Essentially, coaching is a way of helping others to make progress and overcome issues without directly telling them what to do. A fundamental belief in coaching is that people are resourceful and can generate their own solutions. You could therefore say that coaches help people to find the answers for themselves, by engaging in structured conversations and asking insightful questions.
In coaching we say that the client – or the coachee – holds the agenda. What that means is that the only agenda we have is to help the coachee move forward. A coaching session is not about the coach’s experiences, but entirely about the coachee. Giving advice and talking about themselves is more something a mentor would do. A coach is fully focused on what the coachee’s situation is and on helping them to identify what they can do to progress and achieve their goals.
Mentoring is different from coaching
Many people use mentoring and coaching synonymously, but although there are many overlaps between the two disciplines, there are also differences. Mentoring is typically carried out by someone more senior within an organisation, as opposed to a qualified coach. A mentor is someone who has been there, done it and got the t-shirt, and who is giving advice based on their own experiences. A mentor can be of great help if you would like to network within the organisation, find out more about the business you’re in or learn a specific skill that your mentor is an expert in.
Whereas mentors are good at giving advice about specific situations, coaches are more valuable if you would like to develop your leadership and interpersonal skills – such as getting better at influencing people, gaining buy-in from senior stakeholders, adding value to a project when you are not the subject matter expert and being more assertive. As project managers we rarely work closely with other PMs who can help us grow and who we can learn from, and most of the training we receive is focused on hard skills such as project planning and risk management. Whereas this kind of training is necessary, it won’t make us better leaders or excellent project managers. In my experience it’s not the technical skills that project managers struggle with the most, but the “softer” side of the job and how to engage and motivate people.
Use coaching as a leadership style
In addition to working with a professional coach, there are also great benefits to reap if you were to take on the role of the coach and can use it as a tool to deepen your interactions with people on your team. When you use coaching to manage and lead your team you are better able to strengthen their skills and create an engaged and empowered team. Bob Nelson said; ‘You get the best effort from others not by lighting a fire beneath them, but by building a fire within.’ As a leadership style, coaching lies at the opposite spectrum to command and control. When you coach you help people to take responsibility for the changes they want to see, and to identify the steps required to realise those changes.
One of the most fundamental mindset shifts you need to make when you begin to use a coaching style at work, is that your role isn’t to give advice and come up with a solution but to surface understanding and insight in the team member. You must help the team member deepen their understanding of the situation by asking questions about the problem and helping them to see what the way forward is. Remember that coaching is built on the belief that people can generate their own answers and solutions.
Strengthen your listening skills
One of the biggest building blocks of coaching is to fully listen to what the coachee or team member is saying without interrupting or impatiently wanting to move on. To be an effective coach, you need to make use of your best listening skills, which means that you must listen at Level III:
- Level I – Internal listening – This is when you are primarily focused on your own inner voice, thoughts, feelings and opinions whilst the other person is speaking.
- Level II – Focused listening – This is when you keep an intense focus on the other person and are paying attention to their expressions and emotions.
- Level III – Global listening – This is when you listen with your entire body, meaning that you are fully present, use your intuition and are able to detect sadness, lightness and shifts in attitude.
Listening at Level III may take some practice as many of us are focused on our own internal dialogue at level I when we work as project managers. To practice Level III listening, begin to observe people when they speak. Be fully present and try to hear beyond the words. Notice people’s body language and emotions and what they are really trying to say.
The GROW model provides a good framework
One of the most popular frameworks for structuring a coaching conversation is the GROW model which stands for Goal, Reality, Options and Will. The GROW model can help you structure a conversation and understand the types of questions you should be asking. Let’s look at the purpose of each part of the model.
- Goal – Setting goals and understanding what the problem is. What would the coachee like to achieve?
- Reality – Letting the person tell their story. What is happening right now and how is the coachee experiencing the situation?
- Options –Brainstorming options for moving forward. What could the coachee do to overcome the problem?
- Will – Developing commitment to a plan of action. What specific action will the coachee take and by when?
The idea of the GROW model is that you start off your conversation by establishing what the problem, issue or goal is. You might ask: “What would you like to achieve? What does the situation look like when the problem is resolved?” You subsequently explore the reality of the situation by asking, “Tell me what is going on at the moment. What have you already tried in order to resolve this?” You then move into options where you explore how the problem could be resoled by asking, “What are the options for resolving this? What would you do in the ideal situation?” Lastly you establish what action the coachee is willing to take to move forward, for instance by asking, “What action will you take? By when? What help do you need to carry out these actions?”
As you can see the model is designed to make the coachee find the answers and to prevent you from giving advice and coming up with the solution.
Actively look for opportunities to coach your team
The best way to start using the GROW model is to actively look for opportunities to coach someone, for instance when a team member asks you for advice about how to structure a client meeting. Instead of telling him how you think he should do it, coach him in the moment by asking lots of open questions that begin with what, how and who, for instance:
- What is the real purpose of the meeting?
- What outcomes would you like to get from it?
- How do you want people to feel as a result of the meeting?
- Who will be attending?
- What happened at the last meeting?
- What are your thoughts about how you might structure the meeting?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of these options?
- What do you feel is the best way forward?
- What support do you need?
- What else do you need to consider?
You might think that it’s a easier just to tell people how you would like them to do something, but it’s much more rewarding for the team members when they identify the solution for themselves. As a result they will feel more empowered and motivated to contribute to the project.
There are however times when coaching is not the right leadership style. During a crisis for instance – or when the stakes are high – it’s more appropriate to give clear direction. Coaching might also not be the best approach when you are interfacing with someone who is new in their role and who genuinely doesn’t know how to do something. It’s important to adapt our leadership style to the situation, and to only use coaching when it’s appropriate in helping people find their own way around a problem.