Turn your young support pros into motivated problem solvers

As a coach to your IT staff, you must somehow turn novice support pros into confident problem solvers. Here are some tips for helping create valuable self-starters through staff coaching.

There's no doubt that properly coached young professionals can become valuable employees. But learning to be a great coach to your team of novice IT support staffers can be tricky. It takes more than technical know-how to create employees who will seek out ways to improve themselves and the service your team provides.

Good coaching requires training young professionals to be motivated, self-directed employees who have the confidence to solve problems on their own. In this article, I've provided some tips for coaching your up-and-coming staffers in the areas of self-confidence, motivation, and self-direction.

Making time for coaching
Coaching young professionals requires a significant investment of time. If you already have trouble making the time to help your more seasoned staffers, you may find it difficult to find the time to coach younger professionals. Their need for constant feedback may be more than you can give.

The good news is that you can take this as an opportunity to try team coaching, which would allow you to become a better coach while developing your seasoned staffers' ability to coach as well. When done in a concerted, caring way, team coaching can help provide constant feedback without overwhelming your schedule. Obviously, even in a team-coaching environment, it's always the direct supervisor's responsibility to make sure that the young professional is meeting expectations.

Early in my career, one of my big challenges was taking the time to allow my "coachees" to do routine tasks with me. When we would need to do a server upgrade, for example, I'd struggle with the decision to let the coachees come and help because it meant that the process might take twice as long to complete. Given the fact that our scheduled downtime was already late at night, I was hesitant to allow them to slow me down. However, as I would find out later, it was better to spend the time showing them how to do the upgrade so that next time, I could go home and they could do the upgrade by themselves.

Providing the best instruction
Because younger professionals will not have the same level of background and experience as other IT pros in your organization, they'll need clear and direct instructions. This means being very explicit about what you need and expect. You may need to be more specific than you've ever had to be in the past. The better you become at giving clear, specific instructions, the less coaching you'll have to do to correct differences between your expectations and how the young professional executed on your request.

The first step to providing better instructions is to realize that you can make no assumptions. You can't, for example, expect that young pros will know how to edit an Autoexec.bat file. You may have to help them understand things that would appear to be obvious at first glance.

Promoting self-confidence
Most young professionals do not have a fully developed sense of self-confidence. Self-confidence is a key component of professional development because it allows young pros to accept constructive criticism. It helps them understand that the feedback is simply about work-related behavior and not a personal slam.

Good feedback is always about behavior, but as I mentioned in my previous article, it's impossible to completely eliminate the possibility that an employee will take negative feedback personally. A lack of self-confidence complicates this process by turning every behavioral comment into a personal attack.

One of your goals in coaching young professionals is to foster, encourage, and develop self-confidence so that it becomes easier for them to accept negative feedback from anyone—even people with whom they have no relationship.

You can encourage self-confidence by providing a substantial amount of positive feedback and taking an interest in coachees and their lives outside of work. People find strength in different areas of their life, whether it be spiritual, personal, or professional. No matter where a coachee draws his or her strength, it's important to facilitate the ability to take more from it.

Coaching for motivation
Coaching your staffers through tactical day-to-day issues is certainly an important part of developing a young professional. But to truly unleash the raw energy contained within them, you'll have to do more than just coach for the tactical objectives. You'll need to coach for the advanced topics of motivation, problem solving, and self-direction.

An epidemic is occurring in organizations of all sizes: More and more individuals are "retired on active duty" (ROAD) or, as Denny Faurote of the Faurote Group would say they, "Quit and stayed." In other words, the employees are still showing up to work, going through the motions, and collecting a paycheck. They are not engaged and motivated to make the organization a better place, to better themselves, or to learn something new.

The key to developing motivation is to allow young professionals to find things that interest them and that they do well. By allowing and encouraging young professionals to work on tasks they can do well, you'll motivate them to try to do more—even in those areas where they do not excel. Motivation is like a fire. It can jump from forest to forest and across roads, ditches, and other obstacles. However, fire cannot do this unless it's allowed to grow to a point of critical mass. Motivation must reach a critical mass by feeding upon the belief that the work being produced is gifted work. Once motivation has achieved critical mass, it will spread like a fire into every area of an individual's life.

Coaching for problem-solving skills
Teaching problem-solving skills is difficult because it requires a careful balance between providing the detailed clear instructions and feedback staffers need to meet expectations and allowing them the room to come up with their own solutions. Another challenge to teaching problem-solving skills is learning to recognize when a problem can be solved without your involvement. Encouraging young professionals to do their own problem solving in a safe environment creates a feeling that solving problems on their own is an acceptable, encouraged way to do business.

For example, I remember a situation when a help desk professional approached me with a printing problem. We were working in DOS on a Novell 3.11 system. As I recall, the problem was fairly simple. Something had disturbed the mapping of the printer port to the Netware Queue.

The help desk professional wanted me to solve the problem for him. I refused. Instead, I chose to have him explain to me how printing worked and how he might test each step. Initially, he was upset. He just wanted an answer to his question. However, after he solved the problem on his own and came back to tell me what the problem was, he was very happy that he'd solved it himself.

From that day forward, he never asked me to solve a problem again, although he asked me to be a sounding board for how he understood things worked. He started solving his own problems and made the transition into being a substantially more valuable professional.

Coaching self-direction
Self-direction is in many ways the natural result of combining motivation and problem solving. Self-direction is an attribute we all seek in the professionals we work with. However, it's a skill that's getting harder and harder to find in the professionals we hire. Self-direction is seen as simply not having to continually worry about what a professional is doing. Self-directed individuals seek additional activities when they are no longer productive and locate problems they can solve when they have downtime.

Being motivated allows professionals to want to keep busy. They have the desire to continue to work so that they can continue to improve. The problem-solving component allows them to identify problems of all types, which they can solve. By coupling the two, they become motivated to solve any problems that they run across. People who are constantly trying to solve problems and make themselves better never need people to tell them what to do.

Coaching creates more valuable employees
Young professionals represent unique challenges and awesome opportunities. The challenges that are offered by young professionals are not so different than those offered by other professionals, except that there are more of them, and they come more quickly. By learning how to take care of young professionals before the challenges become problems, you can limit the additional time they will require.

Once you've gotten into a rhythm with your coaching, you can start focusing on the more difficult and ultimately more powerful techniques that will develop your young professionals into invaluable team members.

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