Effective coaching

Graham Scrivener emphasises the importance of integrating coaching into managers’ mind-sets

Coaching is always cited as being fundamental to great leadership, as it is key to developing, motivating and engaging workers which boosts performance.

Yet, Forum’s global study entitled Measuring Sales Management’s Coaching Impact 2014 found that out of the 200 companies interviewed, a quarter of managers in sales and non-sales roles such as HR, do not personally coach their people, despite admitting that coaching is the single most important tool for driving performance.

In fact, high performance organisations provide 20 per cent more coaching and training than underperforming companies. They integrate coaching into their daily management activity, executed across the entire business with structure, vision and purpose. They do this by following the four steps below.

1. Coaching managers to coach better

Effective coaching is a continuous cultural process encompassing the entire workforce. To build and maintain a coaching climate, leaders at every level need to be taught effective coaching techniques. [pullquote]Managers, who are often time poor, need clear definitions of what great coaching looks like[/pullquote] and core coaching practices that can be applied quickly and effectively in a variety of contexts.

It’s about teaching them that coaching is not an ad hoc process or something done only when there’s a problem. Great coaches are strategic and well-planned in their approach, continuously focusing on ways to raise the game of their entire workforce in line with the goals of the business.

Firstly, they establish a relationship of mutual respect with their employees where coaching is welcomed and seen as a means of learning to enhance their career rather than an intervention to improve or fix their performance. They build on this positive perception of coaching by seeking coaching and developmental opportunities for themselves to lead by example and to demonstrate their commitment to learning.

The positive coaching culture is kept alive by capitalising on multiple opportunities to build employees’ capabilities – from spur-of-the-moment encounters to scheduled debriefs and meetings, from being ‘on call’ to observing an employee. This is instead of relying solely on annual reviews or developmental planning meetings, or coaching only when a specific performance issue arises. Regular communication and observation also enables them to be more proactive and strategic in their approach. They can instantly spot gaps in skills in under-performers and opportunities to elevate the capabilities of overachievers which will retain and motivate staff while improving the business bottom line.

In short, they create an environment that makes coaching and learning an expected, integral part of everyday working life for example, by freely imparting their own expertise and encouraging employees to share knowledge with one another; through recognising and rewarding those that take initiative in their own development; and by assigning projects, roles and responsibilities that enhance skills and talents in a way that’s right for the individual and the needs of the business.

2. The thinking partner – investing in low and high performers

The reason many mangers don’t coach, as we’ve found from our own global research, is either because they’re too busy to coach, they don’t know how to or they’re not expected to coach or held accountable for their team’s development. Those that do, often do it with little structure. They do it only when they need to such as when someone is under performing or a new starter joins rather than incorporating it as part of their daily management routine. Coaching then just becomes a tool to raise poor performance to acceptable levels. Instead it should be used as a positive management intervention with pre-defined objectives that elevates the capabilities of the whole team and provides opportunities for those with the highest potential.

Teaching managers to coach effectively will educate them on the purpose of coaching and how to implement strategic learning techniques. However, often even with the best intentions, it’s natural for busy managers to focus more of their scarce time on the underperformers if overachievers continue to do a good job. However, high performers can just become stagnant, disengaged and leave while the business misses out on their untapped potential.

An effective coaching programme is therefore one where the onus to develop isn’t just on the manager. Employees at all levels of capability are encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning while having access to the right amount of support and information to develop. This empowerment will make them feel more in control of their career and therefore, more engaged, while minimising the risk of any one person being left under-developed. 

Employees are persuaded by their coach to think through their challenges and responsibilities rather than try to solve the problem or provide a solution. They assist their team in seeking to understand their situation by asking thought-provoking questions, and by exploring options and possibilities with them. In other words, they take the role of thinking partner.

This role requires two basic but critical skills – listening and questioning. Thinking partners listen for the facts of the situation and the feelings the employee has about it. They follow this up by asking questions designed to clarify their understanding, draw out the employee’s perceptions, surface all parts of an issue and test out ideas and options.

They help others to analyse business issues so they can define the best course of action, reflect on experiences to identify lessons learnt and act as a sounding board for alternative approaches and ideas. They enhance other people’s awareness of their  behaviour and what is driving it, uncovering beliefs and assumptions and thereby enabling them to choose to do things differently and take greater control of their future.

Overall, they help an employee to see themselves and the situation from a different and more positive perspective and from one where they can see a workable solution. This is especially useful when someone is feeling overwhelmed by a situation or is so focused on a problem that it becomes difficult to see a way out.

Once an employee has determined the best way forward, if appropriate, the thinking partner and employee can work together on next steps to take, potential obstacles to overcome and agree on the kind of support that the employee will need.

Turning managers into thinking partners will significantly enhance their credibility as a coach. It demonstrates confidence in their team and helps them develop the critical thinking skills necessary to solve problems quickly and effectively.

3. Quality coaching rather than ‘just’ coaching

Poor coaches treat coaching as a tick-box exercise, an exercise that they apply using the same techniques and learning opportunities to every one of their team no matter their ability.

But quality coaching is about making the learning experience relevant to the employee and the future requirements of the business. Employees need to understand how mastering skills, learning processes or absorbing information will benefit them, help them do their jobs more effectively and contribute to their team’s business results.

With the coach’s input, a plan needs to be set to help employees learn their new capability with details on what is required of the employee to achieve desired results. Whenever possible, the coach should also take time to determine the employee’s learning style, so they can design learning experiences that will be most beneficial to them.

The learning process should be varied. It is natural to teach by explaining a concept or by telling someone how to do something. But these one-way approaches to transferring knowledge and skills might not necessarily be the most effective ones.

Lectures, presentations and reading are legitimate, and often necessary, teaching methods. But, when the learning process is expanded to include more experiential and collaborative approaches, employees are more stimulated and engaged, and retention is facilitated.

Quality coaching is about considering other ways to share knowledge and expertise. For example, by having employees observe their manager in meetings or on client calls, by having an employee practise or role-play a skill with their manager in advance of the ‘real thing,’ and by creating opportunities to observe employees in action and then to give feedback and advice. Encouraging employees to learn with and from each other is another effective teaching tactic as is seeking out opportunities for employees to try new behaviours and develop new capabilities. When people have an opportunity to interact and exchange ideas, they are able to compare their own actions and ideas, and become more open to new ways of thinking and doing.

People also learn most efficiently when they have a chance to examine and consider the ramifications of their own actions (successes and failures). This cycle of action and reflection creates a forward momentum by fostering new perspectives and understanding, which in turn guide new actions. Managers can support this by encouraging and enabling reflection through ‘debrief’ conversations, feedback and discussions of lessons learnt.

[pullquote]Feedback should be framed so that it builds esteem, corrects and stretches. For this, a coach needs to have a clear understanding of the individual[/pullquote]. They should be a keen observer of intended and unintended results; they should ponder how people need to be different, think differently and act differently. They can then use feedback as the quickest, cheapest and most effective intervention for improving performance.

When giving feedback, it should always be done with the intent of helping employees to learn – either what they are doing well or how to do better. If the focus on learning is not evident, there is the risk that feedback can be de-motivating and even impede learning.

Further, it can damage a coach’s credibility and diminish their long-term effectiveness as a manager.

In order to focus on learning, it is best to avoid thinking of feedback as negative or positive as this mind-set fosters the use of feedback as an evaluation of performance. Rather, feedback should be seen as a way to either sustain or strengthen existing skills and capabilities – reinforcing feedback – or to develop new skills, capabilities, and behaviours – developmental feedback. Whether it is used to reinforce or to develop, feedback given with the intent of helping someone learn is always positive. Feedback is information about performance; it is new knowledge that builds awareness, competence and capability. Feedback is only negative when it is given badly or given for the wrong reasons.

Further, positive feedback and encouragement will show support and people learn best in a supportive environment. When managers establish a learning atmosphere that safeguards security and self-worth, employees are more willing to take chances, explore new ideas, and try out new approaches. They are also likely to be more open and receptive to feedback.

However, support must be balanced with a sufficient level of challenge. Unless learning activities challenge them intellectually and emotionally, employees will typically rely on existing habits and will not stretch themselves to find new ways of thinking and acting.

4. Establish a coaching culture

For coaching to be effective in driving long-term performance, it needs to be a continuous and sustainable process that every person, leader and department is expected to undertake as part of their everyday role. If not, it will revert back to being a sporadic and ad hoc process that is unable to produce a stream of highly productive people with the skills to match the interchangeable needs of the business.

In order to build sustainability, coaching needs to be a core value of the business; part of the company’s culture, driven and modelled from the top down and implemented at all levels.

There is a strong connection between organisational culture and learning. A company’s culture – the norms, beliefs, values and practices that pervade it – is a primary factor in determining the extent and variety of learning that takes place.

Executives should be endorsing and leading by example to encourage uptake of learning activities that are grounded into the organisational goals, while leaders throughout should be expected to work to a set of pre-determined learning goals for individuals. Managers are very busy but leaders who are measured and incentivised for their coaching success will be encouraged to integrate it into their daily management routine, as long as they’re given the right skills and tools to do it effectively.

Access to learning tools is important for coaches to supplement their teachings and to develop their own coaching skills. These tools should be accessible to everyone and offer a variety of learning opportunities. This reinforces a culture that values and encourages continuous learning.

Tools such as online/offline learning communities enable people to share knowledge, experience and skills. Employees can use these communities to stimulate their thinking, assess challenges and work through solutions with their thinking partners.

On-the-job learning is also key to a continuous learning culture. This is most effective when the learning opportunities match employees’ needs and interests. It helps employees to achieve their business goals and work alongside them being coached and supported through the experience.

Overall, the culture must be one of trust with honest communication where diverse perspectives, opinions and ideas are encouraged and risk-taking and mistakes are tolerated.

Problem-solving should be co-operative, reflection time should be encouraged and managers should have access to relevant resources that supplement learning.

Developing a continuous learning culture that drives effective coaching techniques is important to the future success of the business. Nevertheless, before taking steps to implement, it is worth remembering that learning takes time. It is a process of transformation that proceeds at a different pace for different people. So keep expectations realistic and structure learning activities to allow ample time for new skills and information to sink in. People build capability by first learning the basics, then applying new skills in a variety of circumstances and finally incorporating them into daily work. Learning through coaching will take hold and yield greater results if you allow it to follow this progression before moving on to new areas.


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