How to coach – it’s that simple!

By Sunday, April 8, 2012 0 , Permalink

Part of my job (one of the parts I love most) is to create and supervise development programs for employees who want to move to the next level. Sometimes you spot a potential leader inside the group of participants, and the guy (or girl) just sky rockets by himself.

Other times, you must create the awareness of potential in someone who doesn’t even know he’s capable of more.

I realized how simple this is and thought it could be shared.

How to coach – in simple steps:

First, the context. There has to be some sort of learning experience going on. A Fast Track program, a promotion the person wants and may be getting; a yearly feedback process; an assessment center; or a longer (3-5 day) “deep” training. You can be the boss of the person, a peer or the HR consultant. It can be a talk in your smoking break or a formal discussion in an office.

In my case, this was the final interview for a development program. The participants had been in it for a few months, they had been going through some difficult experiences (covering for their bosses, leading projects) outside their comfort zones. Many of them had never done these things before, and they didn’t know if they were doing them right.

Coaching question:
What’s your “before and after”?¬†What have you learned? How did you change?


This will prompt the awareness of the learning experience. The person will realize (hopefully! :) ) that the ownership of the experience is within them; and that the outcome will be positive, no matter what. What they may realize is that it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. In my case, all participants described deep, extraordinary changes, the sort of changes that companies dream about developing in their people. Daring to do more; learning more about subordinates before making requests; asking for their team’s opinion instead of directing…and so on.

Second, there needs to be a “safe” environment. If you’re the boss of the person, show that what she will answer will be not held against her. In my case, I clearly positioned this final interview not as a selection stage, but more like a wrap-up discussion for the whole program. People knew they were not to give the “politically correct” answers, and there was no way to do that. And in some cases, they acknowledged the mistakes they did – which is always a sign of courage and awareness, and a strong signal of trust.

If there isn’t a setting based on trust, learning will not truly happen.

Coaching question:

What was your approach? What did you do differently? What was the result?

Third, there needs to be a common understanding that the process is not over. Sometimes people will acknowledge mistakes or learnings, but they will not know where to go from there and they will expect guidance. In this case, they were expecting some kind of verdict – “You did well”, “You will be promoted”. But by putting the verdict with the manager/HR person, the closure of the learning process is incomplete. What you want, as a coach, is for the person himself to realize what still needs to happen for him to learn further.

Coaching question:

Where do you see yourself on the path? What areas still need development?

So what I did was to place the ownership back in their hands. This is risky because at times you will have a person who will say “But I am ready now. I am 100% perfect. Why can’t anyone see that?” and get frustrated. That’s when you as manager/peer/HR need to step in and hold a mirror in front of them: “How do you evaluate yourself on competency A/B/C? Do you believe you also master X, Y, Z?” and give examples “For instance, I understood last Tuesday you got mad and yelled at someone in your team during a meeting. It looks like you still need some time to run a constructive meeting. What do you think?”

In my case, people were extraordinarily honest – that’s the beauty of a long term learning process. You don’t need to hold the mirror in front of them – the experiences do the job themselves. They realize they can do more, when they actually step up and see that it’s not that difficult. Or when they bump their head and go “Ah, I was supposed to do this differently. How should I approach it?”

Finally, they need to also own the actual process further. That’s why the final coaching question is:

Where do you need help on the remaining development areas? How will you ensure that help will come?

Many people still believe it’s their manager’s job to ensure that they grow. They will say “But I put this in my development plan and nothing happened.” “Why didn’t you do something about it?” “But it’s not my job to do that!”

Really? Whose development is it, anyway?

Finally, try to make this coaching process natural. You do that by ensuring people have a positive experience out of the discussion, and that they receive encouragement along the way.

Sometimes you will coach a hi-po, who will climb Everest after your discussion; other times you will try to squeeze the juice out of someone who’s just not “ripe” enough.

In such cases, try to go through the above questions yourself. Coaches are learners too, you know.

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