What is effective coaching?

In Leadership

By Maura Fay Learning

The term coaching is very popular in management and leadership conversations, and is used widely for a variety of meanings. I should say used and misused.

In fact, coaching means many different things to many different people. I thought it would be useful to try to pin down the definition, and to identify the actual skills and behaviours that make for successful coaching in a workplace setting.

Reproductive vs Productive approach

Behavioural and leadership studies have originally borrowed the term from the world of sport. In a sporting team a traditional coach has been all-powerful, quite directive in their approach; full of ideas, solutions, feedback and punishments for the players. They set up a relationship where the players (or ‘coachees’) submit to the coach’s instructions and advice because the coach has the knowledge and the answers. Mosston (1966) described these as ‘reproductive’ approaches to coaching. Eric Berne’s ‘Transactional Analysis’ would describe it as a ‘Parent to Child’ relationship.

In business coaching, the approach is almost opposite, or certainly very different. The coach does not have the answers, they have the questions. They do not lead, they support the coachee to set a goal, then explore options and find solutions to achieve it. They do not assess and give feedback, they ask the coachee to self-assess and give themselves feedback. This is Mosston’s ‘productive’ approach, or in Transactional Analysis terms, ‘Adult to Adult’.

In the productive approach, the coachees are actively engaged in the process of finding a path towards the identified goal. Coaches ask exploratory questions, encouraging the coachee to come up with their own answers. The most important skills in coaching are listening and questioning. And perhaps I should add, refraining from offering advice! Not only is the way to performance improvement identified through coaching, the fact that the coachee identifies it, means that it is automatically agreed upon.

But wait! There’s more.

The benefits of coaching

A coaching approach encourages the coachee to think, to analyse and evaluate information, to generate options and select solutions. It develops the coachee’s problem-solving and self-management skills, enhances their motivation and engagement, and encourages a sense of responsibility towards implementing the agreed solution.

The ROI on the time invested is seen in the coachee’s ongoing approach and commitment to improvement and measurable outcomes.

Management vs Coaching

Many people in leadership and management positions have not had any learning and development in behavioural coaching. Despite this, managers will declare that they are regularly coaching the staff who report to them. And they do sincerely believe that they are.

If we look more closely, what is often happening in the name of ‘coaching’ is actually nothing like. Managers are modelling their behaviours on the visible strategies of a traditional sports coach, or worse still, on previous managers that they have experienced. Giving instruction, advice, or feedback, is not coaching. These actions, while they are important in performance improvement, are a more directive style of management. Not coaching.

To advise or not to advise

A CEO who was learning coaching once asked me, “So when do I get to share my wealth of experience and give them my advice?” and I had to answer (ever so gently,) “You don’t.” At best you can use your wealth of experience to devise questions that will assist the coachee to find their own unique optimal solution. Note that I didn’t say devise questions that will push them towards the solution you think is the most appropriate.

What makes for an effective coach?

Have you got it in you to coach without giving feedback or advice? Many sports coaches are now moving over to a productive approach. Whether in sport or business, it takes patience, focus, communication skills, respect for the coachee and a half-teaspoon of humility from the coach.

An effective coach needs to believe other people can come up with answers as good, or better, than if the coach was simply deciding for them. And be prepared to spend the time and energy to support coming up with those answers.


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