Four ways to be a better coach: Lessons from one of the best


It’sindex performance review time, which always puts me in a reflective mood. I’ve been thinking about how we, as nonprofit leaders, can be better coaches and mentors. Coaching is almost never in job descriptions, and if it is, we usually wrap it up in the vague term, “management.” It’s not hard to understand why we don’t prioritize coaching more. It’s hard to quantify. It’s even harder to make the time to do it. No one is likely to ever recognize you for doing it well. Yet, the best managers make it a priority anyway.

In my life, I’ve had a few important coaches. Terry Eiserman, my high school drama teacher, who helped me see the valuable role a behind-the scenes operator could play, which I wrote about in an earlier post. Debbie Green, chair of the Women’s Studies Department in college who helped me start to figure out my role in confronting issues of race, gender and privilege. In your career, if you’re lucky, there’s someone who comes along at just the right moment, who takes an interest in you and who shows you all the fundamentals. For me, that person was Harlan Lang. I’d been working at a nonprofit focused on senior health issues for about a year and half when Harlan arrived as our new Director of Development. Harlan and I were, effectively, the fundraising department at the organization. Harlan was an older guy, nearing the end of his career. I was in my late 20s at the time, full of uncertainty and trying to define myself as a professional. I was still struggling to figure out what my strengths were, and how I could best make use of those strengths to help nonprofits make a bigger difference.

My earliest memory of Harlan is of him sauntering into the office with a huge grin on his face, holding aloft a big check a major donor had just handed him, like a sport fisherman who’d just landed a huge tarpon. I was used to sitting for hours in front of our donor database, or writing direct mail appeals, or opening stacks of envelopes containing $2 or $5 contributions. The way he could get major donors to write $50,000 checks, based on a conversation or two with him, all seemed kind of magical to me.

What I appreciated most about Harlan, though, was the number of hours he dedicated to my growth. When I think about what separates great managers from those who are merely good, a lot of it comes down to the soft skills of coaching and mentoring. While we were pretty different individuals, all the fundamentals of what it means to be a manager, I learned from Harlan.

Lesson #1: Figure out what makes your team members tick. Harlan and I were, in many ways, polar opposites. He had an unending interest in people, and was basically a bear hug personified. I was reserved and introverted, and frankly wholly unsuited to the requirements of fundraising from individuals. Never for a minute did he make me feel that. He accepted people as they were. At least once a month, he took me out of the office and treated me to lunch. We talked over whatever was on our minds. He was a much more seasoned professional than me, but we were equals at the lunch table.

Lesson #2: Care more about their success than your own. Harlan knew a lot of people, period. Rather than just paying lip service to the importance of building my network, he took the time to help me make connections. He took me along with him to local events offered by the American Society of Association Executives to help me start to build my own network. He showed me, by example, that work was bigger than just completing checklists of tasks.

Lesson #3: Even if it’s second nature to you, break it down into concrete steps. When we’re just starting in our careers, there’s so much stuff we don’t yet know. It shortens the learning curve when managers take the time to break unfamiliar new job responsibility into concrete steps. At a time when there was beginning to be a lot of buzz about whiz-bang approaches to fundraising, Harlan understood that, ultimately, fundraising will always be about human connection. I’m sure it came as second nature to him, but he would always break it down into easy-to-understand steps. Like, “when you walk into someone’s house, start by asking about the people in the pictures on the wall.” Or, “before you meet with someone, try to figure out what they care about, and then make sure you focus on that.”

Lesson #4: Have their backs. Within a month or two of Harlan’s arrival, I made a major mistake with the design of a direct mail appeal, which meant we had to reprint the whole thing. I mean, I really screwed this thing up, and it came at a serious financial cost to the organization. This was not the type of organization where mistakes were viewed as “learning opportunities.” Through it all, he had my back. I won’t soon forget the way he defended me in a staff meeting when I was called on the carpet for the mistake. Later, in one of our check-ins, he coached me through ways to make sure that mistake didn’t happen again.

I carry what I learned from Harlan with me still, and I do what I can to treat the people on my team with the same level of respect and care. As much as I learned from Harlan, I still made my share of mistakes in my early years as a manager. It’s a lot of trial and error. Some of my mistakes included underestimating what team members were capable of, not giving constructive feedback soon enough and accepting underperformance for too long because I thought I could manage my way out of it if I just tried hard enough. All of these were to the detriment of the organization. When I realize I’ve made a mistake (and I make them still) I go back to the fundamentals I learned from Harlan and other coaches and mentors I’ve been fortunate to have over the years.

A couple of next steps for managers to help us be better coaches:

Schedule it. A lot of it is about making the time. If coaching conversations aren’t happening naturally, you may need to literally put time on your calendar. I don’t recommend calling them “coaching” conversations, though. Something like “check-in” or “coffee/lunch out of the office” usually goes over better.

Give everyone the benefit of feedback. Research has shown that we tend to give more feedback to people we perceive as being like ourselves. Difference shows up in a lot of ways, and we do a disservice when we don’t share feedback with people we see as different than us. At GEO, we send all new managers to the management crash course at The Management Center, which trains managers on how to give feedback. On their website, they also have some great tools for managers on how to have these conversations.

Finally, if a current or prior manager was effective and made a difference in your life, tell them so. None of us got here on our own. It’s important to take the time to appreciate the people who had an influence on our lives. One of my biggest regrets is that, over the years, I lost touch with Harlan. Recently, when I decided to look him up, I discovered he had passed away two years ago. I’ve shared this post with his family, but I wish I could have told Harlan directly about the impact he had on my life. If it’s been awhile since you’ve been in touch with someone who had an influence on you at a key point, resolve to send them a quick note in the next couple of weeks. You’ll be glad you did.


  1. Leslie Whitlinger · · Reply

    Harlan was a great, dear friend of mine for more than 30 years, and your portrayal accurately captures him. Miss him terribly.

    1. It’s great to hear from you, Leslie. I’m glad I was able to do him some justice in this piece.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s