In spite of wide-spread coach training to help prepare leaders as coaches, most of the time they aren’t using coaching skills to grow and develop their people. Instead, many leaders and managers still believe in their role as a problem solver, cutting short conversations with employees by providing solutions, advice, and answers.
In the work I do in organizations, I often observe leaders who don’t use coaching conversations. Organizations may think they are preparing leaders as coaches. In fact, the leaders themselves might think they are coaching, but they’re not. Not really. They’re just giving advice disguised as a question. Sound familiar?
Yet leaders who do use a coaching style usually find that their employees are more committed, willing to put in greater effort, and are less likely to leave. Employees truly appreciate engaging when they work with leaders as coaches.
“Clearly, the benefits of building a coaching culture and increasing the effectiveness of coaching are great. There are both tangible benefits (increased employee engagement and productivity) and intangible benefits (improved culture and finding meaning and purpose in work).” ~ John H. Zenger and Kathleen Stinnett, The Extraordinary Coach: How the Best Leaders Help Others Grow, McGraw-Hill, 2010
In spite of learning coaching skills, many leaders struggle to have effective coaching conversations that lead to insights and change.
A checklist for coaching conversations can help.
Zenger and Stinnett suggest using the FUEL model in The Extraordinary Coach:
F = Frame the Conversation. Set the context by agreeing on the discussion’s purpose, process, and desired outcome.
U = Understand the Current State. Explore the current state from the coachee’s point of view. Expand the coachee’s awareness of the situation to determine the real coaching issue.
E = Explore the Desired State. Help the coachee to articulate a vision of success in this scenario. Explore multiple alternative paths before prioritizing methods of achieving this vision.
L = Lay Out a Success Plan. Identify the specific, time-bounded action steps to be taken to achieve the desired results. Determine milestones for follow-up and accountability.
Frame the Coaching Conversation
It’s not always that leaders don’t know how to coach; it’s that conversations with employees often turn into project task updates instead of furthering their growth and development.
This is not unusual. I see it all the time when I’m called into organizations to coach. Yet it can be avoided by a simple trick.
In spite of good intentions, leaders don’t use a checklist to remind them how to set up a coaching dialogue. From the book by Zenger and Stinnett, The Extraordinary Coach, there are three steps that work well for initiating a developmental dialogue.
Identify the behaviour or issue to discuss.
“I’d like to talk about [the issue]…”
Determine the purpose or outcomes of the conversation.
“By the end of this conversation, I would like to accomplish…” “What else would you like to make sure that we address?”
Agree on the process for the conversation.
“Here’s how I thought we could proceed…” “How does that sound?”
I know, this sounds almost too simple to bother with, but without it, employees aren’t clear about what the issues are and how they can use them to grow and develop. Whether the leader or the coachee initiates the conversation and brings up the topic isn’t as important as setting up the conversation and clarifying what’s going to be discussed, what outcomes are intended, and how the conversation will proceed.
These three steps will save the leader from needing to have the same conversation twice. Using a checklist will stop your conversations from being task updates or from derailing into details. You will start to talk about what really matters and help your people to grow and develop their thinking skills.
Many leaders fail to coach their people, preferring to fix problems and suggest solutions. They don’t take the time to have coaching conversations in which they ask provocative questions. As a result, leaders don’t coach and fail to teach people to think things through.
If a leader uses coaching conversations to grow and develop her people, she will benefit from staff who are more engaged in their work.
To avoid conversations from derailing into project updates, however, a checklist for coaching is useful.
The first step is to set up the conversation, what the issue is, what the purpose of the talk will be, and how the leader and employee will proceed.
The next step in a coaching conversation is to address the “meat” of the issue. Leaders need to understand what’s going on. This part can be tricky because of our natural tendency to assume we already understand what the issues are. We fill in the blanks and automatically judge–usually prematurely.
Instead, a leader needs to listen well and encourage the coachee to talk. Explore what the real challenge is for her. Be curious about what is said or merely implied. Follow emotional cues.
Here are some great pointers from the Zenger and Stinnett book.
- Ask open-ended, non-leading questions
- Act as a mirror, observe, and say what you hear and see
- Follow up on emotionally charged words or expressions
- Explore what the real issue or challenge is
- Discuss consequences in the event things don’t change
- Assume anything
- Judge, criticize or categorize
- Ask for too many details or focus on other people
- Let the person obsess or ruminate; rather let her explore possibilities
- Offer your perspective or advice until the person has explored options
- Find an answer for the person; let him discover insight and awareness
People won’t change until they experience a need to change, and if a leader is too helpful, the coachee won’t feel enough tension to be motivated to change. Keep the focus on them and what they need—and are willing—to do differently.
Typically in most companies, leaders are excellent problem-fixers and advice-givers. They want to jump in at Step 3. Many tend to skip over Steps 1 and 2, because leaders have a bias for action. They may be more comfortable when they solve a problem quickly and influence action from others. But that is a big trap. Instead of pouncing on the first viable solution, it’s worthwhile to explore alternatives.
Leaders as coaches can show their people how to think things through so that the right target becomes the objective. It’s important to let the coachee do most of the talking to find what matters most to her. If the employee’s vision is too small, the leader can help her explore broader objectives.
Here are some tips on this part of the coaching conversation:
Don’t rush into problem-solving; create the ideal vision and generate more alternatives for achieving that vision.
Resist the tendency to go with the first option.
As the leader, you can negotiate and influence what the measures of success must include.
If the coachee comes up with at least three alternatives to consider, the coachee will end up with a more robust and effective solution.
If the coachee gets stuck, offer to become a brainstorming partner.
Explore possible barriers and look for alternatives.
This is the home stretch in a coaching conversation, and, like the previous steps, should not be rushed or skimmed over. Leaders can be most helpful here when they act as a guide.
Presumably, by now you have outlined the desired vision of success as well as several alternatives for getting there. You’ve prioritized the options that will work best. Now you are ready to dive into the specific detailed action steps with a follow-up plan.
The role of the leader is critical here, as a guide. You help the coachee identify the specific actions to be taken. You help the coachee enlist the support of others. You need to hear the coachee articulate exactly how he or she will proceed to increase the likelihood that it will happen. Also, you help the coachee commit to timelines for important milestones.
By assigning accountability, you will help your coachee change faster than without it.
Even if 85 per cent of coachees complete their assignments on the day or morning before their next coaching meeting with their manager, it is still effective.
Here are the three sub-steps of this final coaching conversation:
- Develop and agree on an action plan with timelines.
- Enlist support from others.
- Set milestones for follow-up and accountability.
The key role of the leader is to ask for details, clarity, and commitment. This is how leaders add value to the coaching conversation. Accountability works, and it works better when there is a consistent follow-up.
Leaders as Coaches Also Ask for Feedback
Research suggests that when the coachee can provide feedback to the leader on the value of the session, the quality and relevance of the session is significantly increased. But few leaders remember to ask for feedback. One possible way to conclude a coaching conversation would be like this:
“On a scale of one to five, how valuable was this conversation with regard to providing relevant help for you?”
Why Should Leaders as Coaches Bother with Coaching Conversations?
Leaders who have coaching conversations with their employees have staff who are more engaged in their work. From what I’ve observed in my work in organizations, many leaders skip coaching because it involves more time and thought.
However, with a coaching conversation checklist, it’s easy to stay in coaching mode and it doesn’t take more time.
Without going into all the statistical ROI studies on the benefits of coaching, let’s look at the benefits of coaching as a leadership style. Why bother with coaching conversations? (This is from the book by Zenger and Stinnett, The Extraordinary Coach):
Coaching gives new meaning to work. When people feel that they are engaged in a useful cause and not merely performing menial tasks, they have more energy and motivation and will go beyond minimal requirements. Coaching provides leaders with opportunities to link each person’s job to the overall mission of the business.
Coaching leads to more engaged and committed employees. Coaching from leaders shows strong evidence of boosting engagement.
Coaching refocuses people on the most important objectives and lets them know that their leader is paying attention to them. Peter Drucker hypothesized that if an organization could increase productivity by only ten per cent, profits would double.
The bottom-line impact of coaching is hard to ignore.
Coaching leads to a stronger culture. An organization’s culture has a big impact on performance and productivity. Leaders influence culture by the example they set and the behaviour they reward or curb in their daily conversations with people.
Coaching strengthens relationships between supervisor and employee. When leaders coach, they are expressing their personal commitment to the development of an employee.
Coaching promotes healthier individuals. When leaders take the time to coach someone, they contribute to that person’s self-esteem and confidence.
Coaching encourages resilience for when problems arise and mistakes are made. Leaders can help people learn to think for themselves, create their own energy, and meet challenges without the need for micromanaging.
Coaching is a mutual exploration of better ways to approach challenging situations, thus encouraging people to have their own ideas.
Coaching encourages people to pursue projects and provides a safety net and support.
There is a strong case for using a checklist to ensure success in many professions. Airline pilots have used them for years. Surgeons are now using them to lower rates of infection and death, thus saving millions in hospital expenses.
Having a guide to follow reduces stress and uncertainty.
It also increases a manager’s confidence that nothing important will be forgotten.
Smart managers use a coaching conversation checklist to see breakthrough results.
So leaders, let me ask you this – Are you really coaching?
One of the best ways to learn the basics of coaching conversations and experience the value of coaching is to work with a coach on your own development. If you’re already a trained coach, you may want to brush up on your coaching skills with mentor coaching.
Author: Cathy Shaughnessy
Cathy Shaughnessy is a PRISM award-winning ICF Master Certified Coach and author of the book series The Really Competent Coach. Cathy coaches senior leaders, mentors credentialed coaches, trains fledgeling coaches and helps organizations build strong coaching cultures. Cathy recommends lots of great tools for coaches. You can find them here.