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Applying New Skills in the Project Workplace with Coaching

Skills and Coaching

However good our intentions might be, we forget things very quickly after we’ve learnt them. Research from Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909) over a hundred years ago tested the theory, and it still holds true today.

In organisations today, they’re concerned with learning and development budgets and how they can ensure that any training investment – both in terms of money and time – brings benefits to employees; sees an increase in capability and performance levels and ultimately have a positive impact on projects being delivered or indeed any other business success needed.

Strategy Execution has researched over the years about the impact of learning, and more importantly, how to apply that learning back in the workplace.

In a nutshell, unless you provide learners with support to maximise their new skills when they return to the office, you’re buying training content and nothing more.

Ebbinghaus saw that the rate at which knowledge falls away after a learning event is quite significant.

The good news is that by reinforcing the learning, we can push it back up to 100% again.

By providing a strong support structure after a training course, you can increase the real-life value which your organisation gets from the original investment, take steps to maximise the value of your training investment and ensure that you’re not just buying three days of content, but real, tangible improvement in working practices.

This can be achieved through coaching – yet despite the evidence, many organisations continue to pay for employees to attend training courses without having a formal coaching process to reinforce what has been learnt on the course.

The good news is we can easily learn the skills to coach with the following coaching strategy:

Pre-Course Preparation

Most training courses contain a lot of content, not all of which is useful in everyone’s job, so taking the time to help the employee to focus before the course starts can help ensure that the information they take away is the most relevant to their roles.

The Training Course

Different people learn in different ways and it’s vital that training courses reflect the different learning styles which people have.

There are four main learner types:

  • Auditory learners
  • Verbal learners
  • Visual learners
  • Kinaesthetic learners

A good training course will include a dynamic instructor to deliver content powerfully for auditory learners, plenty of facilitated class discussions for verbal learners, diagrams and charts for visual learners and case studies and group exercises for kinaesthetic learners.

If the training courses you’re buying doesn’t include all this, then your employees are missing out on crucial content.

Coaching SkillsOngoing Development

Back in the office, we need to provide the reinforcement and this is where coaching comes in.

Coaching should always be based around a single defined task, so the first step is to consider what that task is.

The size of the task is important – too big and it becomes difficult to coach people towards success; too small and the process of coaching becomes meaningless.

Once you’ve decided what the task will be, you move into the coaching process which has four steps:

1. Determine current performance

Performance is a combination of skill and commitment.

The role of the coach is to determine these skill and commitment levels at the beginning, then coach the employee in a suitable way to guide them towards results of the required quality.

We use a combination of observation and discussion to determine what the performance level is.

It’s important to understand this performance level because as a coach, the coaching style we use depends on this performance level – the lower the performance, the more direct you’ll need to be as you coach the employee through the task to the required standard.

For someone with high performance, you’ll perhaps just offer some guidance and support; for someone with low performance, you’ll give more detail on how the task should be completed and why it’s important.

2. Define and assign work

Effectively communicating the task to the coachee by telling them what we’re doing here, what we’d like him or her to do and our expectations.

This should be phrased as a SMART objective: the outcome I expect to see, when I need to see it by and the measurement I’m going to use to determine whether you were successful.

By defining and assigning the work in this way, we’re ensuring that the coachee gets the right level of detail from us to perform the work to the level we need.

3. Guidance

As the coachee progresses through the task we’ve set, we’ll need to keep their work on track. We do this by monitoring performance against pre-established milestones and plans.

If performance is good, we’ll provide words of encouragement; if it’s below the standard we’re looking for, we’ll give help to get them back on track.

4. Evaluate performance

Once the task is finished it’s important that we only evaluate against measurements which were given at the beginning of the assignment.

Anything else would be unfair – if there’s something we were hoping for that we didn’t see, then it’s a lesson for us to communicate better next time.

At the evaluation stage, it’s too late to influence the progress of the task – it’s now about reviewing performance (which, remember, includes both skill and commitment) to have the task completed even better next time.

That’s our structure – now we will look at how a coach actually achieves this:

Reflective Questioning

Coaching as a Business SkillCoaching and mentoring is a huge subject but if done well, we don’t particularly need any expertise in the area we’re coaching in.

The role of a coach is to guide the coachee through a development process and to use questioning to encourage self-reflection and improvement.

Coaches use a mixture of open questions, follow-on questions and closed questions to encourage the coachee to reflect on what’s required to succeed.

Questioning forms the heart of the coaching experience. Asking good questions is the most important skill a coach should have, and they can be used throughout the coaching process.

The questions we ask perform many functions: they help the coachee to focus on key areas, to assess their own performance and to come up with creative ideas to solve problems. We can use them to confirm the coachee’s understanding of a task and force them to think more deeply about how something might be completed.

The art of questioning can be used throughout the coaching process, from pre-course preparation through to evaluating performance at the end.

Specific High-Value Questions

We use three broad types of questions to lead our conversations: closed, open and follow on, such as these used at the following different stages:

Pre-course prep: What are your main challenges at the moment? What would be most useful for you to take away from the course? Which questions would you most like to ask the instructor?

Determining: What did you learn on the course? What was the main idea you took away? How can you apply this in your current task? What are the possible outcomes? How do you propose to proceed with this kind of work? What would happen if something changed? Is that the best way or is there a better solution?

(NOTE: These questions are getting deeper and more difficult. The coachee may not be able to answer them all. If we start easy and ask progressively tougher questions, the point at which the coachee struggles can be a good indicator of current skill level.

Defining and assigning: What do YOU understand by what I’ve just told you? What do you think your main challenges will be? What are you most confident about? What will your first steps be? What kind of feedback will you need from me? What’s worked for you in similar situations?

Guiding: How are you getting on with this task? How do you know that? What support do you need which you’re not getting at the moment? What are you finding most helpful at the moment? What’s getting in your way? What tasks can you delegate to others? How can you ensure quality standards are still met?

Evaluating: Why did/didn’t that work so well? What new insights did you uncover? What would you do differently next time? How could this have been (even) better? 

So, anyone who knows how to ask the right questions and has a good structure can be an effective coach.

More importantly, this reinforcement of learning means that as employers, you will get the maximum job impact from your training investment.


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About Nadine Rochester

Nadine Rochester
Nadine is a marketing director at Strategy Execution.

A experienced marketing strategist and technologist, Nadine is also passionate about project management, business analysis and agile PM, managing and contributing to the company PM blog servicing 40,000 monthly users.

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