Your agency is already a team, but what’s a team without a great coach?
These days, it’s so easy to get caught up in the end goals (like onboarding new clients, hitting those KPIs, and getting those clicks) that you might overlook the importance of investing in your employee’s professional development.
But if you really want to help your team reach their full potential, they need a coach, and there’s no reason it can’t be you.
If you’ve never thought of yourself as a coach before, that’s ok. In this article, we’ll discuss some important coaching skills you can put to use in your agency to benefit everyone involved–you, your clients, and your entire team.
What Is Coaching for an Agency, Anyway?
Coaching is part of a more collaborative approach to performance management (and leadership in general). The primary focus of a coaching relationship is the continual improvement and development of your team, which is embodied by the “we can always be better” mindset.
In its most basic form, the coaching process is all about communication skills–active listening skills, empathy, and giving constructive feedback–but it’s also a two-way street, so it’s important to listen to your team as well.
When people feel valued and cared for, they naturally deliver their very best work. This culture can also help your agency grow, attracting top talent by showing people what you do to support your staff and that you truly respect their needs.
Michelle van Blerck, Communications Manager, Digital Freak
The rise of coaching over the last few decades has marked a shift in how companies approach performance management. In the past, top-down decision-making was the norm (and still is in many places around the world).
Employees had little say in what they did and they were expected to simply follow orders. Meanwhile, investing in employee development was considered a waste of money (if it was even considered) because all that mattered was meeting sales targets, hitting quotas, and getting more clients.
This top-down management style can stifle talent and creativity (which is the opposite of what you want to do, especially if you’re a creative agency) while also hurting morale, affecting retention, and killing productivity.
Nowadays, the workplace has changed.
It’s become more inclusive, diverse, and empathetic than ever.
Agency owners and leadership have seen first-hand how important culture is, not only for attracting the best people but also for getting them to stay.
And suppose your agency has fostered a culture of collaboration with a solid coaching program as a foundation. In that case, your employees will be empowered to work, grow, and succeed together as a team.
I coach high school football so I would say my leadership style follows suit of a coach. However, the workplace has taught me that I cannot use all the same tactics. You can’t make employees do burpees or run sprints. Football has taught me how to set clear objectives, create real game plans and strategies to achieve those objectives and how to rally a team behind a single goal.
Joaby Parker, President, Cover3 Creative
Coaching is a key skill that many great leaders share, whether on the battlefield, in a sports arena, or at your agency’s HQ. However, it also requires significant investment and the type of leader who can motivate and inspire the team.
Coaching vs. Mentoring At Your Agency
Coaching and mentoring are often used interchangeably, and while there is some overlap between them, they are not the same thing.
Expert Advice, Mentoring Is
One of the best examples of the mentor-mentee relationship is that of Yoda and Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. How the wizened Jedi Master taught his young protege the ways of the Force has made him the gold standard of fictional mentors, who’s maybe only matched by Mr. Miyagi.
Mentoring involves a mentor and a mentee. The mentor is usually an expert, often in the same field as the mentee, who gives the mentee professional advice and guidance based on their own knowledge, skills, and experience. The mentee, on the other hand, is someone who’s at a lower level than their mentor.
In this relationship, the mentor can help guide the mentee because they’ve already been through it themselves and can give the mentee invaluable life advice. At the same time, the mentee already has a good idea of where they want to go. They just need their mentor’s help getting there, whether it’s mastering a skill or acquiring the knowledge they need to move forward.
Coaching Promotes Internal Motivation
Coaching, on the other hand, doesn’t rely on expert advice as much. That’s not to say that coaches aren’t experts. It’s just that coaching isn’t as heavily reliant on advice as mentoring is. Instead, the coaching conversation is more hands-on and focused on the process to encourage development and fostering a growth mindset.
A coach doesn’t even need to be an expert at what you or your employees do in order to be effective.
We place a huge emphasis on people and relationships. By focusing so much on the happiness of each individual employee, we ensure better outcomes for our clients as well. We know this people-first strategy works because our employee and client retention rate is incredibly high.
Graham Lumley, Director of Marketing, Blackhawk Digital Marketing
In fact, many coaches are able to apply their coaching skills to help people, regardless of the field they’re in. Coaches are able to help by using active listening and empathy to guide people in the right direction, without explicitly telling them what to do–which is a key part of coaching that we’ll get to soon.
Coaching is also commonly seen as being more focused on short-term goals, whereas mentoring is more long-term. That’s not always the case, but it may be helpful nonetheless to think of coaching as helping you win the game, while mentoring helps you win the tournament.
The Fine Line Between Coaching and Telling
Nobody likes being told what to do. It restricts our freedom and impedes on our sense of independence, which can cause us to react negatively. There’s even a term for it–psychological reactance.
The traditional, top-down approach involves a lot of telling. The owner tells senior leadership to do something, the senior leaders tell their managers to do it, and the managers tell their employees. But there’s a huge downside to being overly reliant on telling because not only do people dislike being told what to do, but it can also harm your agency’s culture, which can lead to disengaged employees who eventually leave for somewhere else.
There’s a very fine line between coaching and telling, but it all comes down to your approach, and it can be as easy as shifting your mindset or simply framing your request in a different way.
In order to have somebody who knows what needs to happen, you can either just have them shadow you and can walk through things and really learn what they're doing inside and out and they become experts in their field and what they're doing for you.
Jens Rhoades, Owner of Floodlight SEO
Remember how in the previous section, we talked about how coaching helps people work things out for themselves? You can use that to inform your approach. Instead of telling someone, “You need to do this”, you could try asking questions that will lead them to the same conclusion, except this time, they’ll come up with the solution themselves. Talk about win-win!
Can Any Agency Leader Be a Coach?
The good news is that coaching is not some special talent possessed only by a lucky few.
Anyone can learn how to become a coach; all it takes is some practice and a strong belief in your team. While most organizations don’t have anyone with ‘coach’ in their official job title (life coaches and professional sports aside), anyone who leads people at your organization is a potential coach.
In fact, you’re probably already coaching your team in one way or another, whether you realize it or not! But now that we’re looking into how to be a better coach, you can be much more intentional about it, and therefore more effective as well.
But to truly have a coaching culture at your agency, it has to start from the very top and make its way down to all levels of your organization. But while it’s up to agency owners and senior leadership to lead the way, it all begins on a foundation of collaboration, trust, and accountability.
Why Agency Managers Need Coaching Skills
Simply put, if you want to get the most out of your team, your managers need coaching skills.
Marketing agencies function in a high-pressure environment that demands creativity, adaptability, and results-driven approaches. Amid such demanding circumstances, agency managers need to be equipped with more than just technical expertise and administrative abilities.
From nurturing talent to facilitating teamwork, coaching skills help foster collaboration and teamwork, key elements in any marketing agency. Proactive coaching allows managers to work collaboratively with their teams to set goals, identify challenges, and formulate strategies for improvement.
These coaching techniques also help managers steer their teams through the ever-changing marketing landscape. By equipping their team members with the ability to adapt and innovate, managers ensure that their agency remains at the forefront of emerging trends and technologies.
Lastly, these essential coaching skills drive performance and build effective leaders within the marketing agency. Coaching leaders of the future contributes to the long-term success and continuity of the agency.
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9 Effective Coaching Skills Anyone Can Use
There aren’t any rules as to who can or can’t be great coaches, and the following communication skills can be used by anyone to improve their interpersonal relationships, whether at home, work, or out and about. Here are the 9 essential skills you should work on:
1. Use Clear Communication
One of the most important prerequisites to being a good coach is good communication skills.
Just think about it – how many issues could have been solved with better communication?
Clearly communicate the underlying goal to everyone on your team, no matter their department. Whether it’s scoring goals, hitting target metrics, or getting conversions, it’s imperative to have the whole team aligned and moving forward.
In a remote workplace, you have to be really intentional about checking in. Make sure we're communicating with each other, offering opportunities for communicating and collaborating to keep that culture in check.
Stena Lambert, Director of Vortala Digital
Especially in an era of hybrid work, where half your team may be somewhere around the world across different time zones, it’s more important than ever to have clear communications. Remember, it’s always better to over-explain at the beginning instead of having to do panicked, last-minute revisions at the end.
Some organizations will even set out guidelines for their company messaging apps, such as asking employees to respond with an emoji once they’ve seen a message, to bake in a little more accountability into their processes. Others ask employees to turn on their cameras when in a Google Meet or Zoom call to add a bit more human interaction, but it’s up to agency owners to determine how far you want to go.
2. Listen to Your Team
Never underestimate the power of listening to your team. During feedback sessions, keep in mind that it should go both ways, and as much as you give your team feedback, you should ask if they have any for you.
It’s critical to do this because if you notice common complaints from the many people on your team, it could indicate areas for your agency to improve–whether it’s too many meetings, a complicated approval process, or ongoing challenges with scope creep, which are three of the most common complaints from marketers!
3. Use Active Listening
Active listening goes deeper than merely registering the words someone is saying. It’s not enough to simply hear the words – active listening requires getting to the meaning and intent behind what someone is saying. It also involves making eye contact, reading body language, and asking open-ended questions that show you’re engaged in the coaching sessions.
That’s why active listening is an integral communication skill for anyone considering coaching. At its core, active listening is about being fully present in the moment and giving whoever you’re talking to your full attention.
We try and staff ourselves in a way where one on one training is always an option and is usually the first option we go to, right? Because then the training is just customized to that specific employee's need, you know, and then you can build standardized training systems when you identify needs that nearly all are a majority of employees have.
Michael Gasser, Co-owner and Partner at Squeeze Marketing
It also has a positive impact on the person you’re talking to because they’ll pick up on your body language, cues, and demeanor, and it will make them feel valued and heard.
4. Be Consistent
If you want to develop a new habit or skill (such as business coaching), consistency is key. It’s something that you’ll have to work at until it becomes automatic, and then you can move on to the next stage or something new.
But consistency is also critical when it comes to setting expectations and what happens if those expectations aren’t met because the rules apply to everyone equally–even if you’re the agency owner.
We hire, fire, reward, and recognize based on our core values. It's how we eat, breathe, live, and sleep.
Kim Walker, Co-Owner, Shop Marketing Pros
Holding yourself to the same standards as everyone else will also garner you a lot of respect, which will make you a more effective leader in the long run.
5. Be Curious
Curiosity drives the creative process and reveals new possibilities in the process. As children, we have an almost never-ending curiosity about the world and how it works, and some of the best coaches are able to channel that childlike curiosity to find true understanding.
Being curious can help you find out different points of view, and asking the right questions can help you get to the underlying issues of why things happen. So don’t be afraid to ask questions because the chances are, if you’ve got that question, other people have it, too.
I lead from a place of honesty, directness, and respect. While I have a lot of experience, I don't have all the answers, and I don't want to. Hearing other people's opinions, thoughts, and differing opinions is critical to, not only my growth and development but to the businesses' as well. It allows people to feel comfortable in bringing all of who they are to the work, and it shows them that thay are valued.
Yanira M. Castro, CEO, Humanity Communications Collective
And if you’re the one to ask the questions, your team will appreciate it all the more because at the end of the day, we’re all afraid of saying the wrong thing or looking dumb. Asking questions also goes a long way in establishing a culture of openness, and if your team sees you doing it, they might be inspired to do it in their next meeting, too.
If you don’t have any questions, try asking for points of friction or frustration or areas where you can help them.
6. Give Constructive Feedback Often
Giving feedback can be a scary thing, especially if we have to deliver bad news or tell someone their performance isn’t meeting expectations. But getting feedback is one of the only ways that we can improve, so if you avoid giving feedback to your team, you’re doing them a big disservice. How else can you expect them to get better if you don’t tell them how they can improve?
The important thing is that the feedback is constructive. The feedback should not be a list of everything someone did wrong (even if it’s a long list). Instead, it’s better if the feedback is framed more as a collaborative effort to find opportunities where you can work together to improve things.
For creative agencies, giving and getting feedback is a part of life, especially since there can be a lot of subjectivity when it comes to anything creative such as copy and design. Feedback is also a way to ensure alignment with a vision or creative direction.
But whatever you do, never forget this key piece of wisdom about the creative process:
It’s always easier to edit than to create.
7. Lead By Example
We talked about holding yourself to the same standards as everyone else, but leading by example goes beyond that because it shows your commitment to the company and its values. This key coaching skill also helps make you the type of leader that people want to follow, and nothing is more inspiring than that!
For example, if your company says it offers unlimited paid time off (PTO) because it cares about work-life balance, there’s no better way to exemplify that than by having the senior leadership and agency owners actually use that PTO.
This signals to employees that it’s ok to take that time off while increasing the chances they will actually take it in order to avoid burnout and get a much-needed break. After all, that unlimited PTO means nothing if nobody takes it!
8. Recognize Efforts
Acknowledging your team's hard work is always beneficial, but delivering specific compliments to individual team members takes it to another level. This not only makes your employees feel genuinely valued but also serves as a strong motivator, inspiring them to maintain their high performance.
Take, for instance, the concept of setting specific and measurable goals, such as implementing a M.A.S.T.E.R goal framework. Acknowledging when a team member has successfully adapted their objectives reflects that you're paying attention and appreciate their agility. When a goal is adjusted or fine-tuned successfully, it's a moment that merits recognition.
Leaders within the organization should also foster an environment where team members feel encouraged to commend one another. Perhaps a colleague impressed you by landing a significant account, creating an excellent proposal, or getting the wording or visual aspects just right on their first attempt. Moments like these deserve to be acknowledged and celebrated by the whole team.
9. Foster a Culture of Coaching and Collaboration
Fostering a culture of workplace coaching and collaboration can seem like a huge undertaking, but it can start off with the little things, like encouraging your team to ask questions, take risks, and not be afraid of failure.
We assess to make sure that they've got the capability and then we move forward. So it's a deliberate thought process, planning the training before you start.
Michael Gasser, Co-owner and Partner at Squeeze Marketing
Agency owners and senior leadership are in a unique position where they can set the tone for the whole organization, as their employees watch how they treat and interact with others. You’ll want to nurture a culture where people aren’t afraid to ask for help, where colleagues will go out of their way to help their coworkers. Many people will do this naturally, but it never hurts to have this type of behavior modeled by the senior team as well. It will go a long way in empowering your team to forge their own partnerships, build bridges, and tear down silos.
It really does focus on one on one training, identifying specific knowledge gaps and making a plan to close those so we don't get lost on a tangent in a conversation or in a training session or whatever that is. We've identified the gaps. We're trying to close the information we need to go over and assess and train in order to close those gaps.
Michael Gasser, Co-owner and Partner at Squeeze Marketing
At some of the biggest marketing agencies, the CMO still ensures their team sets weekly 1-on-1s with them because it’s a great way to check in. The meetings don’t have to be long; even a 20-min update can suffice.
Put Me In, Coach!
Agency owners and leadership have a vested interest in optimizing their teams, and honing these key coaching skills can help unlock the full potential of your employees, leading to creative breakthroughs, increased efficiency, and improved morale.
Use the tips in this article to inspire some montage-worthy marketing moments of your own (insert your synth-heavy 80’s throwback music here). And if you’re interested in learning more, here are some of the best agency management tips for developing and growing with your team.
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