What is Professional Coaching?
Every employee in your company, even the best and brightest, occasionally comes up against a problem that seems too big, hard, or intimidating to solve. For some, it may be a technical challenge for which they don’t have the background; for others it may be a management situation they haven’t encountered before; and for others it may be a strategic decision with enormous consequences. In any case, employees can become confused and intimidated and get stuck behind the challenge. How can you rescue them from this situation and get them back on track? programmer
You already have two approaches: training and mentoring, and these work well enough when the employee just needs more information or instruction on how to break through. But sometimes these aren’t enough: sometimes the employee needs to find her own path through the problem, and that’s where a professional coach can be helpful. A professional coach assumes that the employee is already competent to solve the problem, and helps her marshal her resources, make a plan, and carry the plan through to a successful conclusion. It’s not really a teaching experience: it’s a way of guiding her through the complexities of the problem to a new solution.
What’s New About Coaching Engineers?
Many industries have adopted coaching as a standard management skill, but the engineering fields seem to be behind the curve – why should that be? First, most engineering cultures have a distrust of warm and fuzzy approaches to problems, that can’t be reduced to a process. In fact, coaching is anything but warm and fuzzy, but the image still remains and makes engineering managers nervous about asking for coaching help.
Second, engineers are inveterate problem solvers – their whole training revolves around the idea that any problem can be solved with the right analytical tools and enough effort. So, when an engineer gets stuck behind a truly difficult problem, she may try for a very long time to solve it using all the techniques in her training. Sometimes this approach works, but often the problem is not external: she is stuck behind her own view of the world, or is too intimidated to get started. It can take engineers a very long time to ask for help, when faced with a problem that they can’t solve, just where coaching would be of the most benefit.
Coaching for Engineering Executives
The idea of executive coaching isn’t new: companies have been providing their most senior managers with outside coaching for years, and executive coaching has become standard business practice in many industries. Coaches help executives think through complex decisions, help them make complex tradeoffs, and provide a sympathetic ear and honest feedback for the burdens of being at the top. But engineering executives are some of the last to have access to professional coaching. Why should this be? I think that the specialized nature of the engineering business makes it difficult to find coaches knowledgeable enough to help executives with the detailed decisions they need to make. It is difficult for an executive to work effectively with a coach when she constantly has to explain the context of her challenges and decisions.
Coaching for Engineering Managers
The middle managers are the unsung heros of any organization: they bear the responsibility of translating corporate strategies into plans and schedules, of coordinating and allocating resources, and of hiring, firing, and managing most of the employees. They have a complex, uncertain job and they are more likely to be noticed when something goes wrong, than when their division is running smoothly.
Professional coaching helps engineering managers at all level to focus on the difficult choices that they have to make, to weigh risks against rewards, to think through resource allocations, and to make the best choices in difficult situations. Coaches also provide support and encouragement for engineering managers who are in lonely, stressful situations.
Coaching for Project Leaders
In engineering management, project leaders are at the point of the spear. It is project managers who have to formulate and track schedules, react to crises of schedule or personnel, mentor and guide their project members and, report complex project status and situations in simple terms to their own managers. To make their life more difficult, many project managers are promoted directly from the ranks of engineers and receive little or no training for the new skills that are required of them.
A project leader who has a professional coach to turn to can practice her new skills in a safe environment, and can talk through the new relationship between herself and the project members, who may her former colleagues. She can try out different ways of dealing with her own manager, or of directing her project members before she has to commit herself.
Coaching for Individual Contributors
And what about the engineers themselves – the workers in the cubicles who write the software or lay out the circuits or design the mechanical linkages that go into the product – what use can they make of a coach? Individual contributors experience the same challenges and frustrations as any of the managers, and a coach can help them to cope with the pressure of the job, or to balance their work demands against those of their friends and family. They can use a coach to talk through some of their career goals, or to identify the technologies they need to succeed. And a coach serves as an important relief valve for frustrations that might otherwise drive the engineer out the door.