“In the face of rapid, disruptive change, companies are realizing that managers can’t be expected to have all the answers and that command-and-control leadership is no longer viable. As a result, many firms are moving toward a coaching model in which managers facilitate problem-solving and encourage employees’ development by asking questions and offering support and guidance rather than giving orders and making judgments.” Harvard Business Review
Last year, in the role of Team Captain, I faced the challenge of being responsible for the development of senior employees with a lot of experience in IT and Agile management. How could I help them develop their skills even further? What could I offer them? I started to investigate coaching, not due to the rapid change environment (as mentioned in the Harvard Business Review article) but due to the highly specialized training of my team members. At the same time, I was learning about coaching, our Team Captain’s team was also discussing these subjects, and we all ended up recognizing the importance of a coach’s attitude.
Having said that, coaching may not always be the best answer though it is certainly a trend that is worth exploring for certain scenarios. As a rule of thumb, if you are dealing with a junior employee, a mentoring program is usually more effective. But if you want this employee to continue to grow, after a certain point a coaching model tends to work much better.
In my quest to learn about coaching I took “Path to Coaching” a Scrum Alliances course. If you are using Scrum as we do at Do iT Lean and if you are a People Developer or Scrum Master this article may interest you as it summarizes the lessons learned from the “Path to Coaching” course.
But, before we deep dive into the article content let’s agree on the definition of coaching.
“Coaching has been defined in many ways. The essence of coaching is: To help a person change in the way they wish and helping them go in the direction they want to go. Coaching supports a person at every level in becoming who they want to be. Coaching builds awareness, empowers choice, and leads to change. It unlocks a person’s potential to maximize their performance. Coaching helps them to learn rather than teaching them.“ International Coaching Community
A coach’s main roles are described as follows:
- Coaches allow the participant to do most of the talking.
- Coaches don’t give information. They ask questions.
- Coaches don’t offer ideas. They generate ideas from the participant.
- Coaches don’t share their story. They tap into the participant’s experience.
- Coaches don’t present solutions. They expand the participant’s thinking.
- Coaches don’t give recommendations. They empower the participant to choose.
Analyzing these roles makes us wonder how to apply them in a real situation. I hope the next questions will help you understand how to put a coaching approach in place.
How can we start a conversation?
A coach helps the participant identify, or reconfirm, what he/she wants to accomplish – The conversation starts by the coach asking, “In this conversation what would you like to accomplish?” If the topic is broad, the next question should be, “What aspect of this topic would you like to focus on?” After asking this question several times, the conversation should lead to a topic small enough to fit the allotted time – the goal of the conversation.
How can we measure if a conversation was successful?
At the beginning of a conversation, a coach helps to define or reconfirm measures of success. Once the goal is understood, the next questions are, “How would you know that you have achieved the goal of this conversation?” “Where are you now, regarding this goal?” “Where would you like to be at the end of this conversation?”
What kind of questions should a coach ask?
The coach asks clear, direct, primarily open-ended questions, one at a time and at a pace that allows the participant to think and reflect. Open questions make a person think, which is why this is the kind of question we want to ask. They start with question words, Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. They do not have a yes or no answer, and, they do not have two options. In addition, the coach should not stack questions; ask a question and wait for an answer. If the question requires your participant to think, they may need some time to reflect before answering.
A coach’s questions should not be leading, i.e., do not contain a conclusion or direction. Sometimes the solution seems clear to us and we tend to give a direction by asking a leading question. This should not occur. For instance, “Why don’t you take this problem to your manager?” is a leading question. “Who could help you with this problem?” or “What might help you with this problem?” are open-ended questions and those are the ones that should be used.
The coach's questions are primarily transformational rather than transactional focused. Transactional questions are those which help us understand what happened; what happened in the past or what is going on. With transactional questions, the participant is transferring information to the coach and this may not be useful because the coach is human and will start working on a solution. Instead of focusing on asking transactional questions, we should ask transformational questions – those that look forward. We ask questions about what hasn’t happened. For example, instead of focusing on what happened yesterday, we ask, “What would you prefer to happen next time?”, or “How would you solve this problem next time?”
These forward-looking questions make the participant think for him/herself.
When should a coach interrupt a conversation?
The coach allows and encourages the participant to do most of the talking. Our experience and expertise are great for consulting and mentoring, but not for coaching. Our silence will enable the participant to think and have space to process their thoughts. Coaching is about self-exploration, so let the participant do most of the talking.
The coach allows the participant to finish speaking without interrupting unless there is a stated coaching purpose to do so. There are two valid reasons to interrupt.
- The participant is speaking about a third party and they need to focus on herself/himself instead. A nice way to interrupt is by saying, “What I’m hearing is that that person needs to change, and we need to focus on what we can change here.”
- When the participant starts sharing information about the past. When we start to understand the past, we start formulating solutions and that is not the purpose. The purpose is to encourage the participant to think and to achieve their own solution. So, instead of describing a past experience, we need to change the focus to the future. You can refocus the participant by saying, “The story you are describing is important, but I would like to focus on the future.” Then, you could add, “So, what would you like to do differently if this happens again?” or “So, what options do you see now to move forward with that issue?”
At Do iT Lean we do not have formal coaches, but we use a coaching attitude that guarantees effective communication. We trust our colleagues to be fully competent, not judgmental, and to ask open questions that help participants think. We also consider open transformational questions to be extremely useful as they direct the conversation toward possible solutions that can be implemented in the future.
I hope this article has sparked your curiosity about coaching and provided you with some additional ways to interact with your teams. Note, I am not a professional coacher, but I would be happy to share more details based on my experience. So, should you be interested in learning more don’t hesitate to contact me directly.