Qualities of a successful coach

November 1, 2007
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Ownership and empowerment are terms frequently used in the safety arena. Teams are formed and expected to accomplish safety initiatives. The team is “empowered,” asked to take “ownership” and lead the facility population to success, often without resources.

Consider the scenario of putting a football team on the field and saying, “OK, now play and win.” They know the plays, they know the rules, they know the game and they want to win. But can they accomplish this effectively without help, guidance and reassurance? Of course not! If this were true, why would sports organizations pay such high salaries for coaches?

The “team” concept in a safety process helps to ensure employees’ participation and involvement in the safety effort. However, coaches are needed in the areas of problem-solving, decision-making, time management, resolving conflicts, delegating responsibility and helping to build the lead team and subsequent sub-teams and more.

When my company implements our cultural/behavioral safety process in a facility, we develop a lead team and determine and fill lead team positions, and we assign sub-teams and clearly define and communicate roles and responsibilities. An important position on the lead team and for the process as a whole is that of “coach.” Often, more than one coach is recruited. Coaches are chosen from the management/supervision pool because a degree of authority (especially in matters of expenditures and manpower allocation) is required to enable teams to make decisions and procure necessary resources.

What is required in the coaching effort of the safety process? What attributes and skills should coaches possess?

Commitment

Commitment to allocating time for the team(s) and the process is crucial. In a cultural/behavioral safety process, the amount of time spent upfront, identifying the culture, training, establishing teams, developing the process tools and organization is essential. Those in coaching positions need to be willing to dedicate the time necessary to help get the ball rolling and keep it rolling. This includes helping procure time allocation for team members to accomplish what needs to be done.

Coaches must be willing to guide, not direct. While coaches come from the management ranks, this does not mean coaches are to strictly hand down orders. The team’s progress and the process will flourish best under a guiding hand rather than iron-fist directives.

A good way to fill the coach position(s) is through using an interview-type process. The interview is conducted by the lead team (hourly and salaried composition). This helps determine a level of commitment to the effort.

Observation

To guide teams and the safety effort, coaches must know the culture as it stands. This allows insight into the perceptions of all plant personnel involved. Utilizing and sharing this information can help you derive solutions to obstacles and develop plans of action.

Coaches need to observe, examine and note the group dynamics of all teams. If problems between members develop, a coach can be ready to help work out differences. Conscious awareness of bottlenecks in team activities comes through persistent observation on the part of coaches. Awareness is the first step to resolution.

Individual dynamics within teams also bear watching. You must identify individual wants and goals in order for a group to effectively interact. Good observation and response to individuals within the process is as important as the group as a whole.

Accountability accepted

The responsibility of coaching carries accountability. Coaches need to share accountability for the team’s activities and results. The group needs to be aware that coaches are as responsible and accountable as they are for what happens in the safety process. However, it is important to note that management has the ultimate responsibility and accountability for plant safety.

A misconception often found in some facilities using a behavior-based safety (BBS) process is that everything is turned over to the hourly personnel and they become totally responsible for all that happens, thereby delegating management accountability. One facility leader actually told us, “We are turning the keys over to the inmates.” Those in leadership roles need to accept that everyone is accountable in the safety process. If employees believe that “we’re all in this together,” true ownership and participation can happen.

Communication

While the term “communication” may be thought of as overused, the safety process is so people-oriented that unless information is continually shared, the process will falter. Communicating well enables trust and meaningful understanding on all sides.

Coaching is a two-way process. Effective coaches are able to communicate feeling as well as content. Communicating with no personal agenda and without judging are essential aspects of the communication process, especially when dealing with personal anxieties and expectations. Good coaching uses communication not to give the answers but to help those involved find the answers.

Coaches have to share information with layers of participants. They need to connect the lines so everyone has an understanding of what has happened and what is expected to happen. It is part of the coaches’ responsibility to keep this flow steady and uninterrupted.

A good coach will continually engage participants in sharing ideas, obstacles and observations. Talk to people, ask questions and personally share information.

Honesty

Integrity and trust are significant factors in successful coaching relationships. In the majority of our safety culture surveys, these areas rank high in “Needs improvement/resolution.”

We find that most employees accept (while they may not like it) true hard facts over ambiguous answers. For example, if an expenditure for new equipment is not going to happen, it needs to be said, quickly followed by soliciting help to develop an alternative fix. It is often hard to say, “I don’t know how to solve this…I don’t know what to do,” but the honesty of this revelation and request for help can reap tremendous rewards.

Building trust between all levels within an organization is the foundation of success. Honesty is the cornerstone of this foundation. Coaches need to tell those they are guiding the truth and work out the consequences together.

Inspire and Incent

Coaches should inspire people to participate and perform at their best levels. Reinforcement is a huge part of a team’s success.

In a football game, not only is a touchdown celebrated, but so is every five-yard gain. Positive reinforcement for incremental progress leads to more and more gains. Recognition of accomplishment is probably one of the leading motivators for people. Remember that recognition patterns may need to vary as people’s needs are different and circumstances and timing are unpredictable. A successful coach recognizes this and utilizes it at every opportunity.

Non-judgmental guidance

When coaches see areas for improvement, they should tell the teams and employees. But this should be done in a manner that does not appear to find fault; rather, suggesting alternatives to enhance performance. Fault-finding is often easy; encouraging improvement is not. But the positive effect is stronger.

Coaching draws out more than puts in and develops more than imposes. A coach needs to help people understand that a mistake is not necessarily a failure. It is one point in time. Failure needs to be removed from the coach’s vocabulary. If a particular mistake is identified and viewed from a perspective of “where things went wrong and how it can be turned around,” improvement can happen. It is a challenge to eliminate the “failure” thought process. Good coaches show that we learn from our mistakes, correct them and move on to future successes.

Good listening

Good listening is a key to good communication. Listening skills and resisting the urge to give immediate advice are essential attributes of successful coaching. It is central to helping people find direction and solutions. Listening is probably the most important ability and activity of a coach. It takes patience and practice. In coaching, listening is more important than talking. Listening to people can help them overcome doubts. By being completely objective and giving undivided attention, people sense a high level of support and intuitively will ask questions and look for guidance from the coach.

The bottom line is that coaching is necessary in a BBS process and any team situation. Coaching should not be an obligation; it needs to be a commitment. The safety process needs dedicated coaches who are “champions” willing to guide the team to success.

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