October 24, 2019

How to have coaching conversations

What separates an average manager from a great manager? We believe the ability to have regular, productive coaching conversations is often the difference maker…

People often wonder what separates an average manager from a great manager. Whilst there are many variables, the ability to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of their employees, then coach them accordingly to produce improved results is often the difference. According to a recent study, only 30% of the US workforce are engaged at work. What’s more, research says that people who focus on their strengths every day are 6 times more likely to be engaged in their jobs, more productive and more likely to say they have an excellent quality of life. Perhaps employees who naturally dwell on their strengths are naturally happier and therefore more likely to poll favourably when asked about work? A good argument. But there’s a growing body of research to suggest that happiness can be coached, and in doing so performance reliably improves. One of the best ways to do this is through coaching conversations. A coaching conversation is not where you tell your employee, team or peer what to do, but through asking the right questions help them come up with an answer their own way at the right time. Not every discussion you have with your team will be a coaching conversation. But, if you can add the coaching conversation into your arsenal or improve the way you’re currently having coaching conversations, then perhaps you can cement your status as a great manager.

“There is one quality that sets truly great managers apart from the rest: They discover what is unique about each person and then capitalise on it.” — Marcus Buckingham

The first question to answer is why having coaching conversations is important in the first place. There are currently 53,000 coaches worldwide and according to Forbes the ‘need and desire for coaching has expanded tremendously’ over the last few years. With this boom in the coaching market (the personal coaching industry was recently valued at $1 billion), coaching is expensive and often limited to high-level individuals. By helping your managers embrace coaching conversations you can scale coaching to all levels of your organisation whether that be across teams, between managers and their direct reports, or even peer to peer. This creates an environment of continual learning and improvement across the company, and while not a silver bullet, it is a reliable way to improve performance regardless of your organisational context. For the new entrants to the workplace, this style of leadership is a welcome chance to solve problems themselves, avoid micromanagement and feel like their career is being invested in. By coaching rather than managing, including rather than dictating, employees feel a greater connection to the company. According to the Deloitte Millennial Survey, 50% of millennials said they would be willing to take a pay cut to secure a job that aligns with their values and ambitions. Having more coaching conversations with individuals and your team should lead to better performers who stay longer, and if all goes right — become future leaders. Perhaps an answer to the reported 7% of CEO’s believing that their companies are building effective global leaders,

“Organizations have always needed leaders who are good at recognizing emerging challenges and inspiring organizational responses. That need is intensifying today as leaders confront, among other things, digitization, the surging power of data as a competitive weapon, and the ability of artificial intelligence to automate the workplace and enhance business performance.” — McKinsey

Implementing coaching conversations into your workflow, will therefore not only help develop your team and improve immediate performance. But, also help create future leaders, who can build on this success. So those are the reasons why you should start using coaching conversations, now here’s how to get started. Let’s start on a one-to-one basis and after that we will discuss how to do so with your team and peers.

The goal of one-to-one coaching conversations is to make sure your employees are self aware, socially aware and can manage themselves.

  1. Self Awareness — Create self awareness with your employee by getting them to think about how their values and personality affects their work. We do this by encouraging our team to look over their Saberr Base profile (you could use other profiles) and create their own Personal profile (shown below) based off this.


2. Self Management — Have a conversation with your employee where you ask them: Do you make the most of your strengths? Do you have clear goals? How do you deal with stressful situations? If they don’t have answers to these questions, ask them to have a prepared answer by the next meeting you have with them.

3. Social Awareness — Another element of coaching an employee is making sure they work well within the team and take an interest in the people around them. Sharing their newly crafted personal profiles with each other is a great way to help team members get comfortable with their differences.

So, when and how often should you have a coaching conversation? Having successful coaching conversations does not mean every conversation becoming a lecture or a timesuck. That is why we advocate regular check-in’s with your direct reports to check their progress and see if they need coaching. During our research for CoachBot’s one-to-one feature, we found that monthly one-to-ones were the upper limit for effective check-in meetings and anywhere from once a week to once a fortnight is ideal. Marcus Buckingham suggests asking two simple questions weekly:

  1. What are you working on?
  2. How can I help?

This simple approach creates a regular discourse with your direct report that helps with work, not get in the way of it. It also helps to create an open environment where they feel they can come to you if they make a mistake and you can help them learn from it. This is what Harvard professor Amy Edmonson calls ‘Psychological Safety’ and what Google found to be the most important factor behind successful teams, which is what we will discuss next.

Team coaching is about the team creating collective change — and successful team coaching conversations are about helping people understand how to work better with others to create this change. This is either by understanding relationships in the team to make conflict productive and useful rather than destructive and harmful, focussing on how people interact and communicate, or helping teams to clarify a shared purpose, goals and roles. It is of vital importance for everyone to be involved — so there’s collective accountability and shared benefit for everyone.

  1. Relationships and Behaviours — Start with sharing the personal profile mentioned above to help create a discussion based around forming deeper relationships and a basis of trust in the team. Then look at how you work as a team day to day, small things like agreeing whether it’s ok to turn up to meetings late or committing to letting people speak frankly without holding back. A ‘behaviours’ exercise that works well is to agree what you as a team would consider the worst five behaviours a team could exhibit and commit to exhibiting the opposite — this creates a shared culture or a charter unique to your team.
  2. Goals and Purpose — Next the team need to understand and agree on what they’re working towards before they get to work. An agreed set of short term (~3 month) goals and a shared purpose can help reduce conflict and in teams with strong trust they should feel free to challenge themselves and each other by asking “is what I’m/you’re doing today going to help us achieve our goals” if the answer is no then everyone in the team should be supportive in re-prioritising.
  3. Reflection — Discussing how you’re working as a team and regularly revisiting your purpose and goals is vital for continued success. The cadence of reflection will vary from team to team, with many agile teams meeting every day to discuss their work and reflecting every fortnight on their goals and progress. This might not fit into every teams schedule but taking time out every week to make some notes on how you’re working as a team and gathering together to feed that back on a monthly basis is a good minimum starting point. Building this habit of reflection is simple in principle but hard in practise, especially with mounting to-do lists. We spark these coaching conversations using our tool CoachBot, a digital coach that prompts teams to reflect regularly and provides an online dashboard to store reflection notes. When there’s enough notes for a productive meeting CoachBot will suggest to the team that it’s time to get together for a team retrospective.
  4. Linked to the Organisation — make sure you link your team goals to organisational goals. Many organisations impose top down goals on teams based on the overall company strategy, if teams can translate these goals into their own language they become much more motivating.

Another way to have coaching conversations is peer to peer. Peer coaching is a confidential process through which two or more professional colleagues work together to reflect on current practices. By sharing ideas and building new skills; you can both improve and solve problems in the workplace. A simple way to do this is by asking your teammate to teach you something they have more knowledge in or offering to teach them. By starting this process of learning off each other, you can not only improve your own skills, but build a better relationship with your colleagues at the same time.

Although these all seem like straightforward things to do in the workplace, continual learning through coaching conversations is an effective and uncomplicated way to improve performance. So try having a few coaching conversations with your direct reports, teams and peers and let us know how it goes!

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