If you're a business leader, you as performance coach is problematic.

Unlike the relationship between an employee and an actual business coach, your employer-employee relationship is, let's say, vertically challenged. Here's why:

  • A business coach will take an employee's goals at face value and work with that person to achieve them. But as a business leader, your agenda often cuts cross-grain against the employee's goals and dreams.
  • Every business coach guarantees confidentiality. Business leaders can't always do that.
  • A business coach creates a sense of safety that makes openness easy. But your career-altering power reduces safety and makes openness difficult.

Not only that: when you're a leader, the "coach" moniker brings with it an expectation of superior experience, knowledge and skill. It pits you as the expert, and can quickly turn you into an advice-giver, problem-solver or wisdom-dispenser.

This can mess with the employee's head--short-circuiting their sense of agency and triggering second-guessing, learned helplessness and a lack of ownership.

So how can you as a business leader still achieve the benefits of a solid coaching relationship?

By not coaching at all--but partnering.

Coaching = to and for

Coaching often draws parenting behaviors out of leaders: they either become the over-nurturing or the over-directive parent. More specifically:

  • Over-nurturing occurs when you ascribe to the idealistic notion that "coaching is simply self-discovery." You feel obliged to accept and work with any idea the employee comes up with. This creates dubious value because too often, the employee will be under-challenged and their potential will be squandered.
  • Conversely, over-directing is more of a reptilian response: "my career is on the line. I need results from you now." The leader overpowers the employee's ideas, goals and concerns. This shuts the employee's brain down--and produces a state of learned helplessness.

And that's the key difference between coaching and partnering: coaching can quickly devolve into doing something to or for someone, while partnering can only be done with someone.

Partnering = with

Partnering demands that the employee's goals need to work with your goals.

The employee's ideas need to harmonize with your ideas. Their experience needs to be honored with yours. What matters most to them must be reconciled with what matters most to you.

It's the "with" that keeps the spice in the relationship.

If you're truly partnering with an employee, there should be times when you insist, challenge and demand that they live up to the capabilities they possess.

Partnering doesn't mean you never offer advice, solutions or hard-won wisdom. But the central focus in partnering is co-creation: creating value with the employee.

Partnering = more than problem solving

Partnering is about two people standing for each other's success.

It's bigger than solving a problem, fixing a performance issue or resolving conflict. Certainly, partnering includes these things but also transcends them in some key ways. That's because partnering is the way you as a business leader:

  • build resourcefulness vs. forcing your resources (i.e., your expertise and solutions);
  • unlock belief vs. drumming up determination;
  • cultivate decision-making capability vs. "guiding" toward the decision you want;
  • get the employee's and your needs met vs. suppressing one or the other;
  • ask the employee to own their own outcomes vs. you owning them; and
  • help the employee outgrow entitlement vs. trying to curb or contain it.

Try this 3-step, non-coaching narrative

To start partnering, here are three things to ask your employees--allowing you to achieve the benefits of a coaching relationship, without actually coaching at all.

  • "What matters most to you in this situation?" Prove that you understand what matters most to your employee by reflecting it back. Then share what matters most to you. Ensure you've been understood by asking, "What are you hearing?"
  • "What do we both want?" Recognize your differences, and encourage finding common ground. Ask "What is it we both want here that would allow us to move forward?" Find the outcome that matters most to both of you--the common ground that sustains the feeling of partnership.
  • "How might we...?" Companies like IDEO, Google and Facebook all drive the creative process with this one simple, powerful piece of narrative. Ask "How might we partner to achieve the common ground?" This sends a clear signal to your employee: I'm not here to fix this for you, but neither am I throwing it over the fence for you to fix. Let's co-create a solution that works for both of us.

Partnering helps employees flourish

Maybe you have one or more employees with far more to give than they are demonstrating. Partnering is one effective way to get the performance, accountability and results you need from them.

The challenge is in recognizing whether you're being more of a coach than a partner--and then making that shift using the narrative above.