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Your Essential Coaching Starter Kit

Extensive research (Jones, 2016) has consistently shown that coaching delivers great results and we firmly believe that coaching should be core part of the toolkit of  all progressive, ambitious managers Coaching helps employees reach higher levels of performance, take on new challenges and responsibilities, increases their job satisfaction, encourages personal growth, and boosts career development.  All it takes is  some quality time with their manager or skilled peer to unlock their potential.

So, if the evidence is so overwhelming and coaching is so cost effective to implement why aren’t all organisations doing it consistently, at scale? In this article we’re going to explore the blockers to coaching in our organisations.  We’ll also give you a basic starter kit that includes key principles to developing a coaching mindset, some pointers to follow to get started and a toolbox of powerful questions to help you develop your coaching muscle.

Coaching is both a mindset and a skill. As a manager you should always be observing your team in action and assessing their strengths and potential, and ready to support them to progress in their careers. You should have a clear view of how your team needs to develop to perform at the level required to achieve your team plan or business strategy. It’s also critical that you anticipate upcoming challenges your team are likely to face and you can use coaching to help them navigate their way through.

In reality, often managers are consumed by their own roles and workloads, just trying to get through the day and put out the nearest fire. They get pulled into projects or overwhelmed by the bureaucracy. Equally managers often have a bias for action especially when our organisations demand instant results and progress. You need to make time for coaching, as it delivers results over time. Managers  often prioritise “urgent” important matters rather than building the capability of their team. Increased remote working has also made it harder to observe your employees in action, unless you intentionally spend time with them, so the cues for their development are less obvious.  

Unintentionally the manager’s role often also evolves into Chief Problem Solver for the team.  The manager becomes the key person that people turn to for help and to solve their problems quickly. This can happen for a variety of reasons. The manager wants to be useful and be involved. The team members may want the safety of having their ideas validated by their manager so they aren’t responsible if things go wrong. The manager just sees it as quicker to step in and takeover, rather than coach. Whatever the reason it happens by stepping into the Chief Problem Solver role managers add more to their own workloads, disempower their teams and stunt their future growth and development.

We live in action-oriented world, where the pressure is on us to be constantly delivering tangible results and improvements. Coaching is counter-intuitive to this. It takes time, skill, and careful planning, especially at the beginning. It also takes more than just one conversation or session to realise results.

What are some basic principles for managers who aspire to be a coach?

Coaching is all about empowering your people to solve their own challenges, navigate their own careers, develop their decision-making ability, and take responsibility for their own actions. However, it can be daunting to give up control by encouraging your team members to develop their own solutions, and encourage them to implement them, particularly if it’s new to them.

Managers often share their fears with us when starting to coach for the first time “what if they come up with a bad solution?” or “they don’t have the experience to take on this task/responsibility”. Coaching can help overcome this because you’re working with your team member to assess the quality of their ideas. You can encourage them to develop multiple options so they don’t go with their first bad idea. If they genuinely don’t know what know what they need to do, you can can seed the idea and help guide them to identifying where they can find the solution. You also leverage your experience to guide them and challenge their thinking so they don’t go through the same painful learning curve you had to.

Developing a coaching mindset

Coaching requires us to engage in conversations in a completely different way to how we engage in most meetings. It requires us to take a step back, and guide a conversation, not controlling the discussion. You use questions to guide the other person’s thinking and help them move through a structured process. It takes practice and can feel quite alien at first. However, like with any skill it can be developed over time with consistent, intentional practice.

Here are 10 basic principles we encourage a manager to practice as you develop your coaching mindset:

  1. Make room for a coaching conversation whenever the opportunity offers itself. Even at the expense of a task taking slightly longer
  2. Assume change is possible. If you go into coaching conversations presuming that your people stuck in their ways and not open to change, you’re setting yourself up for failure
  3. Take time at the beginning to ask questions to really understand the context and contributing factors why your coachee is stuck
  4. The first problem or challenge your coachee shares with you is rarely the real challenge. Keep digging!
  5. Only offer advice when you’ve exhausted other avenues
  6. Listen More Than You Speak. Minimum ratio 30% you, 70% them.
  7. Get comfortable with silence. Silence creates space for your coachee to work things out for themselves
  8. Actually, listen to your coachee’s answer to your questions, rather than loading your next response in your brain
  9. Acknowledge the answers you get. Paraphrase their answers if possible,  as this really gives them some objectivity to their current situation!
  10. Offer advice only when absolutely necessary. Tame your inner advice monster!

The structure of your conversations

Coaching can be both formal and informal. When we work with clients we normally start with  a minimum of 6 formal sessions. We develop an agenda, and we’ll also have some questions prepared. An action plan is written up at the end of each session that we both agree. Research finds that it normally takes 3 coaching sessions to effect observable change, 6 coaching conversations really embeds change. In a coaching session, we’ll tackle a key developmental areas or a major challenge the coachee is facing. It could be that the needs that coachee needs to be build confidence or a develop a strategy for an upcoming meeting, or they are making an important decision. Othertimes, we’ll start by asking “what’s on your mind” and find areas that they would like to focus on in the conversation.

In between we have informal catch-ups whenever an issue, decision or challenge presents itself. These are often fast and fluid conversations where we’ll quickly help the coachee assess the situation, generate options and then develop actions for them to implement. You can take the same approach in your sessions. As their manager, you also get the benefit of working with them. So you will see them in action and can quickly take them aside for micro coaching sessions where you focus on an issue or challenge as it presents itself.

To help you take your first steps in coaching here is a basic structure underpinned by different types of questions that you can use for any coaching conversation that will ensure you can guide the conversation and their thinking. They’re in order so you start with context questions and then you finish with “now what?” questions. Life isn’t linear, so sometimes you may find yourself doubling back if new information arises,

1: Context questions

These help you understand the current situation and invites your coachee to explore the situation from other perspectives that they may not have considered. Particularly if they are feeling frustrated, angry or stressed about an issue. Often inviting your coachee to put themselves in the shoes of others and inviting them to see a situation from their perspective can be transformational for their thinking at this stage.

2: Goal orientated questions

Now that you understand the context you use these questions to help the person set goal(s) that they can then start to work towards. The nature of the goals will differ depending on the area of focus. These are often a blend of ambitious strategic goals (what is my long-term goal here?) and tactical goals (what do I now/ next week?).

3: Generating Possibilities Questions

The aim of a coaching session is to help your coachee develop their practical judgement and think for themselves. These questions are essential to helping them develop a range of options and for them to assess the viability and trade-offs for each one

4: Now What? Questions.

Coaching is all about triggering and encouraging positive action. This helps the coachee start to identify what are the next steps they need to take in order to move forward and overcome any barriers that may get in the way. It’s also a good opportunity to identify any support or resources they will need from you or others. It sets up the ongoing process of accountability and momentum

Coaching Questions to Get You Started

A good coach has a toolkit of questions. To make it easier for you to navigate and use, we’ve categorised these questions into the 4 areas outlined above. These questions have been influenced by practitioners and researchers such as Karl Tomm, Michael Bungay Steiner and our own experience.

The questions we’ve provided are not an exhaustive list. Over time you will develop your own toolkit of questions and eventually it will become second nature.

Context Questions

  1. What is your main concern/ challenge right now?
  2. What is your understanding about how things came to this (what, who, when, and how often)?
  3. Is this the real challenge here for you?
  4. What do you think was really happening?
  5. What is the effect or result of this?
  6. What relationships might be contributing to your current situation?
  7. What additional factors/issues might be influencing this situation?
  8. What do you think is stopping you moving forward?
  9. On a scale of 1-10, how urgent/ important is this?
  10. Who else in this situation could you ask that might have a different perspective to offer?
  11. How would your colleague/ direct report/ manager describe your situation?
  12. What emotions is this situation creating for you? What emotions is this situation creating for others?

Goal Orientated Questions

  1. What’s your ideal outcome for this situation?
  2. What do you want to change the most?
  3. What is the outcome that you would like to achieve?
  4. Is the goal realistic?
  5. How would {insert name] respond to hearing that goal?
  6. How would achieving that goal impact {insert name]?
  7. What do you think the other person would think is a good outcome from this situation?
  8. What are some even better outcomes that you could imagine that help you achieve your objectives and theirs?
  9. Do you have enough time and resources to achieve your goal?
  10. How could you leverage the support of others to help you achieve this goal?

Generating Possibilities Questions

  1. Have you already taken any steps towards your goal?
  2. What else could you try? And what else?
  3. What advice would you give your best friend if they were in the same situation?
  4. Do you know other people who have achieved that goal/ overcome this challenge? What did they do? (if they don’t know, task them with finding out)
  5. On the basis of what we talked about so far, what steps would you consider taking now?
  6. What relationships would you need to improve/ work on that would enable you to achieve this goal? How would you do this?
  7. How could you utilise the knowledge/ influence of others in the process? How would you approach them to invite their views?
  8. What has been tried before, what did you/ others learn about this?
  9. What do you think you need to do right now?
  10. Tell me how you’re going to do that?
  11. How will you know when you have done it?
  12. If anything was possible, what would you do?

Action Planning/ Next Step to Better

  1. What roadblocks or obstacles are likely to get in your way? What can you do to overcome them?
  2. What resources can help you achieve your goal?
  3. What is one small step you can take now?
  4. When can you take that step?
  5. On a scale of one to 10, what is the likelihood of your plan being successful? What would it take to make it a 10?
  6. How will you know you have been successful in achieving your goal?
  7. What is the cost of not taking action?
  8. What support do you need from me/ colleagues to help you achieve this?
  9. What are two/ three actions you can take that would make sense this week?
  10. On a scale of one to 10, how committed/motivated are you to doing it? What would it take to make it a 10?

Coaching can be one of the most satisfying elements of a manager’s role. With coaching you often get back much more than you put in. Especially as you start to see your people grow and achieve things they didn’t think were possible. As your people start to develop and take more responsibility it often allows you to develop your own role. It can give you space to think strategically or develop the team. We’ve given you a basic coaching starter kit to get you going. We are always available if you would like to explore this in more depth.

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