I have a friend who is a talented musician and educator. He teaches high school choir and music to hundreds of students every year. As we were catching up one evening, he asked me a powerful question: What is the one thing that leaders need to do to be successful?
Only one thing? I was stumped, not because I didn’t have an answer but because I had too many answers! I began telling him all the essential skills leaders need to have like establishing clear expectations, developing talent, holding people accountable, delivering results…and on and on. He stopped me and asked again for that one thing.
With a frustrated smile, I turned it back on him, asking the same question: What is the one thing that singers need to be successful? He was quick with an answer: breathing. Singers need to learn good breathing technique otherwise they can’t sing. Oh, I thought…that made a lot sense. He wasn’t discounting the need to read music, stay on key, feel the rhythm of the beat and all of that. Instead he isolated it down to the starting point—the essential behavior that enables everything else to flow and to have the potential to become beautiful music.
Successful Leaders Get This!
I’ve had a chance to further reflect on his original question and have identified an answer. The answer may not be earth shattering, however if it is done well it will enable change to happen more smoothly, build stronger teams, and develop more agile leaders. The answer is coaching—to have the courage to learn and to hold others accountable to learn as well.
This is not learning because something is interesting; it is learning to improve action and deliver better and better results. It is a willingness to be uncomfortable, to hear feedback and question assumptions, and a belief that through the discomfort, something better will emerge.
Whether it is a hallway conversation or a formal one-on-one meeting, the process of a manager effectively coaching an employee is to leadership as breathing is to music. Strong coaches regularly ask probing questions, provide timely and actionable feedback, and follow up on prioritized actions. Great coaching enables great leadership.
How to become a great coach:
The following are the five steps to successful coaching. Each step can be done in any situation, whether in an impromptu coachable moment or during a formal coaching conversation.
Keep in mind, the coaching process is built on the assumption that coaching is more about asking versus telling. A great coach will resist how much they tell the person to do and instead focus more on asking the right questions, listening, encouraging self-discovery, and challenging them to learn and achieve.
Also, five step coaching model is presented in a linear fashion to depict a complete coaching conversation; however, each specific interaction may require some flexibility to meet the needs of the individual. For example, if the objective and assessment steps have already been understood, then spending more time on delivering behavior-focused feedback and identifying forward-oriented action is a better approach.
Five Steps for Great Coaching
1. Establishing the Objective
The beginning of any coaching interaction needs to start with a clear purpose. The purpose tends to be one of three types of conversations: developmental (optimizing strengths), career (preparing for another role), or performance (overcoming obstacles or dealing with performance gaps).
To clarify this objective or purpose of the conversation, ask the coaching participant the following types of questions:
- What would you like to have accomplished at the end of this conversation?
- What does success look like when we are finished today?
- What would you like to achieve because of our time together?
It is important to ask and confirm this objective so there is mutual understanding and agreement. Clearly mutual agreement can be challenging when there is a performance gap, however this is the first step in creating a successful coaching conversation and needs to be clarified as much as possible.
2. Understanding through Assessment
This is a key step in any coaching conversation and requires the coach to ask insightful questions, actively listen, be comfortable with silence, and see the situation through multiple perspectives. Leaders may assume they know the situation already or feel they have all of the facts. However, asking open-ended and probing follow up questions is critical in helping create a safe, accurate, and positive environment for the coaching participants to open up, self-discover, and effectively work with the coach.
To help do this assessment step, consider asking these kinds of questions (these will vary based on the objective of the conversation):
- What 3 things did you learn from this past project?
- What 3 things will you do differently in the future?
- What 3 skills are you actively working on to develop yourself for future roles?
It is important to keep the assessment questions open-ended and devoid of trigger or leading words like “why” (causes defensiveness) or “right” (especially at the end of a sentence). Also, learn about past history, but spend more time in helping the coaching participant prepare for the future. Describing the past can take a lot of valuable time and it can’t be changed, but the future is the place that is unwritten and full of possibilities.
3. Providing Feedback
This step provides the opportunity for the coach to share observations with the coaching participant. While this can be a positive and insightful experience, it can also become detrimental if not handled well. In the role of a coach, it is important to allow the other person to identify their own focus areas whenever possible. However, hearing fact-based observations and suggestions from the coach is a powerful source for increasing self awareness and seeing new ideas. Connect the feedback to the purpose of the conversation, focus on the behavior and not your own interpretation of the behavior, and emphasize the impact of the behavior and how it helps or hinders the coaching participant from accomplishing the desired business and people results. Consider making things kinds of statements:
- The way you delivered the presentation helped everyone understand and become committed to the call to action. [positive feedback comment highlighting impact]
- Your whole face lights up when you talk about XYZ, tell me more about what you really enjoy about it. [coach observation of non-verbal signs from coaching participant]
- When you were late for the deadline, you let your team down. What can you do to ensure this does not happen again? [constructive feedback that focuses on behavior and impact]
4. Identifying Goals
Goal setting is where the assessment and feedback turn into action to accomplish the purpose of the conversation. It is an important step in helping the coaching participant move forward and achieve a positive outcome. Guide the coaching participant to select a measurable goal that will stretch and challenge them, but will have at least a 50% of success. Choosing a goal with a low chance of success will likely create disengagement. Also, keep the number of goals and follow up actions small (1 goal with 2-3 actions) to ensure focus and discuss how these actions will support achieving the organization’s overall results. The following are examples of questions you can ask during this step:
- What are the 3 specific actions that will help you succeed?
- When will you accomplish these actions?
- How do these specific actions align with your overall performance targets?
5. Following up with Support
This last step ensures accountability and provides encouragement to the coaching participant as they reach their goals. Unfortunately, this step is too often forgotten or not valued. Following up on the participant’s agreed upon goals is critical in making sure actions happen. To this end, a great coach exhibits two skills: 1) recognizing progress and wins, and 2) encouraging the participant to manage through obstacles and secure the needed guidance to be successful. These two skills are essential to implementing and supporting action plans. The following are questions you could ask during this step in the coaching process:
- Who will support and celebrate with you in accomplishing your goals?
- What are possible obstacles that might prevent you from accomplishing them?
- When will we follow up again to check on your progress?
Great Coaching is the Root of Strong Leadership
Learning moments can happen all of the time. Great coaches, and thus great leaders, seize those moments and have the courage to ask, listen, and turn insight into action. Much like breathing is to singing, strong coaching is at the root of strong leadership. Use these five steps to build your coaching skills, develop your people, and accomplish amazing business and people results. Share with us your coaching stories!