious, Flaherty’s two tracks type of coaching is like helping someone become a better writer. The writing coach considers and reflects on written drafts and offers expert advice, encouragement and the best feedback they can muster. For example, if the writer is doing more “telling” than “showing” – interpreting for the reader rather than trusting the reader to interpret - the coach has to make clear what she is observing and how she thinks it can get better – hardly a spur of the moment observation. The writer, of course, carries the burden of actually writing, reflecting, considering, and struggling to work it out for himself.

4. Always/already. Flaherty observes that “human beings are always already in the middle of something.” I was aware that the team leaders had their own way of doing things, they had their own ideas on what worked best in the running of their teams. I understood that to some extent, but also was prone to interpret “where they were” as resistance to team concepts. A more effective coach would have adjusted to this scenario rather than concluding recalcitrance.

5. Techniques don’t work for Flaherty. I suppose my observations were a simplistic technique. Other coaching techniques, perhaps like those in the “Inner Game” series of books by W. Timothy Gallwey, are too limiting and easily figured out by the coach’s client. Flaherty is not totally negative to techniques – we all use them, he says – but we need to be selective and aware of when the situation and timing are right. In my case, observing one meeting and hoping for revelations to come tumbling forth was asking for too much. Likely, had I observed several meetings with one team, gaining trust, listening well, and working hard at giving the most well considered feedback I could, the outcomes would have been far more productive.

So how did my coaching definition hold up? I defined coaching as the interactive process by which a library manager helps a colleague get better in their work.  That definition could be stronger by recognizing the role and investment of the person coached. Clearly, coaching well is more than just less supervising. It is possible for willing managers to coach willing staff when the manager/coach and the employee being coached understand what they are getting into.

Author’s note: John Lubans, Jr. is Visiting Professor at North Carolina Central University, School of Library and Information Science where he teaches management and the academic library. Reach him at Lubans1@nc.rr.com.


1. Lubans, Jr., John. Coaching: A Musical Illustration. (On Managing column) Library Administration & Management, 13: 206-208, Fall, 2005

2. Bryan Strickland, “Krzyzewski's private sessions have inspired Dockery, Melchionni,” The Herald-Sun December 21, 2005


3. Lubans, Jr., John. “A Reason for Rain : Hoop Lessons for Library Leaders”, (On Managing column) Library Administration & Management, 13: 39-43 Winter, 2001

4. I adapted this classroom activity from the book by Tom Coens, Mary Jenkins & Peter Block, Abolishing Performance Appraisals: Why They Backfire and What to Do Instead. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Pub: 2000

5. James Flaherty. Coaching – Evoking Excellence in Others. Boston: Butterworth/Heinemann, 1999.