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In the Zone! Coaching Engineers to their Personal Best

By: Leslie Stevens-Huffman

No matter how much experience or education an engineer has, few can sustain their top performance on their own. Coaches can make a big difference. The best singers, actors and professional athletes rely on coaches to continually improve and stay in the zone. So what’s the secret to coaching an engineer to a higher level?

“A great coach recognizes what someone needs without them asking,” said Atul Kalia, a former engineering director and co-founder of Certus+, a management consulting firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “You need a feel for what each engineer is going through as a professional so you can help them master new skills and take the next step up.”

basketball - in the zone

Here are Kalia’s tips for helping engineers grow beyond their current plateau.

Seek Guidance

Even coaches need coaching. That’s why newly promoted engineering managers should participate in training courses, workshops and seminars, and seek advice from tenured managers.

“It’s important to recognize your own educational needs when it comes to coaching,” Kalia said. “Otherwise you can stumble, and soon, your confidence is shot.”

Managing is tactical. It’s about supplying day-to-day instruction, tools and technical know-how.

Coaching, on the other hand, is an acquired skill that requires competence, confidence and a high degree of emotional intelligence. Or as physician Atul Gawande points out in this article for The New Yorker, coaches observe, judge and guide.

Make It Personal

Chances are every engineer on your team is in a different place. Each one has unique personal, professional and emotional needs based on their tenure, hands-on experience and disposition. And since employees don’t come with an instruction manual, you’ll have to climb into their zone, observe their actions and hone your intuitive abilities to discover that magical space where every engineer feels free to experiment, fail and excel.

“Use a subjective evaluation,” Kalia says. “Study their backgrounds as well as their actions and compare their performance against an ideal skills matrix to identify their strengths and weaknesses.”

Separate coaching activities from performance reviews whenever possible. Over lunch or coffee, ask your engineers about their goals and the hills they’d like to climb. Once you find out more about each employee’s objectives and readiness to take the next step, you’ll be more effective – because you can tailor the way you coach them.

Bridge the Gap

Effective coaches create awareness and a low risk, free-to-fail environment that nurtures an engineer’s spirit, intellectual curiosity and desire to grow. For instance, instead of criticizing, focus on valuable insights during lessons-learned reviews, Kalia says, and if an engineer offers new ideas or ways of doing things, keep an open mind.

Create a coaching-friendly environment by offering engineers stretch assignments, challenging projects and opportunities to make presentations or work with major clients. Ask thought-proving questions that exhilarate and stimulate, instead of telling them what to do.

“Give engineers a chance to fail in a non-catastrophic way, and then provide support, feedback and encouragement until they master a new task, activity or behavior,” Kalia says. “To be an effective coach you have to be aware and in the loop.”

If your gap bridging strategies could use a tune-up, study the Situational Leadership approach developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard. According to the two experts, leaders should vary their coaching styles to match the maturity and readiness of the person and the situation they’re facing. Tailor your level of support and direction, and your team will take it from there.

“An engineer may do what you ask,” Kalia adds. “But with proper coaching, he or she will learn to take the initiative and perform a task without being asked.”

Now, doesn’t that sound like a goal worth attaining with your engineers?

Other information of potential interest

How to Engineer a Just-in-Time Talent Pool

Engineering Solutions to Today’s Talent Shortage

What to Look for in Contractor Engineering Resumes

What Engineers Really Want from Employers

Chemistry Lesson: Using Science to Select Culturally Compatible Contractors

Five Myths about Co-Employment

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