8 habits of highly effective coaches

As a leader on campus, part of your role is to help retain and develop other staff members, either in a formal capacity as their manager or in a less formal mentor relationship.

But that's easier said than done. When asked to coach an employee, most managers demonstrate behaviors that are closer to micromanaging, according to one study. This is likely to disengage your employees and mentees—and could even drive them to leave.

Instead, effective coaches treat their employees with compassion and empower them to learn new skills, according to Elena Aguilar, educator and author of The Art of Coaching, and Anthony Tjan, CEO, managing partner, and founder of the venture capital firm Cue Ball.

Drawing on their individual coaching experiences, Aguilar and Tjan recommend adopting the following eights habits to become an effective coach:

Habit 1: Reinforce the mission. When coaching an employee or mentee, remember that your work not only benefits those individuals—it also benefits your students, explains Aguilar. Articulate your institution's commitment to students and clearly outline how  your employee's work contributes to student success.

Habit 2: Put the other person first. The essence of mentorship is helping others. The best mentors help their mentees "feel like fuller versions of themselves," according to Tjan. Your first priority as a coach is to develop new leaders, not to build yourself a fan club.

Habit 3: Take the time to get to know your mentee. It's easy for mentors to fall into a "check the box" attitude with mentorship, acknowledges Tjan. But he argues that it's crucial to establish an authentic, "intercollegial" relationship with your mentee. Tjan cites research by Belle Rose Ragins, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which found that without a baseline relationship, there is no actual benefit to a mentorship at all. 

Habit 4: Practice compassion. When you approach your employees with compassion, you can better understand their perspectives, notes Aguilar. Compassionate leaders can also defuse frustrating situations and uncover why some employees resist change, she adds.

Habit 5: Listen. Your employees want to be heard, argues Aguilar. To be an effective coach, you must actively listen to your employee's concerns and ideas, she adds. At its heart, active listening involves paraphrasing what the other person said, then asking for confirmation that you paraphrased correctly. Focus entirely on the conversation (don't sneak a glance at your phone) and ask clarifying questions.

Habit 6: Consider how people learn. When you teach your employees a new skill, don't expect them to master it within a few days, warns Aguilar. Instead, she recommends, follow the same principles teachers use in the classroom: introduce the material in chunks and gradually build an employee's confidence to take on more complicated tasks.

And the best coaches "shape other people's character, values, self-awareness, empathy, and capacity for respect"—rather than treating every mentorship like skills training, according to Tjan.  Showing your mentee how to do something technical is certainly helpful, but unless the mentorship was explicitly structured around skills training, it's probably not what your mentee was hoping to get out of the mentorship.

Habit 7: Support your employee's ambitions. Over time, your staff and mentees might come to see you as a safe audience for their more unconventional ideas. In these moments, your first reaction may be "to help them think more realistically," notes Tjan. But over time, this can wear down your mentee's enthusiasm and initiative.

Instead, try your best to find a way your employee's idea could work, urges Tjan. "Mentors need to be givers of energy, not takers of it."

Habit 8: Monitor your progress. Reflect on how you've grown as a coach, recommends Aguilar. Keep track of your strengths and weaknesses as a mentor, and don't forget to seek feedback on how to improve (Aguilar, Education Week, 10/7/18; Tjan, Harvard Business Review, 2/27/17).

Read more about workplace mentorships

2 questions the most effective coaches ask every employee

3 things all mentors should provide

The 9 essential coaching skills the best leaders use

5 ways to be a better mentor


Next in Today's Briefing

How to get more faculty engaged in student success initiatives

Next Briefing

  • Manage Your Events
  • Saved webpages and searches
  • Manage your subscriptions
  • Update personal information
  • Invite a colleague