Two Skills that Define Exceptional Talent Developers

The most effective supervisors develop their talent through setting clear expectations and coaching.

Think back over all of the supervisors, bosses, and managers for whom you’ve ever worked.  Pick out the ones who were truly exceptional.  What characteristics did they have in common?  Of all the things that might be named, chances are that you’d find that the best managers consistently performed these two functions very effectively:

  • Consistently setting very clear expectations with staff members.
  • Consistently coaching employees to help them master skills.

Let’s consider how these two managerial functions are applied to develop talent on staff, and how the combination of the two can create a highly engaged and productive team.


Setting Clear Expectations

Effective managers and supervisors don’t make their employees guess what is expected, or learn through a series of trials and errors.  Instead, they make it a point to be very clear with what is expected.  This process is consistently applied with employee, with the manager personally explaining the following details about what is expected:

1. They set specific QUALITY and QUANTITY guidelines for the employee to deliver when performing each of the duties or assignments associated of his or her position.

2. They explain WHY well-performed duties and assignments are important to customers, the department, and how they fit into the overall mission of the organization.

3. They identify the RESOURCES available to successfully complete assignments and perform duties (including the resource of time).

4. They establish clear TIMELINES for when it is due.

5. They outline how and when PROGRESS will be measured.

6. After discussing the above, they confirm the details in writing via email to the staff member.

In essence, exceptional supervisors clearly communicate the objective and define it well.

Notice what has NOT been communicated… the steps and process that the employee will use to accomplish the objective.  They do one more thing when setting expectations and assigning objectives:

7. They ask each staffer to think about the above and give them a day or two to develop a written bullet-point plan of how the staffer plans to accomplish the objective and asks the employee to present his or her plan to the supervisor. The supervisor acts as a thinking partner to help the staff member vet and improve his or her plan.  This eliminates mistakes and changing standards.

Notice what is happening in this critical step: the supervisor has transferred ownership of the outcome to the employee because the employee owns the plan to accomplish the objective.  This is what makes an exceptional talent developer exceptional.

When an employee understands all the aspects of the work he or she is to perform and has a clear and vetted plan to accomplish the objective, he or she will confidently own the work and the outcome.


Coaching Effectively

Effective managers understand that teaching is not coaching or correcting.  Teaching is the initial process of equipping someone to perform their duties and assignments when performing something new.  Teaching always should include setting clear expectations, along with a verbal and physical demonstration of what correct performance looks like. Let the employee try it and verify he or she can perform it correctly.  Teaching isn’t complete until someone can correctly perform something multiple times.

Coaching is the process immediately following teaching that helps someone to master what they have been taught.   This is such a critical step, yet many managers and supervisors may skip directly over this step and immediately begin to correct employees who are not performing what they have been taught.  When coaching is skipped – or done poorly – frustration and disengagement is often an undesired result.

Effective coaching requires the supervisor or manager to patiently lead someone (who has been properly taught) through the process of self-discovery when evaluating his or her own performance.  It is not telling the employee what the manager has observed. It is asking the employee the right questions in order to measure specifically WHAT the employee understands about his or her performance relative to what was taught. 

A manager cannot learn anything about what someone knows if he or she is doing the talking! An ideal talk/listen ratio is the manager doing less than 10% of the talking.

Exceptional talent developers use several coaching question areas to lead this process of self-discovery.  Each question area will likely require some follow-up questions to fully explore the area.  When consistently asked in the following order, employees tend to master skills more quickly and willingly:

1. “You just completed (task/step/assignment). Tell me, what things do you think went well for you?”

a. This question and its follow-up questions allow the employee to express the positives first, and for the manager to identify if the employee understood expectations as well as the quality and quantity deliverables of the work.

b. When asking this question, be silent and encourage the staff member to explain.

2. “What things went less well than you would have liked?”

a. This question and its follow-up questions allow the manager to identify how aware the employee is about things that could and should be improved.

b. It also identifies areas that could have been taught better.

c. It also encourages the employee to identify corrective action following the self-assessment.

d. Like before, allow the employee to do the talking.

3. “If you could do it over again, what specifically would you do differently?”

a. This question and its follow-up questions allow the employee to take ownership for both the needed improvements as well as the plan to improve.

b. Ask the employee for a commitment to the new standards/methods, and next time when coaching, use the new standards when asking the coaching questions.

Only after a staff member has had a chance to fully answer each of the three question areas should the manager add his or her own observations (plus encouraging the employee for his or her progress).   Over time, employees who are developed with this coaching approach begin performing their own self-assessments on their own work, leading them to become more self-directed and self-reliant!

Bottom Line

Talent developers who excel at setting clear expectations and effectively coaching their employees soon find themselves leading a highly engaged team of contributors who are passionate about performing to the highest standards.

The above guidance is excerpted from our acclaimed Leading Through People™ Staff Development & Performance Management talent development curriculum.

For more tips and ideas on how to improve workplace performance, please read our blog and consider engaging us to help your organization bring out the very best in its people.

About me: For the past 25 years I’ve worked with some of the world’s top employers by helping them get the most out of their talented people. My company’s extensive leadership development course catalog provides effective skills-building for everyone in the organization, from the new / developing leader to the seasoned C-level executive. My company’s coaching programs produce significant results in compressed periods of time. Over the last decade our B2B Sales Essentials™ program has won numerous awards.  I also help job seekers, higher ed, and employment services connect people to better jobs faster. My company’s highly regarded career development tools help people navigate the ever-changing landscape of conducting a successful job search.  To find out more, please visit us at, email us at, or call us at 215-942-0982. 


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