As I emerge from the train station in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District, my senses are overwhelmed with the sights, sounds, and smells of a bustling neighborhood. I’m in the Mission to provide coaching support to a program director at one of the community-based organizations in the neighborhood.
The Mission District is changing. The effects of gentrification and the housing crisis are visible everywhere. All my coaching clients in the neighborhood frequently mention the fears, vulnerability and active resistance of the immigrant community here. They do important and challenging work, and I’m painfully aware of my status as an outsider. So I step lightly, listen carefully and avoid giving any advice too quickly.
We sit down over a plate of pupusas in a bustling restaurant and my coaching client (I’ll call him S— to preserve his privacy) begins to tell me about his coaching needs. S— has been recently appointed to a leadership role in his organization, which provides after-school and summer programs. He was a student in the program years earlier, then a youth volunteer, entry-level staff member, site coordinator and now program director.
“Tell me about your team,” I prompt him. He goes on to describe each of his site coordinators and their context and challenges. Two stand out to me. One of them is much older than him and has far more experience. The other was his peer, working closely with him as a staff member and has recently become a site coordinator reporting to him; they’re close friends. Both of these individuals are good at what they do, and both have some performance issues. S—’s challenge is that neither seems to respect his authority. They both take his direction as advice that they can take or leave. He seems to feel powerless to hold them accountable, especially for small things that do not warrant escalation to human resources or his own supervisor.
S— knows what he is doing. He has the skills and experience to lead this program. In fact, I can’t think of an up-and-coming leader with more potential. He should have every reason to be confident, but when some of his team is dismissive of his direction, he avoids conflict. He knows how to ask good coaching questions and he has the authority to address performance issues, yet he seems to avoid tough conversations with these two site coordinators. “How do I get them to follow directions?” he asked.
This article isn’t an admonition to embrace conflict or use one’s power and privilege to exact compliance from employees. Instead I’d like to suggest, as I did to S—, that coaching can build confidence and trust between a manager and their direct reports. S— and I met every other week for three or four months, and during that time I sought to build up his confidence by encouraging him to demonstrate confidence in his team, so that they would trust him when it counts the most.
Coaching for confidence rather than compliance can be empowering for both the coach and those receiving coaching. Compliance will follow, but when it’s built on a foundation of trust, we are able to build up those who we coach and achieve the organization’s goals. So how do we coach for confidence rather than compliance? The following insights are some of the things S— and I brought into his coaching practice over the course of a few months.
Build Trust before Accountability
The first thing S— and I worked on was building trust with his team. There’s a time and a place for swift, firm disciplinary action over ethical, legal or safety issues. Otherwise, it’s best to prioritize positive interactions to build goodwill. I encouraged S— to focus on showing appreciation for his team. We also discussed ways to create a safe space in coaching conversations. As CompassPoint Nonprofit Services notes in their Action Guide for Coaches, good coaching contributes to the development of nonprofit leaders by providing a safe place for reflection and feedback, increased self-awareness, better management skills and higher levels of confidence.
It would have been easy, but ultimately ineffective, for S— to coach his staff into a corner: Cajoling them into improvement plans would focus on the organization or program rather than their individual goals and aspirations. The Bridgespan Group suggests that “effective development conversations include a candid discussion of the staff member’s aspirations, career trajectory, and goals for the future, as well as an honest assessment of the skills and competencies s/he needs to develop to get there.” The most effective development plans are individualized and the product of collaboration, not direction. Unlike more formal and generalized training, coaching provides a contextualized opportunity to empower individuals and allow them to assess and respond to their own strengths and weaknesses.
As the weeks passed, S—would occasionally admit to neglecting to have coaching conversations or having failed to follow up on a commitment from his team. He was busy and distracted, which we all experience, but he was also avoiding tough conversations and being reactive in his management rather than proactive.
I encouraged him to begin by scheduling coaching conversations for routine times and to plan for coaching conversations after pivotal moments, such as events or the completion of projects. These context-driven, on-demand coaching conversations are often called after action reviews. The combination of after action reviews and scheduled conversations helped S— be more consistent in making time for coaching conversations. We also discussed the importance of follow-through. The task for the coach is to listen more than they speak, ask good questions and follow up on commitments. Without the follow up, it’s just a conversation.
Invest in Your Own Growth
My final admonition to S— was to continue to invest in his growth. People don’t get better at things just because time passes, they have to practice. Practice coaching, get your own coach, attend a coaching workshop or read about coaching, and confidence will follow. If you are not sure where to start, there are a number of resources from the Coaching and Philanthropy Project, which was created to assess and advance coaching as a strategy for building effective nonprofit organizations. These include action guides for coaches, FAQs, tools, case studies and reports.
If you are a nonprofit leader or educator, it is likely that your staff does important and challenging work. If you are a leader, your job is to empower others and build their confidence. So step lightly, listen carefully and avoid giving any advice too quickly.
Daren Howard is the director of business development at Partnership for Children and Youth, an advocacy and capacity-building organization based in Oakland, Calif. He has a background in youth development and nonprofit management and serves a wide range of clients as a consultant in the areas of management and leadership, learning and development, after-school and summer programs, coalition building and organizational effectiveness.