Recently, a manager asked me how to start a coaching conversation that provides clarity and doesn’t sound preachy. Here is how I replied.
First, it is important to understand what coaching is and isn’t. Workplace coaching is not, as some of our sporting examples might lead us to believe, about barking out the game plan. It is rather about asking questions to draw out what people know based on what they’ve learned and/or experienced. You may be wondering why this is the best way. When you think about adults, the majority of your workforce, research in the last 30 years regarding adult learning suggests that they learn best when they can contribute their own thoughts and ideas. This is opposed to children who, due to their relative inexperience, are more like empty vessels to be filled with new knowledge. To approach adults the way you would a child typically demotivates them and makes them feel their knowledge, experience, and skills are not valuable. Thus, in order to be most effective, it is best to use a questioning approach to drive as much input as possible. This makes the role of coach more about guidance and facilitation rather than direction of all of the action.
Does this mean that workplace coaches never offer their suggestions or even teach? No, not at all. It just means that a workplace coach’s primary mode of operation is asking questions to guide and steer rather than providing answers. In addition, they use this platform as a way to build confidence, praise good work, and drive self-direction.
Given that, let’s look at the details. To begin and to be most useful, you, as leader, will need to do some LBWA (leading by working alongside) to observe the performance of your team members. Only then, once you have a good idea of how they perform, can you begin to effectively coach.
There are many good coaching models out there, all with positives, negatives, and different formulas, however, the coaching models I have studied and experienced have three similar overarching themes that sit at their foundation – reflection, ideation, and commitment. Overlaid on these three themes are steps that differ from one model to the next but the underlying themes are largely the same. After establishing the focus of the conversation, the coachee reflects on how things are right now, the current state, and then ideates or brainstorms on ways they might make change or move to a more desired result. Finally, the coach and the coachee commit to work together on next steps.
With these basics, here is a simple method:
Begin with an icebreaker that opens the door to conversation. A good practice is to begin with three pat-on-the-backs for things done well and then move to a focus area for improvement in a way that invites them to reflect and provide input from their unique vantage point.
MANAGER: “Bill, I have been observing your work lately and you are doing a great job with completing customer calls, sharing creative suggestions, and following up and I think that if we improved the structuring of your proposals, we could really improve the customer experience. What do you think?”
BILL: “I think you are right. I could use a little work on proposal structure as I have never really felt comfortable with how I am doing it right now.”
Next, invite them to ideate ways to improve given their experience.
MANAGER: “What do you think you could do to make it better? Do you have any ideas you haven’t tried?”
BILL: “Well, I have always wanted to separate things by product function rather than just by product. I have this idea about showing the customer how each part of the product works in sequence rather than just a string of parts on a list.”
MANAGER: “That’s interesting. What else can you tell me about that?”
BILL: “It seems to me our customers need more of an approach that tells a story that fits their objective rather than just a grocery list with pricing. I have an example I played with if you’d like to see it.”
Finally, invite the team member to commit to action by first demonstrating your willingness to commit to help them.
MANAGER: “I love the idea and would like to see your mock-up. How can I help move this forward?”
BILL: “First, I would like you input and approval on my approach. Then, I would like to create my next two or three proposals in this style, show them to you so we are aligned, and then try them on customers.”
MANAGER: “Bill, that sounds fantastic. I look forward to seeing your example and then to moving ahead.”
To summarize, here is the model:
- Get focus on an improvement opportunity and invite the coachee to REFLECT on the current state:
“I’ve observed your work and you do very well with 1, 2, and 3, and I think if we improved 4 it would make a big difference. What do you think?”
- Define action steps by inviting the coachee to IDEATE possible solutions.
“What could you do to make it better?”
- COMMIT to help, and invite the coachee to commit to action.
“How can I help you make this happen?”
There it is, coaching demystified and uncomplicated with a few questions built on the three key themes of coaching. Try it.