Robin Hoyle concludes his two-part feature on ups and downs of coaching in management.
Following any L&D programme, what is required is some on-the-job support. Here there are, confusingly, some overlaps between person-centred coaching and the functional improvement required. Committing to action, gathering evidence of action undertaken, reflecting on what worked and what didn’t and planning for the forthcoming period are all needed. However, the skills to be tried out and supported, the goals to be achieved and the definition of what 'good' looks like, is pre-determined through the training programmes, reference materials and online modules designed to support the achievement of improved performance.
I think we in L&D can help. Task-based diagnostics, which are designed to help an individual think about what they are doing and then find the most appropriate tool, source of advice or answer to a question, are much more feasible using technology than once they were. We can only expect people to 'pull' support if they can find the things they ought to be pulling. But regardless of how well we design performance support and reinforcement materials, we still need help from those who work alongside the person whose performance we want to enhance.
Perhaps managers who do not follow up training initiatives with their team members decline to do so because they think the task is bigger, more time consuming and more arduous than it is. An item on a team meeting agenda when a number of the team are going through the same programme or a regular conversation with each team member when they are following individual development paths, seem to me to be pretty straightforward activities. It is the very warp and weft of team leadership. Asking 'How’s it going?' requires minimal training in traditional coaching skills. It only requires a team leader to dig a little bit deeper than the response of 'good, thanks' and there is the basis for a quality conversation which will support individuals in adopting new behaviours and making change happen.
Defining these interactions as ‘coaching’ seems to me to create a degree of uncertainty and even fear among our line managers. There is no doubt that we need them to support training and learning investments by reinforcing the changes required and supporting individuals when they find themselves slipping back into the old ways of doing things. Support at the point of work is very, very important and who better to provide that than senior team members and team leaders?
But this is different from coaching. Where coaching works I can understand that it might require a commitment to regular one-to-one meetings and a relationship built on trust and openness. I can understand that a team leader might be reluctant to enter into a coaching discussion, concerned that they may be unable to respond positively to any requests coming from their coachee for additional support. If a team leader has operational responsibility alongside the need to coach 10 or 12 team members, I can quite understand how they might be anxious about whether they could possibly do everything in the time available. I can appreciate that coaching might be placed in the 'too difficult', 'too time consuming' or even 'too scary' box.
To effectively follow up a training programme or similar requires not coaching in all its complexity, but a commitment to ask the odd question – almost in passing – and to keep the topic of change and individual performance on the team’s agenda. Honesty and candour may be a pre-requisite – encompassing strengths, weakness and standards – meaning that some of these interactions may be tricky. However, isn’t honestly praising good performance and pointing out areas for improvement the day-to-day task of a team leader?
If the word 'coaching' is scaring team leaders away from supporting the continual development of people, what do we call the activity we need them to engage in? I’ll be really interested to hear your suggestions.
Robin Hoyle is a writer and consultant working with organisations large and small to implement change through people development. He is the author of two books published by Kogan Page: Informal Learning in Organizations: how to create a continuous learning culture and Complete Training: from recruitment to retirement.