Coaching: practical guidelines

As a senior you will always have high-value priorities competing for your time. There are nine reasons why coaching is one of those most valuable priorities. Set aside time for coaching on a frequently recurring basis.

The guidelines in this document are broken down into a) general guidelines applicable for all departments, including: HR, recruitment, administration, marketing b) technical guidelines for developers.

General guidelines applicable for all departments

Continuous feedback

Give feedback continuously, such as two points every four weeks instead of 12 points in one single meeting every six months. Why?

  1. You and coachee won’t forget the feedback you intend to put forward.
  2. It’s effective because the coachee will digest feedback bit by bit.
  3. It allows the coachee to act sooner.
  4. Conducting the six month appraisals on time becomes easy.

Process; TBD, preliminary and AD docs

Separate Google docs should be used for each of your coachees:

  1. “Name FB – TBD”. To Be Discussed. This is not shared with anyone. Note down feedback ideas often. Example.
  2. “Name FB – Prel”. Preliminary. This is optional but I personally find it practical. In this document I place feedback that I’ve briefly discussed with the coachee. The purpose is to let coachee verify the feedback in detail before moving it over to the widely shared AD doc.
  3. “Name FB – AD”. Already Discussed. This is shared with the coachee and relevant seniors.  Move the feedback here after having presented your TBD, or if using the preliminary doc after the coachee has accepted the feedback.

Other seniors can add to the AD doc as well, and simply suffix the heading with their name. Here’s an extract: “Name FB – AD”. The most recent feedback is added to the top of each section.

Providing continuous feedback is easy once you’ve formed the habit. Recommended process:

  1. We all notice things that our subordinates can improve on a daily basis. Selectively note down your ideas immediately once you notice something that can be valuable.
  2. Add the idea to your TBD doc. It takes half a minute to note down the idea with a few words and copy the Gmail URL or screenshot, especially if you use the send-screenshot-to-dropbox feature.
  3. Depending on your relationship strength with coachee (see below) you can sometimes explain the feedback-to-be directly via email. At this stage you don’t have to explicitly mention that it will be feedback. The feedback-to-be might be slightly vague and the level of criticism should be mild. For example, your junior has not pushed forward a matter far enough and he emails you requesting your help. You can then suffix this to the email: “Ideally push things like this forward even further henceforth. For example do X, Y and Z.”. Add Gmail URL to TBD so you won’t forget to perfect it later.
  4. Set a reminder to discuss TBD points once per month or so, during a block of time that you dedicate to coaching. Points which are already explained via email, require little time and effort to perfect. After discussion copy over a “firm version” from TBD to preliminary or AD.

Bookmark these documents in a folder named “Coach”. Should be easy for you to add ideas to TBDs at any time.

Benefits:

  1. Preparing for an appraisal becomes very easy. The preparation consists of just formatting and improving feedback including the latest relevant sections from the LBPs. If you haven’t noted down feedback ideas continuously it becomes very difficult to find good examples retrospectively.
  2. Jotting down TBD feedback takes little time. Allows us to focus better, and carefully select the most relevant and most high-impact feedback once we set aside time for coaching.
  3. You can improve the clarity of the feedback at a later stage, such as before the appraisal. You can remove irrelevant or low-value feedback.

Notify and share

Notify staff after adding feedback by emailing into a thread named “Feedback – Name”. Use this exact thread name making it easy to search and find the thread.

Benefits:

  1. All seniors will be on the same page and colleagues will learn from similar feedback.
  2. Our feedback becomes uniform. All staff is treated the same way.
  3. We can learn from each other and settle on best practices.

Transparency

When sending the feedback notification, CC relevant staff. We are fair and transparent so don’t hesitate to loop staff in.

Transparency has many advantages. It gives colleagues the best possible chance to grab valuable tasks. It helps them to avoid repeating others’ mistakes. It helps them understand the company’s background and challenges.

When you are open about feedback given to yourself, it’s more likely that your colleagues will embrace feedback given to themselves too. As you know, getting used to transparent feedback can be psychologically overwhelming for new staff especially.

Discuss first, then formalize

Discuss the feedback with the recipient before sharing the final written feedback that is put into the AD doc:

  • To allow the recipient to respond and thereby avoid that incorrect feedback is being shared.
  • To avoid that discussions occur after sharing feedback.
  • To give the feedback a milder and more positive touch; to avoid that the recipient responds negatively.

Acknowledge efforts, build strong relationships, educate, aim for brutal directness

A coaching relationship can be brittle if coachee is: a new employee, someone who might respond emotionally, someone who doesn’t yet understand the coaching concept fully, someone you don’t work much with, someone at similar or higher seniority level who feels “criticized by their junior”.

Aim to build a strong coaching relationship by making sure that your colleague understand the principles and the coaching concept. Educate and explain why coaching is win-win, and why coachee should never get emotional about feedback.

You can acknowledge coachee’s hard work and the difficulties that they have faced. The more brittle the relationship, the more important this is. An acknowledgement will reduce your colleagues need to explain themselves, and make your colleague interpret it correctly.

This being said, the aim is for feedback to be brutally honest and direct. There should be little need for sugar-coating once you’ve formed a strong relationship with your coachee. In a strong relationship the coachee understands that even brutally direct feedback is for their own good.

High impact

Bring up the highest impact examples that you can think of; feedback that have most effect on value-creation. Simple feedback that can be applied to many frequently recurring situations can also have a high impact through its cumulative potential. Only through high-quality examples can we expect high-quality results.

Clarity, specificity, screenshots

Write a concise introduction to each feedback point (example). Anyone should be able to quickly grasp the example at a later stage, including clients and new staff.

Screenshots help us grasp situations faster. But ideally your feedback should be graspable even without looking at the screenshot. If we don’t need to open up external screenshots, that saves time.

I mostly use external screenshots these days to keep feedback documents neat. After years of feedback, documents can become lengthy if we use inline screenshots, and we need a clear overview.

The obvious benefit of inline screenshots is that it’s easier to grasp without having to waste time opening separate links. You can use inline screenshots during the appraisal for this reason if you wish. But convert them into external screenshots after the appraisal or when the AD doc becomes too lengthy. Converting internal screenshots to external is super-simple using the send-to-Dropbox feature.

Nowadays I personally use external screenshot links even for the appraisal though this is a matter of taste. While presenting the feedback I show the screenshot alone in a separate document or a separate tab on the external monitor only. The feedback text is shown only on my monitor. This is to avoid that the appraisee focuses on reading the feedback text during the appraisal, and instead focuses on the discussion.

Avoid large inline screenshots when possible; take a screenshot of the relevant part of the screen. If emailing feedback: If you need to paste a big screenshot, use the “best fit” image option in Gmail.

In addition to screenshots, include links such as a Basecamp link to a specific comment, in case anyone wants to dig deeper.

Bring up specific project situations and make it really simple to understand them for anyone at any time (concise summary of the case, screenshots, relevant chat transcript snippet or whatever may help to grasp the scenario quickly).

Routines

In addition to your spontaneous feedback, set up routines to catch common mistakes. You could go through the following periodically:

  • The actual deliverables, such as features reported as completed in case of developers
  • Emails and chat messages received from your juniors
  • Time entries
  • Reports
  • Time overviews
  • Work plans / todo lists
  • Previous feedback, is it acted on?

For developers and designers, go through:

  • Basecamp messages
  • Chat transcripts
  • Code
  • Bitbucket commits

You obviously won’t have time to go through all time entries, chat transcripts, messages, reports, commits and code. But do enough random spot checks to come up with quality feedback.

Set up a coaching requirement in each project in the ERP/Portal where you book the time you spend. We can then evaluate if enough coaching time has been spent, how much time is appropriate to spend, and plan for the future.

Include references to principles

Sections from our principles which are related to your feedback can be pasted into the feedback doc. Paste without formatting, then use italics, hyperlink the heading, place it below the feedback. I’ve included only the first paragraph to save space and encourage coachee to visit the LBPs. This is not mandatory as such, but can help to bolster your message.

Benefits:

  1. Saves you time explaining why a concept is important. Explains the concept from another angle which complements your own interpretation.
  2. The LBPs are continuously being perfected, so if your colleague revisits old feedback the link might contain a newer and clearer version than the one you had copied X months ago.
  3. A copied section hints at that the feedback ideally could have been avoided, because the concept was already explained in the LBPs.
  4. A copied section hints at that there might be other important sections in the LBPs that your colleague has missed.
  5. Adds authority to your feedback.

There’s a risk that the feedback doc becomes too lengthy. You don’t have to copy the same sections often. Include only if you find a LBP section that matches well. If there are inconsistencies and you think the LBPs need to be updated, contact me.

Standard feedback structure

Structure your feedback the following way, and like in this example:

  1. The problem story.
  2. Acknowledgement (optional).
  3. What you should have done differently.
  4. Generalization; make it relevant to broad audience (optional).
  5. Principles reference (optional).

Seniors’ feedback is a complement

Your seniors may continue to give feedback to your juniors. This is to give you inspiration and to show you what type of feedback we feel is important. Ideally all coaching of your juniors should be handled by yourself though. So feedback from your seniors to your juniors is just complementary to your own feedback; never rely on it!

Appraisal delays

Staff are responsible to prepare their input (appraisal guidelines) on time and to send their appraisal input to their senior when ready.

It’s not a problem if the appraisal meeting is held slightly after the actual effective date of the hike, as long as your colleague is aware that the ball is in their court. This being said, do not to delay your subordinates’ appraisals too much.

Delays can lead to problems:

  1. Staff will improve slower as seniors are not given the opportunity to re-stress your feedback.
  2. If the payout of salary hikes are delayed, the appraisee might be demotivated. Management can only decide on the hike after the appraisal is conducted and we may need some weeks to benchmark salaries and take a final hike decision.
  3. The appraise might feel that you don’t care enough about the appraisee’s training. Yes, staff is responsible to take the initiative to apply for an appraisal, but at a certain point of time you need to step in if the appraisee delays too much.
  4. If the payout of salary hikes are delayed, then administration and accounting becomes more complex. Management accounting reports may also become complex.

The effects of delays are more severe for new staff, who need to digest many principles and much feedback, and who might react more negatively to a delayed payout.

Seniors’ appraisal input / PL input

You don’t have to bring up old basic feedback that the employee already has taken action on such as the fact that a new employee didn’t book time properly during his first two weeks of employment here at LB. Instead try to contrast early feedback with late feedback; what does your colleague still have to improve – what has s/he not yet taken action on? Read through old feedback before deciding on your input.

You can create a temporary appraisal input document if you wish, as has been practiced till date with the PLs input docs in the technical team. You can also show your input directly from the feedback already discussed (AD) doc. Avoid discussing any pending TBD feedback during the appraisal meeting.

Remove your temporary PL input doc after you’ve moved it into AD. Keeping all feedback in one place is convenient. All stakeholders can easily refer back to old feedback at any later point of time. We get an overview, we see how feedback has evolved.

To allow us to find examples that were brought up during the appraisal, suffix a tag in the AD doc such as #APPRAISAL-AUG-2018# (example). The tag should match the month in which appraisal took place.

The appraisal meeting

Make sure that the appraisee has prepared input as per the instructions before we have the meeting.

Direct your input to the appraisee. There’s sometimes a tendency to explain feedback to the most senior instead of explaining it to the appraisee.

“YOU did X which caused problem Y. In the future I’d like YOU to do Z.”

is much better than:

“AppraiseeName did X which caused problem Y. AppraiseeName should do Z”.

Like we ask of the appraisee: Keep appraisal meetings brief. All stakeholders will have reviewed your input before the meeting, so give a quick 2-3 sentence recap. If appraisal meetings take too much time, there’s a risk that people will start dreading them. Aim for the meeting to take max 40 minutes.

After the appraisal, write an appraisal summary to stress the most important takeaways one last time. Include the links to the appraisee’s input document. Send the summary in a separate email. The summary should not be long, but very concise. Try to make it unique. It’s good if you send it a few days after the meeting.

I will re-stress the summarized points when informing the final salary hike in a face-to-face meeting. This shows the appraisee how clearly performance is linked to the actual salary hike, and what we expect the next six months. I usually wait a week or more, to allow for the appraisal to sink in before stressing everything again.

The appraisal meeting is a good opportunity for you to ask if the appraisee wishes to see any change here at LiteBreeze. Which are the most frustrating parts of their work (there’s always something even if it’s a minor detail)? And for developers – what type of clients, projects and technology would they ideally like to work with? Findings can be passed on to HR/recruiters in the appraisal summary.

Always personalize feedback

“Identifying who made mistakes is essential to learning. It is also a test of whether a person will put improvement ahead of ego and whether he will fit into the Bridgewater culture. A common error is to say, ‘We didn’t handle this well,’ rather than, ‘Harry didn’t handle this well.’ This occurs when people are uncomfortable connecting specific mistakes to specific people because of ego sensitivities. This creates dysfunctional and dishonest organizations. Since individuals are the most important building blocks of any organization and since individuals are responsible for the ways things are done, the diagnosis must connect the mistake to the specific individual by name. Someone created the procedure that went wrong, or decided we should act according to that procedure, and ignoring that fact will slow our progress toward successfully dealing with the problem.” – Ray Dalio

Guidelines specific to the technical team

Booking coaching time

The rule of thumb is to book coaching time as billed. Coaching will benefit the client and it’s tightly linked to managing the project.

If it’s an extreme situation where the client would balk at the time being billed, or the client disputes this time, we can always rebook some of it as unbilled.

Add a coaching requirement to the work plan to keep it synced with the time sheet overview.

Code reviews

You can delegate code reviews to a colleague who is great at coding but who may not be at your seniority level due to for example inadequate service quality  skills. Just make sure that those reviews are done well, and that quality code examples are brought up in the appraisal meeting.

Technical appraisals – who should lead?

To decide who will preside over an employee’s appraisal meeting, check what projects that the employee has spent most time on and which project leaders who are responsible for those projects.

Let the project leader who has managed most of the appraisee’s hours handle that appraisal. However if that senior already handles many appraisals, you may make an exception and let the less busy project leader take over. Exceptions can also be made for the purpose of training potential new project leaders.

Asking clients for feedback

You can send copies of your feedback to clients as well. Benefits:

  • They will appreciate your efforts to help the team, and ultimately help the them.
  • They will appreciate our honesty and transparency, and that we strive to learn from our mistakes.
  • It’s a chance for you to build rapport with the client, show that you are involved and show that you are ultimately responsible for quality in the project. It will help cement your position as the leader and reduce upward delegation.
  • They will understand the effectiveness of constructive feedback, and may even send their own.

Constructive feedback sent to us directly from clients is an information gold mine. If we can act on what the client deems most important, imagine the impact it will have on the client’s satisfaction.

After an incident where the client has criticized us, sending copies of feedback related to the biggest problems can help us regain some of the lost rapport. This worked very well in project F in November 2016, where the client representative was impressed that we had taken his concerns so seriously. He was pleased that we had discussed the issues in such detail with each single team member, and explained what we will do differently next time.

Before sending these feedback copies, the client representative thought that the repercussions for developers at LiteBreeze, for making mistakes, were minimal. That’s why he was happy to see that each developer had received individual and personalized feedback, and to learn that this feedback determines salary hikes and designations.

He liked the fairness and transparency of this system; earlier he had complained that he felt that we try to sweep things under the rug and make excuses. He trusts our organization more when knowing that we are truly meritocratic. And more importantly, he understands that he can expect better quality from us in the future.

Aim to make feedback as transparent as possible. Ideally, you should just have to share the same feedback with the client, without editing or needing to retract sensitive information. This saves you time. We’ve got nothing to hide and if there’s something very sensitive, we can always put it across in a separate email to the coachee.

Sending feedback copies to clients would make even more sense if the person responsible for handling most of the communication is not a PL/APL with a team but a single developer. You may not communicate with these clients frequently, so it would remind them that you have an important and valuable role even if it’s mostly behind the scenes. It builds rapport.

Before sending a request for feedback, show the client what feedback you already have provided. The client’s feedback is complementary to yours. You can attach this article when requesting feedback from clients.