Develop Collaborative Relationships and Be Humble
Coaching is not about establishing your seniority. The best coaching relationships are about collaboratively working toward goals, building skills, and learning. Developing a collaborative working relationship helps establish a sense of trust in the person you’re coaching and, in turn, makes them more engaged in the learning process. Additionally, coaches who don’t admit their own flaws or are protective of their rank may miss opportunities to explore new perspectives through collaboration with the people they’re coaching.
Note that the coaching relationship is somewhat different from a mentoring relationship, where there is recognition of seniority. In a mentoring relationship, a more senior person helps to guide someone who has less experience through career decisions and to align their interests with those of the business for which they work.
Don’t Give the Answers, Instead Ask Questions
The role of a coach is to help teach people how to think creatively, not what to think. Given fast-paced work environments, goal-driven business stakeholders, and tight timelines, it is very tempting for good designers in a coaching role to simply provide the answers to particular problems. But doing this doesn’t help those who are receiving coaching to internalize a particular concept or develop their creative or problem-solving skills.
Instead of offering the answers, a good coach asks challenging and probing questions that encourage the people they’re coaching to think creatively. For example, when a designer presents a potential design solution, a coach might ask: “Is there a better way?” “What are your design options? Are they good ones?” “Which do you think is the best solution and why?” or “What do you think Product Management’s reaction will be?” By asking such questions, the coach exposes a designer’s potential blind spots in approaching a design problem, but challenges the designer receiving the coaching to come up with his or her own solutions. Asking questions like this also minimizes the chances that the coach might make assumptions that would lead to misguided recommendations.
Think Big Picture and Prioritization
Junior designers especially often have difficulty with getting stuck on particular details of a design challenge. They may end up spending an inordinate amount of time and effort on elements that are not core to the solution for the problem at hand. The result is that they then have less creative energy to expend in thinking about solutions that would have the most impact on a project’s outcome. Successful coaches should make prioritization of effort a big part of the coaching conversation. If the coach is also the designers’ manager, one of the most effective things he or she can do is to help minimize outside distractions so designers can focus their creative efforts.