Coaching is a perennially hot leadership topic. Across industries, leaders understand the value coaching can bring to their teams. Effective coaching has the power to take good performance to great. And, great performance can boost employee morale, customer experience, productivity, innovation, and ultimately the bottom line. So, it’s no surprise that organizations today see coaching as a key development and engagement strategy. But, why then do we consistently hear that leaders aren’t coaching their employees adequately and what can we do about it?
When we look at why managers don’t coach — or don’t coach effectively — we typically encounter one of four roadblocks:
- Time: Our managers don’t have (or say they don’t have) the time it takes to prepare for, conduct, and follow-up to a coaching session.
- They think they’re already coaching (part one): They mistake coaching for what we call a difficult conversation. “This is the second time Joe’s come in late; I guess I need to have a coaching session with Joe.”
- They think they’re already coaching (part two): They think telling — what we call feedback — is coaching. (Spoiler alert: it’s not.)
- They have too many people: This is associated with the time response above; our managers don’t have time to coach everyone… so they coach no one.
In this article, we’ll define coaching once and for all using handy models leaders can reference on the job.
The Three Performance Conversations
To level set, let’s start by quickly defining each of the Three Performance Conversations — Feedback Conversations, Coaching Conversations, and Difficult Conversations. The model below outlines the target audience and primary
objectives of each conversation:
We find that simply showing people this model helps clear up Roadblocks #2 and #3. Coaching is NOT merely providing feedback. Coaching is NOT having a difficult conversation about a performance issue.
Okay, so what exactly is coaching?
Coaching Defined Once and for All
Coaching is the conversation that managers use to engage and develop willing employees — employees who want to grow and develop. While that’s not everyone, it is most of your team. Coaching is used to develop skills that are critical to the employee’s current (or immediate next) position. Coaching helps people perform better at their current jobs.
Why should we spend time and energy on developing performance that is already acceptable or good?
Many managers spend 80% of their “people time” dealing with performance problems, which are typically found in less than 20% of their employees. The poor performers in most organizations get most of the attention, with little or no attention devoted to developing one of the most overlooked — but critical — groups of employees: your average to good performers. As a result, productive and high-potential employees are left underdeveloped AND unattended; these are the folks who quietly leave your department or leave your company.
Most “coaching” begins and ends with the annual performance appraisal. The manager identifies his or her perception of the strengths and weaknesses of the employee. The employee publicly acknowledges — and typically privately disagrees with — the assessment. Both vigorously agree to a “development plan;” both breathe a sigh of relief when the meeting concludes; and both go back to their business-as-usual until next year. That’s not coaching.
While coaching doesn’t involve a lot of time (contrary to popular opinion), it does require commitment and follow-up. Sometimes follow-up is in the form of a quick hallway catchup meeting, where the coach might say to her customer service rep, “I know that you have been working on controlling your nervousness on your calls. How has that been going?” Sometimes coaching is a more formal process where coach and coachee get together every two weeks to discuss the specific skill the employee is working on.
Deep Dive: Entelechy’s Coaching Conversation Model
Now that we know what coaching is (and what it isn’t), how do we lead a coaching conversation? To illustrate an effective coaching conversation, we’d like to introduce Entelechy’s Coaching Conversation Model. This approach is unique in that it prescribes what the coach should say. Unlike most coaching “models” that only talk about stuff like “you need to be empathetic” and “you need to be open,” Entelechy’s coaching model helps managers by giving them the words to say and the questions to ask.
And, most importantly, it’s simple and easy to use. We know that if models aren’t prescriptive and simple, leaders don’t/won’t/can’t use them.
So, without further ado, here’s Entelechy’s Coaching Conversation Model:
As you can see in at the top of the model, the manager/coach guides the conversation by asking questions. In fact, there are really only three core questions that the manager/coach asks:
- “I know that you’ve been working on your [job-related skill] since we last got together two weeks ago; how has that been going?”
- “Regarding [the job-related skill], what went well?”
- “Regarding [the job-related skill], what might you have done differently to have been even more effective?”
Note that we ask the questions in a specific order. By asking “what went well” questions first, we create a positive coaching environment. And, by asking for what went well, we ensure that we identify the behaviors/skills we want repeated. By asking “what would you do differently” questions last, we leave the coachee with the developmental priorities fresh in mind. Note also that by asking each question twice, we force the coachee to dig deeper in their self-assessment. We’ve found that the first response is often obvious; the second response usually requires a bit more reflection.
By asking questions, we’re able to determine what our employees need from us. If Mary didn’t know how to use the system, we could share some insights or suggest she shadow a colleague. If she didn’t pick up on the fact that some customers were getting frustrated by extra conversation at the end of the call, we could have offered her tips to help her gauge the mood of the caller. The only way to discover what the coachee knows or doesn’t know is by asking questions and listening.
Sounds easy enough, right?
The challenge for most coaches is to ask more questions and talk less. Most untrained “coaches” play the expert and bestow pearls of wisdom expecting the coachee to eagerly embrace the coach’s brilliance. The fact is that most people — even when they ask for advice — are somewhat reticent to receive it. When offered suggestions, many people retreat to a defensive position and try to explain WHY they did what they did or what they might have done if circumstances allowed. This type of “coaching” frustrates both parties.
So, how do you avoid that pitfall? You help cultivate the skill of self-assessment in your employees.
Coaching and the Power of Self-Assessment
Our experience shows us that most people, when asked, know HOW they performed in a given task; they know what they did well and they know what they didn’t do so well. Our coaching model gives the employee an opportunity to share this insight with the coach before the coach shares it with the employee.
That is important for three reasons. The first reason is that if YOU critique your own performance — both the good and not-so-good elements — you are much more likely to accept the feedback. The second reason is that we want to encourage self-assessment in our employees. The best employees are those who recognize the need for improvement and set about bettering themselves without management’s constant monitoring. This only happens with employees who self-assess — a characteristic we as managers want to encourage. The third reason is that it gives us as coaches an opportunity to analyze why an employee may not be performing as expected and whether the coachee knows HOW to improve.
There are basically two reasons why people don’t perform as expected:
- They CAN’T – They don’t have the capability. Examples include:
- They don’t understand the original expectation or how they’re doing.
- They don’t have the resources (tools, information, time, etc.).
- They don’t have the skill or knowledge.
- They WON’T – They aren’t willing. Examples include:
- There are no consequences or motivators compelling them to perform in a certain way.
- They think that their way of doing something is better than the way you need it done.
- They have differing priorities than yours.
Your role as the coach is to ask questions during the coaching conversation that helps the employee self-assess and analyze his/her performance. While this might feel a bit unnatural at first, over time it will become second nature. One benefit to always asking the same three coaching questions is that coachees come to expect that you will ask these three questions and come prepared to answer the three questions. As a result, they’ve already coached themselves without the coach even asking. Isn’t that what we all dream of — employees who continually evaluate their performance and strive to improve all the time?
In this article, we covered what coaching is (and what it isn’t). You learned that there’s a time and a place for coaching (and it’s more often than you think). Coaching is a performance tool to take good performance to great performance. Coaching can be used to develop a specific skill or to challenge an employee to take their performance to the next level. And, finally, coaching is meant for willing and able employees.
The ultimate role of a leader is to achieve business results through people. While there is a whole universe of skills and techniques that leaders can use to unleash performance, effective and direct performance support via coaching can turn you from a good leader to a great leader.
Terence R. Traut is the CEO of Entelechy, a company that develops award-winning leadership development, management, and customer experience training programs for the world’s top organizations. Connect with Terence on LinkedIn or via email at email@example.com.