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Commentary | July 10, 2023

From your Leadership Coach — Consider a “coach approach” when leading our talented workforce

By Charlie Coiro, U.S. Coast Guard Leadership Development Center

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” We call the person you’re coaching the “client,” but please don’t be distracted by that sterile business term. The client is anyone (peer, direct report, boss, child, parent, friend, etc.) who agrees to take an exploratory journey with you to help them rethink some aspect of their work or life. As a partnership, coaching isn’t something you do to a person but something you do with them. This article is simply a call to consider adding some coaching practices to your day-to-day leadership repertoire.  

Like working out, the more “reps” you do, the stronger you’ll get at this skill set. Becoming a professionally certified coach is a worthy goal for anyone with the inclination, and the ICF is the gold standard if you’re interested. However, before starting that endeavor, consider getting some practice at the basics I outline below. 

Three essential coach practices 

By listening and asking effective questions, we can help each other think things through in a more holistic and creative way so we can improve our performance in important work and life areas. Coaching boils down to three essential practices: listening effectively, asking thought-provoking questions and helping the client decide on next key actions. 

  1. Listening effectively. Listening effectively requires focus, patience, and curiosity. Listening is a skill that can be improved with deliberate practice. Coaching dialogues are often slower and more deliberate, because the coach takes time to frame their questions and the client is encouraged to take time to think about their response. We must be vigilant to restrain ourselves from the constant temptation to offer advice or to speak up at the first pause in the client’s response. In social settings this may be acceptable to keep the conversation flowing, but in coaching sessions this distracts the client from thinking more deeply. This may feel awkward at first, but when the coach sets the expectation that this is normal in a typical coaching session, the discomfort is reduced.  When thinking about a coaching dialogue it may be helpful to remember the law enforcement acronym L.E.A.P.S.: listen, empathize, ask, paraphrase, and summarize. Since coaching is a two-way conversation that focuses on the client, listening isn’t enough; we must also prompt deeper exploration with the E, A, P, and S of L.E.A.P.S.  
  2. Asking thought-provoking questions. Thought-provoking questions emerge from genuine curiosity and an unrelenting focus on the client. Good coaches don’t have a list of questions queued up like an interviewer; they typically go with the interests of the client and intuitively ask the next question based on curiosity. That said, there are some great questions to have in your repertoire to keep the coaching conversation moving. In his excellent book, The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier shares seven essential questions that can serve a coach well. Two of my favorites are: “What’s on your mind?” (This is a great opening question to set a goal for a client-driven session), and “And what else?” Stanier calls this the “AWE” question, and its genius in its simplicity. The AWE question shows that you’re curious and want to know the deeper details so you can be more analytical in your coaching conversation than you are in your daily conversations.  Thought-provoking questions usually start with the words “what” or “how.” Good coaches refrain from asking “why” questions because they subtly shift the perspective of the client to a more externally focused explanation than the internal focus we desire. As an example, think about something important in your life. Now consider the way your perspective changes if I ask, “What about that is important to you?” versus “Why is that important to you?” The “what” question should cause a bit more intrinsic analysis. Of course, this probably seems too subtle to matter, but I encourage you to try shifting your WHY questions and see WHAT happens. (Please note: this takes nothing away from the importance of knowing the “why” (or purpose) of the things we do; it just gets at it in a different and more reflective way.)
  3. Helping the client decide on next key actions. Since all coaching efforts should eventually lead to improved future performance, it’s essential to help the client discover the next key action(s) towards that end. As you’re finishing up any coaching session, it’s important to ask your client something related to next steps. This could be as simple as “So what’s the next thing you plan to do to move this project forward?” Some other action clarifying questions could be “What has helped you in the past with this type of issue?” If they’re stuck, maybe ask, “Think of an expert or a person you admire in this field. What would be an action they might take to tackle this issue?” It’s important to remember that the first responses to these questions are often not fully thought through, and it may take some back-and-forth questions to clarify the precise next key actions. Once you and the client think you have a good path forward, it’s important to break it down to the smallest and simplest tasks and then paraphrase back what they’re going to work on before you meet again. Another question you might ask to fortify the plan is “What potential barriers might you face in doing these tasks?” If barriers are identified, it might be worth asking some follow-up questions or doing some role-plays to explore ways to overcome the barriers. In this final step, you’re moving into the role of accountability partner for your client. The likelihood that they will follow through on the next key actions improves dramatically when they know someone else cares about their follow-through and success. 

In their study of the American workplace, the well-respected research organization Gallup, points out that the retention of top talent relies on building a coaching culture. The newest members of our workforce want to grow and gain mastery in their jobs and responsibilities. A coaching approach to leadership will certainly help in this endeavor and as more people practice this skillset, the long-term impact on retaining and leveraging our talented workforce will be substantial.  

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