Being A Better Coach
August 4, 2015
"I want my people to be better. All of my people. I want to start with those who have the responsibility for coaching and developing other employees." Despite those words being delivered by a manager with a somewhat strident voice, the sentiment was refreshing to hear. My role was to start the leadership development summit by discussing 'ways to become a better coach'. Jeez, no pressure then!
Do a quick job search and you will see this manager wasn't alone. "The ability to coach and develop others" is appearing on more and more recruitment ads. It's a fundamental skill required in managers. The sad truth is that - for the most part - managers and aspiring managers aren't taught how to coach. As people excel in their roles they are loaded up with more responsibilities and inevitably line management of others. Initially people excel at their jobs because they show strong understanding and capability within their specific area of expertise. It is the performance in their specialized function that catapults them up the chain of command. However, when they are awarded the title 'manager' and given the task of overseeing others, the skills needed to excel in this area haven't been developed.
This happens all the time. I once worked with a first time Sales Manager who had been a very successful sales person. In fact, he won national awards and company-wide recognition for his exceptional performance. The company rewarded him with gifts, lots of $$$ and prestige. Then, the ultimate reward… a step up the ladder. There, hanging on his new office door, was a shiny plaque declaring him "Sales Manager." It was only a matter of months before this once highly respected sales person was demoted. Actually that's not fair. He wasn't demoted, he was assigned a new role (and title) that was created specifically for him. One that had no line management responsibilities and a cubicle was tucked away in the corner. He failed not because he didn't understand sales -- the processes, the procedures, the psychology, and the techniques -- but because he hadn't learned how to coach. He knew what worked for him; how he had achieved success. He enforced that approach with his team. It was command and control. He simply hadn't developed any practical coaching skills and had no understanding of how to move his team forward. I am sure to this day the once highly successful and respected individual is still sitting in that very same cubicle with dust gathering on his old sales awards. It's not his fault. He hadn't been given the opportunities to learn and develop his coaching skills before or after he got the promotion. It's a sad but familiar story. This will happen to every manager if they don't understand, learn and improve their skills so they have "the ability to coach and develop others."
The first step to improving the quality and impact of your coaching efforts -- to becoming a better coach - is to open your mind and commit to life-long learning on how to improve and develop your coaching skills. Coaching is a skill -- a learned behavior -- that is available to anyone as long as you're willing to learn, practice and grow your skills.
For coaching to be effective, you need to understand why you are coaching and what specific actions you need to take. Coaching focuses on helping another person learn in ways that let them keep growing afterward. It is centered in asking rather than telling. It is about provoking thought more than giving instructions. It is about holding someone accountable to the goals they have set for themselves.
To become a better coach you should be focusing on the following areas…
- Growing the relationship. You will make no progress if the coachee doesn't trust you. This is the most overlooked part of coaching. Manager's jump straight in assuming their job title gives them permission to coach, but it doesn't. You have to be granted permission by the coachee. The only way to do that is to build a foundation of trust. You must effectively establish boundaries. Be clear about the development objectives they set. Show good judgement. Show patience. Follow through on your commitments. A coaching relationship is no different than any of the relationships you build in life. First, you have to trust one another -- know that each other's intentions are honest and genuine -- before you can move forward.
- Offer nonjudgmental assessment. Help the coachee to gain self-awareness and insight into their current performance as well as their ambitions, hopes and dreams. Offer timely feedback and clarify behaviors the coachee would like to improve upon. Help the coachee to assess their own performance. Focus on current performance vs desired performance and intention vs impact. Create a non judgmental environment; making judgments will distract you from listening to what is being communicated. Judgement filters everything through your perspective and prevents you from seeing things from the coachees perspective.
- Challenge. As a coach it is your job to challenge an individual's thinking and the assumptions they make. You should ask open-ended questions and wait for the answers. You are not there to tell a story, impart wisdom or offer instruction but instead to listen. Encourage discussion around areas that are of interest. Ask questions to clarify what is being said. Then using questions, push the coachee to find alternative solutions to the obstacles preventing them from making progress with their goals. Encourage the coachee to take sensible risks.
- Empowerment. Coaching conversations should be inspiring. The goal is to engage the coachee in dialogue that helps them recognize their current performance and its limitations, explore options for next steps and paint a vivid picture for what they imagine their success to be. It's imperative that the coachee feels inspired to take the next step. They achieve this when the coach offers them support and encouragement. You listen carefully. You are open to the perspective of others. You allow the coachee to share their emotions. You recognize their progress and their success. You are there for them whenever they need you to be.
- Be Present. Coaching requires you to be in the moment. You have to be in the right here and now. You need to silence your inner voice; the voice inside your head that is constantly trying to distract you. That inner voice is constantly jumping around from one thought to the next. "What time was that conference call?" "Why didn't he tell me about the project that he was late for?" "Don't forget to make that dentist appointment." "Is that my cell phone vibrating? Where is my phone?" Your inner voice prevents you from being active in the coaching conversation. It is also your inner voice that encourages you to think of your next question rather than listening to the other person. You need to calm that inner voice so that you can listen to what is being said -- and what is not. Being present allows you to see how the coachee is behaving; what signals may be important for you to notice? You have to give the coachee your full attention and make the space comfortable for the coaching conversation to happen.
- Getting results. Coaching isn't effective if no progress is made. Good coaches know they have to help the coachee understand the end first. What will the desired outcome look like? You help the coachee to set meaningful goals for themselves. You help them identify areas of opportunity. You clarify the steps needed to be taken and the measures of success. Most importantly you hold them accountable. After all, coaching is about achieving the goals the coachee has set -- or at the very least making tangible progress towards the goals.
If there is one final piece of advice I would offer up it is the importance of positivity in coaching. It is my belief that people's potential for growth comes from discovering and developing their strongest skills, attributes and prevalent talents. Building on someone's strengths puts them in the best position to significantly improve their performance. Focus your coaching conversations around what success will look like for the coachee. Have them imagine their ideal future. Focus on using their strengths to get them to their goals and put less focus on fixing their weaknesses. Injecting more positivity into your coaching can have a profound effect.
One of my favorite research studies into coaching was done by the Department of Cognitive Science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. They used brain scans to test two different approaches to coaching. They started first with the traditional (if you can call it that) coaching approach, asking the participants to identify areas in which they may be struggling and to think about ways to improve. Questions like "What challenges have you encountered?" And "How are you progressing with your work?" were asked. This was labelled the 'negative approach' as it focuses on identifying areas in need of improvement. After the first test they changed the coaching approach to focus on possibilities and positives, asking the participants about their aspirations and encouraging them to visualize their future goals. Questions were asked such as, "If everything worked out ideally in your life, what would you be doing in 10 years?" The results showed that during the two coaching approaches different parts of the brain were lit up on the scans. The positive approach activated more important neural circuits that are needed to make progress while also reducing stress in the body. Imagining a positive future illuminates and engages more of the brain giving you a much greater chance of succeeding.
Becoming a better coach starts by acknowledging that there is more for us to understand, more for us to learn and practice, and more for us to aspire to. If you're committed to discovering more about yourself and other,s then you're already on the right path to becoming an even better coach.