Shelley Winter, Director, Global Head of Executive Coaching, at YSC, talks about the importance of being a leader who is capable of coaching team members in the workplace to perform to the best of their ability.
Most leaders have personally felt the benefit of a good coach at one stage in their career. Coaching conversations enable us to be at our best. Our thinking broadens, our confidence is boosted and we gain momentum. Research backs up what we intuitively know. When line managers coach their people, performance, motivation and commitment increases, team cohesion increases and conflict management, retention and engagement levels improve.
Yet, despite the recognition of its importance, very few leaders make coaching conversations part of their everyday leadership. Astoundingly, organisations invest significant chunks of their leadership development budgets into ‘Leader as Coach’ training to find that the skills learnt do not translate back into workplace conversations. In fairness, the coaching profession is partly to blame for this – a new industry, it has attempted to teach leaders to coach without acknowledging the realities of the workplace. Indeed, it often involves training which is based on specific processes to work through and acronyms to remember each step. Leaders walk away with a process that they believe they need to get right and overlook the basics of coaching; listening and asking questions.
Here are the three main barriers that leaders can easily overcome, alongside some practical advice on everyday conversations, including six ways to spot coachable moments in your day.
Three barriers to leaders coaching their people:
Time. Leaders often find that pace of work is the biggest barrier to integrating coaching into their team conversations. Leaders who have been taught coaching models such as GROW or CIGAR – two methods that involve goal setting and problem solving – quite rightly perceive coaching to be formal, methodical and lengthy. However, coaching can be a two-minute corridor conversation, or a five-minute post-meeting debrief. In fact, the best coaching conversations are usually bite-sized – two or three questions that unlock new thinking or that increase motivation to act on an idea. For a coaching conversation to be effective, all it requires is the leader to stop jumping to solutions and start asking their team member questions. Leaders who stop firing solutions at their people tell us that their people become more efficient in their roles, more motivated and they in turn have more time to work on the business rather than in the business. Coaching does not need to take time and the little time it does take ends up giving you time back.
Team capability. Leaders admit to us that one of the other reasons they do not coach their people is because they themselves have far greater experience than their team. They have seen it all before, they know the quick answers and they know what will work. However, by providing answers and not coaching your people to find their solutions means preventing them from growing. You are also creating a rod for your own back. They will keep coming to you for answers and bring you back down into the detail of their roles. Also, in our rapidly changing world, what you have seen before may be less relevant than what they might be able to envisage. Again, leaders that provide their team the opportunity to develop their own solutions tell us that most of the time, when given the opportunity to think for themselves, they have the answer in them. Best of all, they are more motivated to act as a result.
The silver bullet. Some leaders resist coaching because they like having the answers – the wise guide to their team. They point to times when they need to be in charge, such as high-risk situations. When they hear the term ‘coaching’, it is perceived to be a magical solution or a blanket approach – touted as the answer to everything. In reality, leadership requires a range of styles and sometimes coaching will not be the best approach. Leaders who learn to use a mix of coaching, direction and mentoring can adapt to the individual and to the situation. But you need to be honest with yourself – if 90% of the time you choose to direct and advise, it is likely you are missing quick coachable moments with your people.
Putting everyday coaching conversations into practice
Here are some simple practices to make a tangible change to your team interactions:
Be quiet. Aim to ask a question before sharing your advice or expertise. Many leaders initially find silence uncomfortable, but asking a question and giving your person 20-30 seconds to consider their own thoughts can unlock new thinking. Just watch that you don’t undo your good work but then following their idea up with ‘well what I would do is….’.
Listen to what is being said. Too often we are listening superficially to make our own point. It’s not uncommon for leaders to listen, then give their own thoughts or have predetermined questions based on what they think the answer should be. If you have a question in mind as they are talking – it is likely to be a question to help you, not a question to help progress their thinking.
Keep it brief. Keep your questions short and simple. Here are some examples: ‘What is another way of looking at that challenge?’ ‘What is the opportunity here?’ and ‘What could you do differently next time?’. If you find yourself asking long questions it is likely you are in fact disguising your own solution into a question. We all do it – just try not to do it too often.
Have a ‘so what’. Having bite-sized coaching conversations between meetings or as a quick desk chat can be powerful – but with pace and competing demands you will benefit from ensuring there is a ‘so what’. A ‘so what’ is the takeaway idea, insight or action.
As organisations increasingly work through matrices and introduce agile work in an interconnected way across regions, coaching becomes an essential leadership capability. Coaching is much more than a performance management tool, it enables change, creates momentum and builds capability through everyday conversations.