By Jim Grinnell Ph.D.
Understanding the steps to the coaching process is integral to management success. Of all the leadership styles (e.g., coercive, pacesetting, visionary, affiliative, democratic, coaching), coaching has been widely found to provide the most “bang for the buck.” Research has shown that the return on investment for coaching ranges from 500-700 percent! Coaching produces a number of important outcomes, including:
- Improving employee performance
- Enabling subordinates to overcome personal obstacles
- Developing new knowledge and abilities
- Raising self-confidence
- Enhancing job satisfaction and workplace atmosphere
- Promoting team unity
- Enabling employees to become self-learners (and thus self-managers)
If coaching is so effective, why don’t managers do more of it? For one thing, many managers have been effective using a pacesetting/autocratic approach. Why tinker with something that has a proven track record? On the surface it is hard to argue with tangible results. But, there is ample research on the negative ancillaries to such an approach. Often when we dig below those stellar performance metrics we see a whole host of other more decidedly negative outcomes such as high employee turnover, stress, strained relationships, prioritizing the individual over the team, and emphasizing quantity of output over the quality.
This article discusses the steps to the coaching process. The intent is not to provide a comprehensive primer on coaching, but rather to introduce the coaching process. Caution must be taken before jumping into a coaching relationship as coaching without the requisite training and education can result in as much damage as good. Future articles will elaborate on effective coaching techniques.
Step 1: Recognition & Observations
Let’s take it as a given that employees will rarely go to their manager requesting to be coached. In today’s difficult job market, the likelihood of an employee pointing out their own deficiencies and developmental needs is slim to none. So, the first step of coaching requires that the manager recognize situations where coaching is necessitated.
One obvious situation to look out for surrounds new employees, who are almost always in need of extensive mentoring and support. It goes without saying that new hires are constantly in need of support and development. Formal training programs partially fill this need. Likewise, co-workers serve as another avenue through which new hires “learn the ropes.” However, if a manager fails to actively coach a new hire, they are squandering an invaluable opportunity to shape the new hire’s attitudes, knowledge, and behaviors in a way that supports the manager’s agenda.
Second, managers should always be on the lookout for employees who are strong performers and demonstrate leadership qualities. Remember, leadership is not a position, it is a behavioral pattern. Thus, even if these individuals are not immediately slated for a managerial position, they can be coached to become mentors and role models for their peers. Once such individuals move into a managerial role, they will have extensive practice being a coach and they will have cultivated respect from the folks they are now managing.
A third situation where coaching is warranted involves individuals who are capable of (or in the past demonstrated) higher performance levels. Both instances can be particularly challenging to a manager. In instances where the manager believes that someone is capable of higher performance, the assessment is usually based on a “gut feeling” as opposed to concrete evidence. A manager needs to therefore be careful not to let their evaluation of the candidate as a person (e.g., Bill’s a heck of a nice guy) bias their assessment of that individual’s leadership potential. Performance slippage by stellar performers can be a challenge because such situations are often the result of personal as opposed to professional factors. In both situations, the manager is well served by extending the observation period and by enlisting HR before moving further in the coaching process.
Finally, individuals who have recently been moved into a supervisory position require extensive coaching. Very often, individuals are promoted because they are stellar performers at the operational level. But, there is at best modest correlation between technical skills/knowledge and managerial success. Management is arguably more art than science, thus there is a natural need for first-time managers to “apprentice” under an experienced manager. A related situation where coaching is indispensable to the success of a new manager involves situations where the new manager is managing his/her peers.
Step 2: Discussion & Agreement
Once you have identified the development needs of an individual, your next step is to meet with the person and have an honest discussion about your observations. Keep in mind, this needs to be a dialogue, not a monologue. You are not delivering a verdict or diagnosis, but rather seeking mutual agreement on whether your observations are indeed accurate and if so, what next steps are logical. Without agreement, you can be assured that the coaching process will fail. Special care must be taken at this stage to avoid (a) arguing your observations into acceptance and (b) falling for passive concurrence by the candidate. In either case, a half-hearted acceptance of the coaching relationship is a recipe for failure.
This stage of the coaching process should result in a clear/concrete articulation of what the two parties will work on (e.g., becoming a better delegator, prioritizing decisions, communicating more effectively, etc.). It is also helpful at this stage to visualize what the coaching experience might do for the candidate. For instance, you might say:
“At the end of this process you won’t be running around always putting out fires. You’ll find that once your people are empowered and dealing with their own problems as opposed to pushing them up, you’ll have a lot more time to be deliberate and focus on building the business. You’ll also see that your team will be fired up because now they feel in control.”
Growth and development can be intensely stressful for people. You need to make sure that people are on board with the process, else wise all your time and effort put into the coaching process will be squandered. Executing this stage appropriately is integral to effective coaching, so it is imperative that the coach “get this one right.”
Step 3: Engage in Coaching
Suffice it to say that there have literally been thousands of books written on how to successfully execute the coaching process. The discussion that follows is by no means meant to provide a complete discussion of the coaching process, but rather to provide a broad framework for the coaching sessions. (Future articles will explore different aspects of doing the coaching process.)
The early stage of the coaching process involves gaining a deeper understanding of the issue(s) identified in the previous stage. Once you have more clarity of the issue, you can work collaboratively with the individual to formulate an action plan with specific goals/milestones as well as timelines for the change agenda. When setting goals, keep in mind the SMART method of goal setting. According to this framework, effective goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-specific.
It is important to keep in mind that coaching is different from mentoring. The goal of the latter is to use one’s extensive knowledge to help guide the individual in a direction the mentor chooses. In contrast, coaching is a process in which the individual must accept significant ownership over their own development. The coach is there to push and prod, hold the individual to outcome attainment, and in many instances provide suggestions for the individual to improve performance. But, in the final analysis, the coaching relationship requires the individual to take ownership over their change agenda. Cast against this backdrop, the most difficult thing for the coach to do is to step back and let the individual own the authorship of their development plan.
The coach’s primary role during the coaching process is to provide feedback. Keep in mind that the operative word is feedback, not affirmation/criticism. What’s the difference? “Great job” or “That really fell short” reflect the latter whereas “These are the things that went well, these are the things that fell short, what can be done to get to the next level?” is feedback. Feedback delineates what is working (or not) as well as engages the individual in exploring what could be done differently. When providing feedback, the following guidelines should be followed:
- Stay comparatively balanced: Make sure that attention is paid to both areas of accomplishment as well as areas for improvement
- Prioritize what gets addressed: Focusing on a one-off aberration may not make sense compared to changing a behavior that will have a significant down-stream impact
- Provide timely feedback: People have the tendency to reconstruct events in a self-serving/defensive way as time passes, thus the window to deal with an issue within an open and honest context is directly after it is brought to light
- Focus on actions not attitudes: Individuals are much more receptive to change when they are addressing behaviors as opposed to feeling that their personality/identity is being called into question
The actual coaching process requires a great deal of training and preparation. Before one takes on the responsibility of coaching, they need to become versed in the tools and process of coaching otherwise they risk doing more harm than good. As noted previously, future articles will provide more specific guidance on the coaching process.
Step 4: Follow-Up
Accountability is the lynchpin of effective coaching. Hence, the coach must ensure that the collaboratively set SMART goals are being pursued. Follow-up involves checking in on how the individual is progressing, looking for opportunities to provide additional coaching, observing the individual to see if the coaching agenda is “sticking” in practice, and reassessing the goals when necessary. Always remember that while the onus for executing the coaching agenda lay with the individual, coaching is a collaborative process.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: James Grinnell is an Associate Professor of Management at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. He received his Ph.D. in Organizational Studies from the University of Massachusetts. His areas of focus include leadership, organizational change & development, high-performance teams, and strategic management.