With the pace of business moving faster than ever, it can be difficult for managers to justify spending hours each month in focused coaching sessions with employees.
It is important to remember, however, that an organisation’s capability is directly linked to the capability of its people, and as the rate of change accelerates, the need to make time for employees in focused coaching sessions is actually becoming increasingly important.
In fact, according to Google, the number one habit of highly effective managers is quite simply 'being a good coach'.
Crunching data gathered from more than 10,000 observations about managers across more than 100 variables, researchers on Google’s Project Oxygen ranked providing specific, constructive feedback and holding regular one-on-ones as the most important managerial competency – well above the importance of having a clear vision, possessing key technical abilities, or being productive and results-oriented.
It’s not just Google: companies including Adobe, General Electric, Accenture and Cargill are all moving the focus of performance management away from evaluation and towards more ongoing forms of coaching and development.
Why is coaching so important?
There are many reasons why coaching is so vital for organisations looking to sustain performance in today’s competitive marketplace. Broadly speaking we can divide the benefits into two areas:
1. Coaching develops skills
The first area concerns how coaching helps to develop the skills of employees. As a representative of a management training consultancy, I know that no matter how well a training programme is delivered, employee development will be stunted if line managers are not actively involved in the process of implementation.
Coaching helps to socialise the learning process, to promote accountability, as well as to provide spaces for employees to reflect on key skills and receive critical feedback. In the words of Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt, “everyone needs a coach”.
2. Coaching drives engagement
Besides contribution to employees’ skills, coaching is also a vital factor in driving employee engagement.
In fact, for David Macleod and Nita Clarke, authors of the landmark Engage for Success paper, coaching and feedback are specifically identified as critical factors in promoting employee engagement.
No matter how well a training programme is delivered, employee development will be stunted if line managers are not actively involved.
Coaching helps employees to feel more personally engaged in the life of the organisation.
At a time when employee engagement is becoming an important focus for organisations looking to boost performance, drive innovation and retain key staff, this link between engagement and regular coaching is an important one to bear in mind.
A coaching deficit
Developing skills on the one hand, and driving engagement on the other, coaching is a major motor of learning across organisations.
Despite the obvious benefits, feedback and coaching conversations are still rare in organisations today. Coaching is often not part of what managers are formally expected to do, and many managers do not see it as an important part of their role.
Fixing the problem is not just a matter of convincing managers to make more time for coaching conversations, however.
Where those conversations occur, they need to be conducted in the right way. On this blog I’ve identified two approaches to coaching which may be a useful starting point for reflection: the judge and the facilitator.
How to coach – option A: the judge
What comes to mind with the idea of being a ‘coach’? I suspect that when we think of a coach we tend to think of someone older, more experienced or more talented than whoever it is that they are coaching.
The coaching relation here involves the transfer of knowledge or expertise through careful criticism and constructive praise from one person to another.
Think about the judges on The X Factor, or Strictly Come Dancing for example. A performance is observed – whether of a song or a dance – and specific comments are made about the performance by the judges, why it was good (or bad!) and how it can be improved.
As a model of coaching this is fine, up to a point – especially in the context of feedback on technical work, in IT or the professional services for example.
It's worth remembering, however, that effective coaching is not simply about having sufficient technical competency to be able to provide accurate feedback.
In fact, Google researchers on Project Oxygen (referenced above) found that technical competency ranked dead last out of its list of factors regarding what made an effective coach - but what alternatives are there?
How to coach – option B: the facilitator
It turns out that there is an alternative way of inhabiting a coaching relationship, which goes beyond merely giving instructions, or ‘judging’ an employee’s performance appropriately.
This is the ‘facilitator’ approach to coaching, and it involves facilitating the growth and development of employees by nurturing their own sense of agency rather than telling them what they should or should not be doing.
It is essentially about asking questions rather than providing answers, taking an interest in employees’ lives and careers, and holding them accountable to their goals.
Effective coaching is not simply about having sufficient technical competency to be able to provide accurate feedback.
In today’s business environment, where jobs have become more complex and self-directed, it is easy to see why organisations might be attracted to a more facilitative style of coaching. Indeed managers today need to be able to rely on team members to solve problems and take the initiative of their own accord.
As such, they need to cultivate an approach to coaching which is less rigid and more oriented around building relationships and facilitating the growth of employees.
It is worth noting that while the ‘judge’ approach runs the risk of being too impersonal, the trick with the ‘facilitator’ approach is to keep the coaching grounded within the context of the organisation, and to seek as far as possible to align personal with organisational goals.
Towards better coaching
Coaching is ultimately about getting people to where they need to be – or would like to be – faster than if they were doing it themselves.
When entering into a coaching relationship it is important for managers to consider the particular person and situation they are dealing with, and to balance effectively between the ‘judge’ and the ‘facilitator’ mode.
I hope this blog has got you thinking about your own role as a coach or manager in your organisation.
If you are interested in reading more on the subject I would recommend the excellent ‘Building great leadership’ series of articles on TrainingZone.