Sticky Notes: The Best Coaching Begins with Customization

Home in on the strengths, weaknesses, and needs of each of your direct reports—and keep fine-tuning your approach over time.

The best coaching-style managers consistently do the following things:

  1. They customize their approach with every person because every person is different. This is what I call tuning in to each person’s unique frequency.
  2. They choose their words carefully to make sure they get the facts right, balance criticism with praise, and try hard to strike an appropriate tone. This is what I call accuracy.
  3. They set concrete goals with clear parameters and deadlines every step of the way. This feature tells you exactly how specific your feedback must be.
  4. They make time regularly to give feedback. Effective feedback is

Remember the acronym FASTfrequent, accurate, specific, and timely. If you add this acronym to the core competency of coaching—feedback— you get a simple model that is easy to learn and easy to teach to other managers: FAST Feedback

Unique Frequencies

Tuning in to each person’s unique frequency is by far the subtlest aspect of coaching, the hardest part to learn, the most daunting to teach. The problem is that asking people how much feedback they need is usually not much help. Those who truly know how much feedback they require are likely to be so self-aware they are also primarily self-motivated. That doesn’t mean they won’t need any feedback—they do—but they are not the ones who leave you scratching your head. Those who do leave you scratching your head are probably less self-aware, so they won’t be a good source of information. For example, most low performers want to be left alone.

All your employees come to work with different levels of ability and skill: different backgrounds, personalities, styles, ways of communicating, work habits, and motivations. Some of them need more guidance than others. One employee needs the details spelled out, while another has the details memorized. One responds best if you ask questions, while another prefers you tell them the answers. Some need lots of reminders, while others need you to check in just once a week.

Your direct reports each have something different they need from a manager in order to succeed and earn more.

The only way to cope with the incredible diversity among your employees is to figure out what works with each person and then customize your management style accordingly

Customizing your management approach requires a lot of effort at the beginning. You have to start homing in on the strengths, weaknesses, and needs of each of your direct reports. But you also have to keep fine-tuning your approach over time, as things change.

Fine-Tuning Your Approach

The best way to keep fine-tuning your approach to each person is to continually ask yourself six key questions about each employee:

  1. Who is this person at work?
  2. Why do I need to manage this person?
  3. What do I need to talk about with this person?
  4. How should I talk with this person?
  5. Where should I talk with this person?
  6. When should I talk with this person?

Experiment. Pay close attention. Experiment some more. Whatever brings out the best performance is the winning frequency. Says Sgt. Maj. Whaley, who coached thousands himself and taught coaching—Marine style—to tens of thousands, “You can write down the steps to riding a bicycle, but that doesn’t mean you know how to ride a bicycle.”

Want vs. Need

Finally, it is generally unwise to ask each employee how they want to be managed. What an employee wants from you is not always the same as what they need. Often, employees think they know what they want from a manager, but don’t know what they want until they actually get it and it starts working.

Bruce Tulgan
Bruce Tulgan is a best-selling author and CEO of RainmakerThinking, the management research, consulting, and training firm he founded in 1993. All of his work is based on 27 years of intensive workplace interviews and has been featured in thousands of news stories around the world. His newest book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done” ( Harvard Business Review Press) is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all major booksellers. Follow Tulgan on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his Website at: