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Tim Gunn as coach

Over the holiday break in 2007, my wife and I flipped through the cable channels and "discovered" a great TV reality show: Project Runway. In the program, budding fashion designers compete to create the best outfit each week, usually over an incredibly tight deadline. I'll admit that I've watched the show regularly ever since.

I'm not very interested in fashion, but what draws me to this show is one of the anchors: Tim Gunn. Tim acts as a kind of style mentor, and meets with each designer for a brief coaching session midway through each design challenge. Tim has years of experience in fashion and design, and uses his background to encourage the designers during their work.

What's great about Tim's style is that he exemplifies a great coach. It's up to the designer to turn out a great piece; Tim's job is to advise. He asks open-ended questions of the designer to understand their thought process, and to help the designer to reach their own decisions about where next to take an outfit.

I have never seen an episode where Tim has been critical of a designer. If Tim sees something odd in a design, he says "This worries me" or asks "Tell me about this." While discussing the issue, he provides encouragement and support, often with his catchphrase "Make it work", or "Carry on." Other phrases I've heard Tim use include "Consider what you're doing here, and think about how to take it to the next level" and "Use this thoughtfully." From there, it's up to the designer to make their own decisions with the outfit.

It's a testament to Tim's excellent coaching style that no designer has ever said (during judging, later in the show) "But this is what Tim wanted me to do" or "But Tim said..." The designer takes away what he or she will from the coaching session with Tim, and runs with it.

This is exactly what coaching is all about. The goal is not for the coach to have all the answers, or to act as a judge, or to steer the other person to a particular conclusion. Rather, the coach should act as a springboard for new ideas, asking open-ended questions that allow the other person to see things with a new perspective. The other person needs to take it from there, to make their own decisions.

Coaching can be a tough skill to develop - especially for those of us with a background in IT, where often we want to provide answers. (For the same reasons, this is also why it's hard to say no.) But coaching is about helping to provide direction, not answers. With practice, you'll find your coaching skills improve.

I've touched on coaching before, and I've encouraged peer co-coaching as part of staff self-improvement opportunities. If you are interested in coaching, I encourage you to catch an episode of Project Runway, and watch closely how Tim Gunn interacts with the designers during their coaching session. Listen to how he asks questions without criticizing. Learn some tips about how to ask questions without suggesting an answer or a direction.

Then it's up to you to exercise those new skills: Volunteer for co-coaching! If you are a manager, I also encourage you to do manager-staff coaching in 1-on-1 meetings with your team members.


I see that Project Runway has posted extended versions of Tim's "critique" (coaching) sessions on their web site. I haven't look at them, but I'm sure they are interesting. Note that these contain a lot of content that didn't air.