Learning to counsel followers is a critical leadership skill. Even if you practice this skill poorly, following the steps and format will set you far in front of other leaders. Some organizations use a practice called supervision to meet weekly with employees to review work progress, quantity, and quality. Counseling is much more. It is a follower focused conversation, and performance is one area that has its own categories. Common types of counseling include:
- Orientation or New Hire
- Professional Development
- Periodic Performance Counseling, and
- Event Based Counseling.
Leaders select the type of counseling to match the circumstances. Each category requires a different type of conversation based on the follower’s situation. There are three options, directive, leader facilitated, and follower led. Follower-focused, servant-based leadership principles are important for all leaders. Understanding the types of counseling conversations helps effective leaders select the best option.
The first and most commonly used counseling options is directive. From the leader’s perspective, this is the easiest, fastest method of counseling others. The leader does most of the talking. You may answer some questions, or ask follow up, back brief questions to ensure understanding, but this type of counseling is one way. The follower speaks little. Receives information provided by the leader and takes action. This option is necessary, but often is a lighter version of a drill sergeant telling privates to do push-ups.
The second option is leader facilitated. This method requires leaders to understand, especially when dealing with experienced people, that the led know some things about what ever prompted the counseling conversation to occur. The leader must think ahead about what information to provide in the way of telling, and what information should be provided by way of asking. The leader needs to understand what knowledge the other person reasonably has about the situation and how well they communicate. The leader must also think about how to ask questions in such a way to obtain narrative results rather than yes or no answers. Leaders who practice this option are more successful counselors than their peers who only use directive options. Practice is the key word, however. It is easy to ask a couple of questions, not receive the responses you expect, and return to a directive session. If you are not receiving the responses you expect, it is because you lack an understanding of the situation, have a different point of view of the situation from the follower, or you are not asking the right questions the right way. Learning to ask the right questions the right way requires practice, which can only be obtained by using this method for counseling followers.
The third option is follower led counseling. Typically, this occurs when an employee or other follower approaches you with a problem. The easy way to deal with this is provided an immediate solution. The hard way is to counsel the person. Start sessions like these with questions to help the other person think about the issues surrounding the problem. Help them start to understand how to ask questions and identify information they need to solve the problem. Colin Powell has been quoted as saying something like, “When people stop bringing you their problems, you stopped leading them.” While there is some truth in that statement, if you teach your people to solve their own problems, there will be no need for them to bring them to you. Instead, they will bring you stories of their successes from the skills you provided them.
Types of Counseling
New Hire and Orientation
Most larger organizations leave this task to HR. Most smaller organizations may provide a brief tour and show people how to answer the phone. As a result, most leaders never think they should spend time with their new employee or volunteer to orient them to their section. This counseling typically is directive. The new person lacks knowledge and the leader possesses it. The leader uses the session to establish expectations for the employee. Setting expectations should include what the employee expects of the leadership in the organization, not just what the leader expects of the new person. This session can be standardized to ensure everyone receives the same information when they first start. In my organization, an orientation is provided to all new employees, volunteers, and even members of the Board of Directors. The Executive Director counsels each person and identifies what the other expects of the organization. There is a checklist of tasks for new hires to complete, and the counseling is one of those tasks.
A professional development counseling session, is either leader facilitated or follower led, depending on who starts the conversation. If you want to develop your people, this conversation is necessary. Use this time to find out what personal and professional goals the person has. If they do not have goals, work with them to set professional goals that support the organization’s mission. Find out what things interest the person. Identify talents they possess. Learn about their experiences. Use this knowledge to develop a professional development plan that involves formal education or training; self development through reading, self study, or difficult growth tasks; and by establishing a path for success in successive assignments. Write it down on paper or word processor. Keep a copy for you to review with them later, and ensure the employee has a copy to review periodically to align their discretionary time to complete these growth tasks.
Periodic Performance Counseling
This is a leader facilitated event. No employee should ever be surprised by their annual review. Their leaders should take time throughout the rating period to review and discuss their professional conduct. If you really care about those you lead being successful, these conversations are absolutely mandatory. People will only really know if they are doing the right things the right way if you tell them they are. Using probing questions during this conversation allows the employee to express the quality of their work from their understanding of what they believe has been asked of them. As a result, you better understand why someone is working well, or has room for improvement. Use these sessions to ensure you communicate the standards and the person’s progress in complying with those standards, so they can continue to improve.
Event Based Counseling
These sessions should be used to identify the causes of exceptionally great or poor performance for a given event. Examples might include a fantastic presentation a worker made to the Board of Directors, or how someone lost an important and expensive piece of equipment. These sessions all start with a directive tone. Depending on the circumstances, you may want to switch to a leader facilitated session to better understand what happened and why. This is true for positive and negative events. Knowing what went well, so it can be repeated is just as important as understanding what caused things to go wrong, so they can be avoided. Always document these sessions. The documentation helps justify future rewards or punishment for continued similar behaviors.
Counseling followers is a critical leadership skill developed over time with practice. However, if you take the time to conduct orientation, development, performance, and event-based counseling, poorly, those you lead will still perform better than those with a leader who conduct no counseling. As you practice, your skill improves, allowing you to better match your skills to situation and person. Counseling is one form of influencing others. It is not a supervision conversation. Counseling helps others grow professionally and personally by learning to use directive, leader facilitated, and follower led conversations. Plan now for your next session with someone you lead. Doing so helps both of you grow.
Blanchard, K, Zigarmi, P, and Zigarmi D. (2013) Leadership and the one minute manager. Epub Edition. Harper-Collins e-books. New York, NY.
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Stachowiak, D ( ). Coaching for leaders podcast. Ep 161, How to Address Difficult Conversations with Bonni Stachowiak