Coaching in the workplace needs intelligent strategy

Growing your people is an integral part of being a leader. Photo: Getty Images
Growing your people is an integral part of being a leader. Photo: Getty Images
The role of a coach in sports is well understood and highly valued.

A coach is someone who supports the athlete or team to improve their performance and reach their goals.

They do this by helping the athlete to analyse recent performances, build on strengths and improve areas of weakness.

From a position of experience, they support the athlete to develop new skills and tactics and build mental strength.

The role of a coach in the workplace is very similar but workplace coaching happens only haphazardly and its value is less well recognised.

Coaching in the workplace is usually undertaken by an employee’s direct supervisor or by an external consultant.

Ideally, I would like to have all people in a leadership position coaching their direct reports as a matter of course.

Some of the organisations I work with have this as an expectation of their leaders, and the leaders are resourced accordingly with time and capacity to fulfil their coaching function. In these organisations we see a culture of growth and learning.

Growing your people is an integral part of being a leader. If each person in your team can improve their capabilities, the team’s performance as a whole will be lifted.

There are many different avenues for growing employee’s professional abilities, and often the first thought is to send them on a training course or to a professional conference.

These are valid avenues for growth but internal coaching (by a direct supervisor) is one of the most convenient, accessible and cost-effective means of developing employees. It requires no investment other than time on the part of the coach and coachee.

The coach has specific knowledge about the expectations of the coachee’s role and the challenges they encounter so is in a unique position to offer relevant and real-time support.

Despite the obvious advantages of workplace coaching, it often does not happen for one of two main reasons: the leader is not allocated time within the scope of their role, or they do not have the confidence in their ability to coach effectively.

Having a basic structure to follow when coaching is a helpful start. When working with people as an external coach myself, I use the following five-step structure to set up a plan and monitor progress.

1. Define the goal: Agree on the area for development. It may be skill development, knowledge acquisition or behavioural change. Identify the level they are at currently and what success will look like.

2. Identify development support: What experience, advice, knowledge or guidance can you provide that will support your person to grow in this area? Share this with them. Help the person to identify strengths they have that will support them to achieve this development goal.

3. Identify opportunities: Identify what upcoming opportunities the person has to practise the skill or behaviour or use the knowledge in question. Discuss with the person how they can seize these opportunities. What will they do differently from what they have done in the past?

4. Reflect: At your next meeting, reflect on the opportunities that arose. Did your person use those to practise the new skill or behaviour? If yes, discuss how it went. What positive consequences occurred? How did they feel? What would they do differently next time? If no, what stopped them from seizing the opportunity, a lack of confidence, negative self-talk? How could they overcome that next time?

5. Project: Looking to the near future, what further opportunities will present themselves to allow your person to develop in the agreed area? How can you help the person be in the best position to seize them? You may need to help them work on motivation or confidence. You could also share some of your experiences or offer advice.

Within your coaching sessions, there are several approaches you can take to helping the coachee move towards their development goal. An excellent model that explains some different approaches is Heron’s Six Categories of Intervention.

This model was developed by John Heron, the pioneering Kiwi social scientist who founded the South Pacific Centre for Human Inquiry in Auckland.

The Heron model helps us understand that there are many different ways to “help’’. You can use it to plan your approach to coaching sessions, taking into account the individual needs of the coachee.

If you habitually use one or two styles, the model will help you learn and use more of the styles, and so increase your impact supporting people.

The Heron model divides ways of helping into two categories: authoritative, where you are trading on your greater experience and knowledge relative to the other person; and facilitative, where you are putting the focus on the other person and their experiences. These two categories are further broken down into six subcategories as follows:

Authoritative Interventions.— Prescriptive: You explicitly direct the person you are helping by giving advice and direction.

Informative: You provide information to inform, instruct and guide the other person.

Confronting: You challenge the other person’s behaviour or attitude. Not to be confused with aggressive confrontation, ‘‘confronting’’ is positive and constructive. It helps the other person consider behaviour and attitudes of which they would otherwise be unaware.

Facilitative Interventions.— Cathartic: You help the other person to express and overcome thoughts or emotions that they have not dealt with.

Catalytic: You help the other person reflect, discover and learn for themself. This helps him or her become more self-directed in making decisions, solving problems and so on.

Supportive: You build up the confidence of the other person by focusing on abilities, qualities and achievements.

In my experience, a combination of both authoritative and facilitative styles is most helpful in supporting people to achieve goals.

Be careful not to overuse authoritative styles and make the coachee feel disempowered.

Some people wrongly assume that coaching is only for employees who are underperforming. In fact, it is a valuable tool for growing all employees, regardless of their current performance level.

An organisation’s performance depends on the capability and capacity of its people. Every person in an organisation is capable of growing in some way.

Coaching is one of the most cost-effective and impactful ways of building organisational capability.

- Sarah Cross is director of Kakapo Consulting.

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