There are many similar definitions of coaching, but they all come down to a few simple elements. Coaching is about people, the process of coaching itself, and performance—yours and the employees’. It’s the art of encouraging others to experience their own power and it relieves you of the idea that you have to do everything yourself.
There are several types of coaching conversations, and they center on career development, training for specific skills, and performance improvement. In this post, we’re going to concentrate on what comes before those job-specific conversations and focus on simply taking an interest in people first. If an employee knows you take an interest in them as a person, then career development, skill development, and performance improvement become much easier.
In this overview, we’ll look at how to start a coaching conversation, but without a specific business goal in mind; we’ll just start a conversation that shows interest and establishes trust.
People Live Up—or Down—to Their Leader’s Expectations
As a leader, you are the visible standard of acceptable behavior. Think about that. What you do—good, bad, or indifferent—is accepted and expected by your people. It defines you. When your people experience you taking an interest in them, they experience behavior that builds trust. Employees who trust their manager have higher work performance and are more willing to take on new tasks and develop new skills.
Here’s an example from my own experience with this. I once worked as a department manager for a large, not-for-profit organization. In the three years there, I learned a lot, felt like I’d made a difference, and enjoyed my work. But, when an opportunity to become executive director of another organization presented itself, I leaped at the chance because I didn’t know if my current organization really valued my contribution. When I turned in my resignation, the CEO and COO called me into a meeting and tried to convince me to stay. They said that they really valued my work, and they saw a future for me where I was.
The words leaped out of my mouth without thinking: “Then why didn’t you tell me sooner?” They were shocked.
“We thought you knew.”
“No, I didn’t know what you thought of me. You didn’t tell me, so I didn’t know I was valued.”
Coaching conversations don’t have to be about job-specific performance as much as they’re about recognizing the value in people. In my case, I really didn’t need a lot of “care and feeding” because I knew I was doing a good job. That said, I certainly would have appreciated knowing that senior leaders recognized and valued my work.
So, why don’t more leaders actively involve themselves in coaching? And, just as importantly, how can they learn to coach and be comfortable with it?
Many leaders and managers don’t coach. Why?
A survey from the Association for Talent Development (previously known as ASTD) found the following reasons that many managers/leaders don’t coach, coach infrequently, or don’t coach well:
Setting the Stage for a Coaching Conversation
Begin at the beginning. Start by just taking an interest—no agenda. Just a conversation. One tried-and-true method is to take a walk. Not the stern “Sarah, walk with me!” kind of situation you see in the movies where you know someone’s going to get chewed out. Rather, “Sarah, how about a cup of coffee and a walk? No agenda. Just…coffee and a walk.” If you don’t want to talk, having your conversation in a quiet corner of a public area is also an option. I had a boss for years who was famous for her “walking and talking.” Sometimes I was coached and sometimes it was just walking and talking about whatever came up. What mattered was that she took an interest in me—and every other direct report she had. You’re going to be asking questions during this coaching conversation, so prepare a few “conversation starters” ahead of time. Asking questions is partly a skill, but it’s partly good preparation.
Start by defining the parameters of the conversation—the time we’ll take today (15 minutes is a good start), and that you simply want to get to know the person better today—who they are, what they want from the job and from life, and that you value their contribution to the company.
Here are a few starters, but they may require you to tell the person that you don’t necessarily expect answers today, but that you’re interested in their thoughts. You might say, “We can pick this conversation back up on Wednesday afternoon.”
Answers to the questions, and just the fact that you’ve shown a personal interest in the person, can give you great information for future coaching conversations—conversations that can get at career development goals, skills training needed, and performance improvement. These kinds of conversations—whether you’re walking or seated somewhere—take on a reputation. Word gets around with team members that you’re interested in them, and not just how they perform, but who they are and what makes them tick. Your people develop trust in you because they know you’re interested in more than just work output and achieving business objectives; you’re interested in them as people.
A lifelong skill
Coaching is a skill that every leader or manager should not only possess but practice regularly. As you get better and more comfortable with it, you’ll realize that taking a personal interest in people and asking engaging questions is a craft that produces benefits for the team and for you.