Journeying by Coach

Aly McNicoll

Originally published in Employment Today 226, March 2019


In the journey to building a coaching culture, leaders must be able to hold effective coaching conversations with staff. But do they have the time? Aly McNicoll outlines 5 key ways to get managers to coach in a busy work environment.

An organisation with a coaching culture is a place where ‘inspiring leaders have amazing conversations that generate tangible results’  says Tim Hawkes, managing director of business development company Unlimited Potential.

Leaders who coach are able to delegate more, create a stronger sense of purpose within the team and motivate others to higher levels of engagement and performance. These days not every leader needs to be an expert coach, but every leader needs to be able to hold effective coaching conversations with staff.

This is all very well in theory but the number one challenge cited by leaders when asked what gets in the way of coaching at work is lack of time. They are too busy getting things done to invest time in developing their people.

The idea of getting the balance right between results and relationships is not new,  and getting leaders coaching is most difficult in organisations where the accountability to deliver results is very high. If you don't get results, you can't be truly successful and if you don't take care of your people, some will quit and leave, and some will quit and stay. In either case, it's not a viable situation.

We know the best coaches are those who have been trained. Many organisations invest in coaching training for leaders then feel disappointed when enthusiasm peters out and busyness gets in the way of them putting coaching to work. A one off training provides a ‘sheep dip’ approach to changing leadership behaviours so what can you do to support your people to coach others? Here are 5 keys to ensure your training investment pays off and that coaching becomes part of the ‘way we do things around here’.

1. Recognise and reward managers who demonstrate good coaching practice

Find ways to make coaching count and recognise those who take the time to coach others. Build coaching competencies in to job descriptions, leadership competencies and performance management processes. Get clear on your expectations around leaders coaching. How often do you want them to have regular coaching catch ups with staff? Are they having management catch ups or coaching catch ups?.  Make sure your documentation states that it is an important role of the leader to develop their people through investing time in coaching and find ways to help managers make coaching a priority.

2. Hold managers accountable for coaching

One way you can help managers keep coaching in front of mind is to talk about it with them in your regular coaching catch ups.  Make sure each time you catch up with your leaders, you save some time to ask ‘How is your coaching going?’  You can then engage in ‘coaching the coach’ to help them think through any problems they might be having or help them overcome any barriers to coaching.

Good questions to ask managers a week or two after their initial coach training are

How did you find the coaching training? What were your key learnings?

What are your plans for using coaching in your team going forward? 

How might you do things differently? Where do you feel confident,

what are the challenges going to be? How can I help you? 

Each time you catch up with them ask:

So what coaching have you done? How has it been going? What have you been finding easy/difficult? What effects are you noticing? Is there anything you would like help with?

It is important that these conversations happen without breaching coachee confidentiality so make this clear to managers before they talk about their coaching experiences with you.

3. Remove barriers to coaching within the organisation

Through these regular conversations about coaching, you should be able to identify the barriers to coaching within the organisation. These may be functional (e.g. managers having too many people who are accountable to them) or process driven (e.g. cost coding on  time sheets not including a code for coaching).

Impossible workloads or KPIs that value results more highly than relationships will dictate how people choose to spend their time. Check that managers who coach aren’t disadvantaged in any way and remove any disincentives that become visible.

You want people to prioritise coaching when organising their time and not just think about it as a good thing to do if we are not too busy. This applies to both coaches and coachees.

4. Ensure senior leaders provide strong, positive role models

Make sure your coaching strategy is clearly linked to business priorities and get senior leaders to sponsor coaching initiatives or programmes within the organisation. They need to be seen to be investing time in coaching themselves - a positive example from the top is critical.  

Senior leaders can choose to be coached by a professional coach from outside of the organisation or by a peer.  Unless people see that those at the top are investing in their own development and taking time to coach others, their own motivation will be affected. Managers won’t be able to prioritise coaching and be good coaches if they aren’t receiving it themselves.

5. Keep building coaching skills, individually and collectively

Coaching is a skilled activity and something you learn by doing. Get leaders together regularly to review their coaching practice and engage in further skills building. Some organisations bring in a professional coach to run regular ‘coaching the coach’ sessions and others ensure they have internal coaching champions with sufficient skills to support the development of those coaching within the organisation. Peer coaching groups for coaches provide another excellent tool for continuous professional development.

Having a resource library available to those who coach (online articles, videos and a dedicated discussion forum) plus individual coaching supervision time for anyone who plays a significant role coaching ensures a level of professionalism that sustains the quality of the coaching over time.

You will know you have a coaching culture when

  • There is a focus on both organisational and employee success

  • People are able to engage in constructive and positive conversations about things that matter

  • People welcome feedback (even at the top) and actively seek it

  • People take responsibility for their own engagement and own their results

  • There is a belief in coaching and the systems to support it

  • Coaching flows in all directions - up, down, and sideways

  • A problem solving approach is taken when things go wrong

  • Coaching is seen as a developmental opportunity rather than a remedial intervention

  • People are recognised and rewarded for sharing knowledge and expertise with others

  • People look first inside the organisation first for their next job

  • There are strong role models for good coaching practice.

Professor David Clutterbuck

Don’t forget about the coachees. Staff who are being coached need some skills as well. Best practice says that coaching should be led by the coachee so make sure they know the purpose, what to talk about during coaching time and how to prepare for a coaching session. It’s got to be good value for time for both parties and not just a nice chat about work.

Seismic Shift

One of our clients who needed to make a seismic shift in thinking and approach across the organisation saw coaching as the key to achieving this. They put all managers through a two day, practical Leaders as Coach course and all staff attended a half day Making the Most of Coaching workshop. The senior team signed up to their own coaching process with professional coaches whose brief was also to teach them to coach. Follow up emails, videos and articles were sent to leaders over the following two months to keep coaching in front of mind. As coaching was new for most of the leaders, a coaching club was set up where leaders came together once a month for an hour around lunch time, formed peer coaching pairs and took a turn coaching and being coached. The sessions were facilitated by an internal coaching champion and finished with a short debrief to enable the learning to be shared across the group.  Leaders walked away having had a chance to practice their coaching skills whilst also getting some valuable leadership coaching themselves. The extra layers of support wrapped around the training process were an acknowledgement that coaching was hard for some and would need to be practiced. This group of managers needed to learn to ‘use more ask than tell’ so providing opportunities for peer learning and support was essential to sustain a long term shift in thinking.

It’s a Journey

So thinking systemically about your coaching strategy and not leaving implementation to chance will make sure that your organisation starts to reap the benefits of coaching and continues to take important steps on the journey to building a coaching culture.

Like every good journey, this one needs a clear destination, good leadership and travellers who are willing to find ways around the inevitable barriers that will arise. It helps the travellers if they have the right resources, good maps to follow and sufficient support along the way.  Make sure that from time to time, they get together to catch their breath, see how far they have come and celebrate progress. This is an important journey and not one that people can do alone.

Aly McNicoll

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