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Coachable Employees

​The latest State of the American Workplace report, the Gallup company's look at management practices in the U.S. workplace, contains some grim news. A clear majority of employees are not engaged with their jobs, and employers are finding it increasingly hard to retain quality workers. "The very practice of management no longer works," Gallup Chairman and CEO Jim Clifton says in the report, which was published last year.

But the experts at Gallup also argue that employee engagement and retention can be markedly improved—through effective coaching. Managers who are effective coaches often possess certain abilities and attributes: they are usually clear and insightful explainers; they have an aptitude for building on an employee's strengths; they are adept at working with different learning styles; and they can maintain patience in the face of mistakes.

But effective coaching is a two-way process. And just as talented coaches share certain traits, employees who are highly coachable often possess a cluster of certain qualities and abilities. These attributes can be thought of as "green flags"—indicators that the employee is driven and prepared to grow and improve on their existing skill sets, to learn new skills, and to "correct performance without resentment," in the words of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.

In the security field, these green flags can include demonstrated honesty, adaptability to change, intellectual curiosity and love of learning, interpersonal skills, attention to detail, problem-solving abilities, resourceful thinking, safety awareness, a reasonable level of suspiciousness, and emotional intelligence.

Smart security managers have realized that these green flags often serve as predictors of future success, and so they have focused on fine tuning this list of qualities and attributes. It has value in the screening and hiring process, as well as in managing employees once they are hired, especially in organizations that are going through performance changes or improvements.

And being coachable is not just important for front-line security workers. Managers, too, need to remain coachable, so that they can continue to improve and grow, and ultimately become better coaches. 

The following examples are taken from real-world situations in the security industry—the names of the managers have been changed—and illustrate these concepts. They provide best practice guidance for security leaders on what to look for in terms of an employee's coachable potential, and how managers can also benefit from becoming more coachable themselves. ​

Success via Coachability

John Smith worked in the criminal justice public sector for a little over 20 years in the Midwest. Under his leadership, his department achieved and maintained accreditation, with high scores on all metrics. Turnover in John's department was low; he had helped build a positive team atmosphere with high levels of employee engagement and job satisfaction.

Still, John silently complained to himself about being overworked and underpaid. One day, he saw a security director position advertised by a privately owned security company in the Omaha area. He decided it was time for him to put up or shut up, and see if he could get paid his real worth. So, John moved forward on this new opportunity, and in so doing stumbled upon the importance of coachability.

As it happened, the owner of the security company in question also ran the largest maid service franchise in the world and was a graduate of Harvard Business School. John was applying for the position of general manager; the previous general manager was a retired FBI agent who at first dazzled the owner with his training and work history, but soon showed that he lacked the main ingredient the owner needed to grow the security company—coachability. And so, it wasn't long before both decided to end the relationship.

Conversely, John possessed a few green flags of coachability the owner wanted to see in the applicant for his open general manager position—adaptability, intellectual curiosity, and a penchant for further learning and improvement.

During the interview and candidate evaluation process, these qualities became evident to the owner. For example, John discussed how he had adjusted to living in a foreign country during his public-sector career. Before that, he had successfully changed careers from mental health to corrections. He had completed his master's degree, which reflected an interest in further learning. He demonstrated that he was interested in moving from a safe, structured public service job to the greater unknowns of the private sector, where he would have to think on his feet and create the structure that worked best for the company. Throughout the interview, John asked insightful questions that showed strong intellectual curiosity.

These attributes made the owner feel he was hiring what he needed most—a security manager whom he could mentor so that the manager would develop his own coaching skills to build the right workforce.

John got the job, and went on to a second career in the private sector, where he thrived for another 20 years. He was especially successful in recruiting and hiring an impressive team to grow the business. In hiring, he didn't look for clones of himself in terms of education, skill sets, and temperament. Rather, the common denominator he did look for was an insatiable drive to learn, grow, and improve, which was usually accompanied by high engagement with and passion for the work.

​Coachability for Managers

As a security manager for a medium-sized corporation on the East Coast, Mary Jones learned the importance of coachability and how it complemented the two-way management style she had learned in earlier training.

She decided to take on her company's two-pronged problem of hiring and retention; she set her sights on reducing the failures of bad hiring and the costs of high turnover. Mary realized that identifying the green flags of highly coachable applicants went a long way toward making better hires, and she became proficient in determining this by asking probing questions during the interview process.

One such question was: "When you start a new job, do you prefer to look for opportunities to apply what you already know from past experience, or do you try to learn something new about what you don't know? Tell me about how you learned about which way to approach a job to get the best results?"

Another question was: "Tell me about a situation in which you thought you knew how to solve a difficult problem, but, as it turned out, you didn't. What did you learn from this experience, and what did you change in your approach to problem solving? Another follow-up question she used was: "How do you think problem-solving skills can be best developed with new employees? Is that the way you would have liked to have been taught, or do you have other ideas on this?"

She then helped her HR manager become adept at this type of interviewing, so the manager could use it when interviewing security officers. She started by explaining the value of using real live work scenarios to see how the applicant would respond based on his or her past failures at work. She also told the manager of the frequent good results of asking open-ended questions versus closed-ended ones. At that point they did some question planning and interviewing together to demonstrate and practice how this style of interviewing would get better results. Mary's efforts did not stop there.

 Once hiring had improved, Mary also wanted to improve the retention rate of coachable employees. Thus, she developed a custom-designed training program by gathering new ideas from a variety of resources and programs from professional HR organizations that were available online for free, and then carefully updating ideas from few of her own coaching and counseling training programs.

She then provided summary information about this new training to all her supervisors, aimed at rekindling their own coachability, which would help the supervisors learn how to better identify coachable employees at the same time. The training was well-received and everyone was motivated towards a common goal. 

Under Mary's efforts, managers learned how to hire employees with excellent coachability potential by asking better questions and spotting tell-tale answers. Supervisors learned how to improve their coaching abilities by practicing new mediation strategies. And employees were able to improve upon the coachability potential they first brought to the job. This was a win-win-win for Mary, her supervisors, and the company at large.

​Assessing Coachability

During Bob Miller's long career in security management, his understanding of the importance of coachability evolved, and an examination of this evolution reveals some guidance for managers assessing coachability.

Early on, Bob discovered that there was an X-factor in an employee's ultimate success that was just as important as the knowledge, skills, and abilities that are asked for on the application for federal jobs. Bob's discovery was in part due to his own self-awareness—he was aware of his own insatiable drive to become better at whatever he was doing, and this helped him spot the same drive in the applicants he screened and interviewed.

Given his belief in the great value of coachability, he revised the hiring process he had traditionally used. He discarded practices he now considered time-wasters, such as checking references about the candidate's honesty and dependability, verifying prior work history and education, and administering psychological testing. Using the Occam's razor principle, he ended up with the one prevailing trait that he found was most predictive of success (after the applicant's résumés proved baseline professional competency)—an openness to learning, growing, and improving.

From here, Bob designed a behavioral interview with a set of telling questions designed to get revealing answers regarding a person's drive to succeed as a security officer or supervisor. In most cases, this drive starts with the candidate's acceptance that they do not know it all already, so the interview questions were also designed to gauge if that acceptance had been established. Given the unknowns and new developments of security work today, this type of acceptance is critical to future success.

Bob constructed his list of probative interview questions so that it would be difficult for applicants to hide behind hypothetical or general, unrevealing answers. He first posed a set of written questions, so the candidate could take some time to think and draw on their most relevant past experiences. Then during the interview, Bob and the candidate could discuss these preliminary answers in more detail, so that the applicant's coachability could be assessed. 

In terms of specifics, the written list of questions started out asking applicants about past failures and how they overcame them. Then, during discussion, candidates were asked for examples of how they had used common sense to get results in previous situations, areas in which they felt they could improve, what they liked and disliked about their best supervisor, and what they thought an employee had to demonstrate to be successful in security work. Further discussion of the answers to these five simple questions proved to be revealing, and an effective means to assessing coachability potential in the applicants.

The good answers included ones with enough detail to face-validate their actual occurrence, such as "I liked my previous supervisor's patience with me when I didn't succeed at a task delegated to me. She gave me some useful feedback and immediate suggestions to improve the next time. What I didn't like about her was that she was always busy and difficult to get time with. However, I guess I should have mentioned this problem to her." 

The bad answers lacked such detail, or even sidestepped the question, such as, "I didn't really get to know my supervisor that well," or "I'd rather not get into that." Of course when the applicant couldn't stop listing all the previous supervisor's faults and was not able to come up with any good things to say about the supervisor, that was a big red flag of cynicism in his coachability.

The process worked well, but Bob, being of a continuous improvement mindset, knew he wasn't finished in his efforts to perfect his assessment method for determining what level of coachability each applicant was bringing to the job. Interviewing is like standardized testing; eventually, the best answers to even the most highly guarded LSAT questions become common knowledge. Bob anticipated this would eventually happen with his coachability assessment questions, so he continued to revise them to stay ahead of the curve. For example, one question that consistently showed value was, "Tell me about the best sports or activities coach you had in school, and what do you think made him so successful?" He revised this by expanding it, and it yielded even greater value: "What characteristics of this coach have you applied in your own life?"​

Removing Obstacles

Can a security employee be taught to be coachable? Security manager Michelle Palmer wanted to explore this possibility with her direct reports. Many members of her staff did not seem to see the value in coachability, or why it was necessary. Fortunately, Michelle knew the importance of explaining concepts well enough to sell them, thus removing the resistance.

She realized that one of the main roadblocks for her employees was their natural defensiveness in receiving feedback about themselves. She decided to use personal examples to make her explanations more effective. For example, she shared how she personally overcame her own obstacles in becoming more coachable, including her original unwillingness to share her own vulnerabilities, to become more open to different perspectives other than her own, and to accept the risk that came with experimenting with new behaviors.

In her managing, Michelle also employed another lesson she learned previously in becoming more coachable. She replaced her usual relaxed approach in some staff interactions with a more assertive posture. For example, in giving feedback to others, she often replaced "you," such as in "it would be good if you did this differently," with "I," such as in "I would like you to try doing this in such-and-such way." This shift had a positive effect; staff members became much less defensive, and better listeners.

Finally, Michelle's instruction was made more effective by a key realization—all she thought she knew to be true about the security profession wasn't necessarily so. Her own growth had been somewhat stalled by this limiting perspective, and once she was free from it, she could better communicate the value of staying open to new ideas and continuous growth and improvement.

​Coaching the Future

If a security manager is successful in hiring coachable employees, and can help existing staff remain coachable, a culture and system of proactive performance improvement can be maintained in the security department. In such a culture, managers and employees continue learning and improving.  


William Cottringer, PhD, Certified Homeland Security (CHS) level III, is executive Vice-president for Employee Relations for Puget Sound Security Patrol, Inc., in Bellevue, Washington, and adjunct professor in criminal justice at Northwest University. ​