Does managing ever make you feel exhausted? Are you fed up with directing your team towards solutions that they should know exist? What if there was, at least sometimes, another way?
I would guess that what I’m about to say isn’t new to you. But if you took a step back and moved into a coaching approach, you could transform your relationships with each team member in a way that would benefit you both. A coaching approach means moving from providing all the answers and managing closely to facilitating your staff’s learning and progress through asking the right questions, listening to the answers and helping them to find their path. Instead of constantly giving your input, you encourage your team to find their own paths where they can – developing their learning by doing so.
An example. You’re having a really busy week. Everyone in your team seems to want something. You receive an email from a member of staff who can be quite needy. ‘Please can I get 15 minutes of your time today? It can’t wait.’ You sigh inwardly, don’t let it show in your email response, and tell them to come and find you when they’re ready. The problem they want to talk to you about is how to write a proposal for a potential new client in an industry they don’t know. You’re at a crossroads. Do you tell them precisely how to do it, or do you encourage them to think of ways that they can undertake this task without needing you to lead them through it?
The first approach is traditional management. The second approach is more akin to coaching. In other words, coaching is another – quite different – way of directing and managing – that gets your team to do what they need to do but builds their learning as they do so.
The power of coaching
Using coaching techniques can be transformative. It unlocks team potential, maximises individual performance and helps people to learn about themselves and their working world without having to be taught directly.
According to the largest coaching body in the world (the ICF), coaching is a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires [coachees] to maximise their personal and professional potential. In practical terms, it improves working relationships (with seniors, juniors and peers), saves time, improves on the job performance and satisfaction, improves staff retention, and has positive impacts on engagement and wellbeing, including helping coachees make sense of their lives.
Moreover, coachees tend to view their coaches as helpful participants in their lives, which may suggest that leaders who adopt a coaching framework could be viewed more favourably by their colleagues.
There are very significant benefits to adopting a coaching approach to leadership. But what does that look like and how can you go about integrating a coaching approach?
Be ready to switch to ‘coach mode’
Conventional paid coaching sessions tend to happen in hour-blocks, on a regular basis, for a set period of time. You have a choice as a leader: you can model this approach or some version of it, or you can introduce ad hoc coaching into your week.
I would recommend the latter. The ‘coaching mindset’ can be quite a pivot. At the start, it can be very full-on for you, and your staff, to have to sit down and have coaching. Better is to look at ways that you can take a coaching approach to a common problem, rather than just telling a staff member what to do. Coaching is about asking good questions, and giving space for the answers. So instead of telling that team member all about the industry, ask them: ‘what is it that you think you need to know? How could you find it out? How would that make you feel?’ (Hopefully the answer to the last question, even if they don’t admit it, is empowered. But they’re more likely to say ‘knowledgeable’).
Focus first on coachable team members
Whereas a paid coach will usually be coaching someone who is ready and willing to enter into a coaching relationship, this won’t be the case with everyone on your team. Some of them, particularly if they are very new to a role, may need more direction in any technical elements that have a right and wrong answer.
Similarly, team members who are very demotivated may not be in the right place for you to start exploring issues with them. As you become more skilled in coaching, you’ll be able to intersperse these techniques without it being a red flag to those team members, but starting with those who are ready, as well as willing and able to be coached, will be best.
Look out for team members who appear to have a good tolerance for discomfort, an openness to experimentation, and a willingness to take responsibility. These are good signs that they are ready for coaching, according to interview research by Steinberg, an experienced executive coach.
Work with a model
As a leader who is coaching, you’ll want to tap into the large number of tools and techniques which have been developed by and for coaches over the recent years. I’m going to be writing a series of articles on this over the coming months (and already have one on a particular technique, The Miracle Question, which you should take a look at). But one technique that hardly needs an introduction is the GROW coaching model.
The letters stand for Goals – Reality – Options – Will. If you have a member of staff who you’re going to sit down and do some coaching with (as opposed to just asking coaching questions on the fly), this will give you an easy-to-remember, tried-and-tested structure for your session.
You start by asking the person being coached to set their Goals for the session, then you explore the ‘Reality’ of where they currently are. You explore together the Options for moving forward, before selecting one or more and considering what they ‘Will’ need and choose to do to achieve them. That’s it. It’s that straight forward. With this structure, you have a simple to remember framework to give your session a purpose. You can find out more about GROW here (and you can also Google it and find a huge array of resources).
Be ready to listen
To prime yourself for a coaching approach, you need to be prepared to listen, listen, and listen some more. If you know anything about coaching, it will likely be that listening is the fundamental principle. However, quashing the desire to ‘tell and sell’ can be extremely difficult, especially if you are used to directing your team towards answers.
Allowing your team member to talk and them recognising that you have put aside the time to listen to what they have to say is a really powerful first step towards leadership coaching. Also, when they’re talking, picking up on what they’re not saying alongside what they are. They’ve come to you to ask what the new holiday policy is, when they could have gone to a team member. They’re very interested in when it comes into force. You could give them an answer, and let them go on their way. Or, with a bit of probing, you could find out that they are worried about not being able to book time off to help a friend recover from surgery. They’ve opened up to you and there’s space for you to understand what is important to them, and motivates them. You know more about them, they feel listened to. You can’t solve the problem – being a coach/leader doesn’t mean you have the answers. But you can have the understanding.
Ask a powerful question
In coaching, not all questions are equal. ‘Why’ questions can be seen to bring judgement, for example, and are best avoided. Avoid questions that you’re asking just because of personal curiosity. What you are looking for, if you can, are simple, yet strategic and thought-provoking questions which help your team member to unpack the topic they’re talking about, in a way that helps them to make sense of it.
Scoular, in her fantastic book ‘FT Guide to Business Coaching’, lays out great, simple questions for each stage of the GROW model.
Here are a few that I’ve adapted from her suggestions and my own coaching practice to get you started:
What do you want from this particular coaching session?
What do you want when you walk out that door that you don’t have now?
How will you know you’ve succeeded in this coaching session?
What is the current context of this goal?
What else is relevant? What else? What else?
What might you do?
What have you already considered?
What have you already tried? What happened? What did you learn?
If you had a magic wand, that could grant any wish, what would you do?
Which options are worth exploring further? What are their upsides and downsides?
What will you do?
What might stand in the way?
How will you deal with it?
How committed do you feel?
Hold the silence
We are, as human beings, often very uncomfortable with silence. We ask a question, don’t get an instant response, and then go on to clarify our question. As a coach, silence is your friend. Silence often means that you have landed a question that the coachee is really having to think about. Resist the urge to control the flow and outcome, resist the urge to hurry things along. Instead, hold that silence! In the early days of coaching, I imagined a bulldog clip fastened over my lips, holding them together. It worked. Often, your coachee’s greatest ‘aha!’ moments will follow a silence. If you have to bite your lip initially, then so be it. But just hold it, hold it, hold it…and see what magic happens.
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