The Art of Coaching

Coaching requires technical skill. The technical skills are simple to understand but harder to master. We have all heard about many of these technical skills. They range from active listening to asking powerful questions to action planning. Anyone can learn these skills. They are quite easy to learn, they are much harder to master. Why is that? Well because people aren’t widgets. Situations are complex and change. Knowing how and when to use these skills is an art rather than a science. Knowing how much to push, what risks to take and where to simply support varies by individual and by the minute. People come into potential coaching conversations with all kinds of different skill sets and preferences and will experience that change up to the minute they enter the conversation.

A coach needs to sense when the right time is to push and when to back off. If they push and it goes badly, they need to know whether to leave it and let the person stew or try and rectify the situation. That is the ‘art’ of coaching. And that requires experience both in coaching others and for us in Impact, broad-based business experience. It also requires a great deal of focus, the ability to quickly size up a situation and the ability to quickly respond (or decide not to). So a coaching accreditation from the ICF is a start but it is not a guarantee that someone is an outstanding coach.
I am going to tell a story to illustrate. Both involve what we call a ‘three-way meeting’. A three-way meeting is with the coachee, the coach and the coachee’s boss. The purpose of these meetings is to ensure the coachee is working on the right plan with their coach and to enlist the help and support of the boss.

Mark was angry. I had just delivered a 360 feedback report that essentially said he could be a bit of a bulldozer. The people we interviewed all gave us pretty consistent feedback. While Mark was great at getting things done, he bulldozed people as he did so. His team was overworked and felt unheard. There was turnover. His bosses even felt bullied for things like their time and increased budgets. Everyone valued Mark because of what he had been able to accomplish but everyone was frustrated. I sat in the meeting across from Mark and went through my findings in detail. Telling him things like he interrupted people in meetings, he didn’t pick up on cues when people were frustrated, he asked for more when it clearly wasn’t the right time, and he tended to use aggressive language like ‘This is mandatory’ and ‘I insist you complete this by end of day’.

I delivered the feedback without mincing words. And Mark was now angry at me. He challenged me as a good bulldozer does. I stood my ground. I had expected this. I knew Mark and I knew he could take it. I also knew that he respected directness and transparency. If I had been subtle or soft, he wouldn’t have trusted me.

What I didn’t expect was that he stayed angry for a week. No one had ever told him this before and he was rightly miffed at everyone including me. We set up a meeting to develop a plan to deal with the feedback. The goal was to prepare the plan to present to Joan, Mark’s boss. That ‘three-way meeting’ was the following week.

I sat beside Mark and he could not get over the anger to get to a plan. We talked for a while. He challenged and questioned and spouted off but no plan. I realized I couldn’t help him more. He had to help himself. His boss expected a plan. He was a doer. I needed to lay it on the line with him. I said to Mark, “Joan was one of the interviewees. She has heard from others. While I know you are frustrated, this three-way meeting is your opportunity to really work with Joan, get her help and change this narrative. You can’t go into the meeting angry. You must find a way to move beyond this and go into this meeting with a plan and an open mind. Otherwise, you will be displaying exactly the behavior people are frustrated with.” He was still angry. I had to go to another meeting. I hoped for the best. After all, I really wanted Mark to be successful and I really wanted to be successful as a coach. Joan and Mark were very senior and very important clients. But it was Mark’s career and his meeting and he had to own it.

Guess what? Mark was great. He was maybe the most open, honest and vulnerable I have ever seen anyone be in one of those meetings. He put his heart on his sleeve and he showed up with a really honest plan. He talked about how he really cared deeply about the firm and about his team’s success. He talked about how he wanted to add real value. In that, he sometimes became impatient. He owned all his bulldozer tendencies and he asked Joan for help. Joan was touched and fortunately, embraced everything Mark said. She acknowledged that it was important to her to know that Mark’s intentions were noble. Joan and Mark agreed to partner on some of the changes. Mark gave her permission to ‘call him’ when he slid back into bulldozer tendencies and Mark committed to executing on his plan. Which, being Mark, he did, better than anyone else I had ever coached.

This is a very happy story where all went well. It went well due to some calculated risks and due to my ability as a coach to read the situation and the players. That is the art. Let’s look at a few things that might have happened that didn’t:

  • Joan could have been a terrible coach and either smoothed things over and said Mark was fine, ‘no big deal’ or she could have ‘piled on’. Either of those would require a finesse from the coach to get to a viable solution. And frankly would mean that Mark would need a different plan.
  • Mark could have stayed angry and denied all the feedback. Again, that would require the coach to finesse and challenge in the room.
  • Mark could have been a highly sensitive person. We would have to approach this much more delicately over a longer time period. Joan would have needed some support to help with that.
  • The organization could have valued Mark less due to business requirements or the availability of successors. If they were ready to let him go or didn’t really need his work, his plan would have been much less important and Joan may not have been prepared to help much. Again, his plan and approach would have been different.

The story above illustrates just some of the complexity of coaching. In order to put yourself in the position to be able to handle a complex situation like this, you need the traits described in the opening paragraph. Some things you can do to help yourself further:

  • Take the time to understand the style and preferences of the players. This is the most important. We use personality profiles to support us on this.
  • Use a confidential sounding board. As coaches, we help one another in a confidential way. Two heads are better than one.
  • Trust yourself and take some risks. But not so many that you push the person over the edge.
  • Take your time for more sensitive people.
  • If the boss is a good coach and manager of people, really use them. Bosses can really accelerate development partnered with the coach.
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