coaching and feedback

Coaching and Feedback – Why, How, What?

Posted on March 24th, 2017

As a training consultancy we know that one of the most important things an organisation can do to engage and develop its people is to embed regular practices of feedback and coaching. The question for managers and leaders is: are you or your organisation missing out on the gains?

According to a recent article in HR Magazine, the answer is probably yes: regular coaching and feedback conversations are still rare in organisations. At most companies, coaching simply isn’t a part of what managers are formally expected to do, and many managers don’t see it as an important part of their role.

But solving the problem is not just a matter of convincing managers to make time for more conversations – where those conversations occur, they need to be done in the right way. Indeed the ability to provide effective coaching to team members is one of the most crucial skills for new and existing managers to master.

And because it is such an important topic, we thought we’d write a blog post on the subject. Let’s begin first of all with the question: why coach?

Why Coach?

According to Google, the number one habit of highly effective managers is quite simply “Being a good coach”. Researchers on Google’s Project Oxygen ranked providing specific, constructive feedback and holding regular one-on-ones as their most important managerial competency – well above the importance of having key technical abilities, a clear vision, or being productive and results-oriented.

We are fans of Google’s data-driven approach to management (see our blog post on effective teambuilding). But it’s not just Google championing the importance of regular coaching. In fact, companies including Cargill, Adobe and General Electric are all moving performance management away from annual review in favour of putting more emphasis on continuous feedback and development.

The pace of business is faster than ever, but as the rate of change accelerates, the need to make time for people in focused coaching sessions is – paradoxically – becoming more and more important.

There are many different reasons why regular coaching is so vital. Broadly speaking, we can split it into two areas.

1. Coaching Develops Skills

The first main factor is to do with the way coaching develops skills. As a skills training consultancy we at LDL know that no matter how well the training is delivered, it is true that if line managers are not actively involved and supportive, employee development is stunted.

Coaching helps to socialise the learning process, to promote accountability, as well as to provide spaces for employees to reflect on key skills and receive critical feedback.

“Everyone needs a coach” according to Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt (see below). And while it can be difficult to justify spending hours every month in one-to-one coaching sessions, it is important to remember that coaching expands people’s capabilities and therefore the capability of the organisation. It is that link to business results that is often overlooked by senior managers.

2. Coaching Drives Engagement

Besides contribution to employees’ skills, coaching is also a vital factor in driving employee engagement. In fact, for David Macleod and Nita Clarke, authors of the landmark Engage for Success paper, coaching and feedback are specifically identified as critical factors in promoting employee engagement.

Macleod and Clarke reference a survey which found that more engaged employees have more frequent work related discussions with their immediate manager than less engaged employees:

“Forty-three per cent of high engaged employees receive feedback at least once a week compared to only 18 per cent of employees with low engagement.”

At a time when employee engagement is becoming an increasingly important focus for organisations of all sizes looking to boost performance, drive innovation and retain key staff, this link between engagement and regular coaching is an important one to bear in mind.

Coaching matters!

It is clear that coaching is vitally important for organisations looking to develop performance in a fast-changing world. Driving engagement on the one hand, and developing skills on the other, coaching is a major motor of learning across organisations.

But how to actually go about it? Let’s start with some common assumptions.

How to Coach: Option A – The Judge

Now generally, whenever we think of a coach, we think of someone older, more experienced or more talented than whoever it is they are coaching. In the modern world of televised sport and talent shows we are surrounded by such examples of coaching. Take, for instance, the BBC talent show Strictly Come Dancing. Perhaps the most obvious coaches on Strictly Come Dancing are the four judges: Craig Revel Horwood, Darcey Bussell, Len Goodman, and Bruno Tonioli.

Strictly coaching

How does coaching work here? There is something that is done, a dance that is performed – a tango, a foxtrot, a waltz – and specific comments are made by each of the judges. The way in which these comments are made is important, but their focus is on specific technical aspects of the dance: pointing out mistakes, making suggestions, offering praise… The coaching relation here in other words generally involves the transfer of knowledge or expertise from one (more experienced) person to another (less experienced) person.

There is nothing wrong with this as a model of coaching. Especially in the context of feedback on technical work, where precise feedback is important – as in IT or the professional services.

But coaching isn’t just about having sufficient technical competency to be able to dish out effective praise and criticism – in fact researchers on Google’s Project Oxygen (referenced above) put technical competency dead last out of its ‘big 8’ list of factors regarding what made an effective coach! Often the most technically competent individuals were not the best managers and coaches. Just have a look at the following report on the findings from the New York Times, based on an interview with Laszlo Bock, Google’s Vice President for People Operations:

Mr. Bock’s group found that technical expertise — the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep — ranked dead last among Google’s big 8… “In the Google context, we’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you need to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you,” Mr. Bock says. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing.”

[Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss – NY Times]

What does this tell us about the nature of effective coaching – and what other options might be available?

In search of alternatives…

In putting together this blog, we asked our own team of consultants here at LDL about the subject of coaching and feedback, and Deborah, who runs many of our open and incompany management training and coaching programmes offered this…

“Coaching enables people to identify the barriers that are inhibiting their performance and commit to action to achieve their goals… Coaching is a dynamic process where the coach facilitates the coachee’s thought process through fantastic listening skills and incisive questioning.”

Notice the different language being used here. The focus is not on the coach giving answers or “judging” the coachee, but on facilitating their thought process and individual development. Because coaching is not just about providing instructions; it is also about collaboratively solving problems, facilitating independent thought and helping employees to grow into their role.

How to Coach: Option B – The Facilitator

To illustrate this more collaborative approach to coaching identified by Deborah, we thought we’d turn to another example from pop culture: that of the recent Netflix drama, The Crown. Just as films provide illuminating case studies for the exploration of different approaches to leadership (see recent LDL blog post on Star Wars), so television box sets can provide helpful reflections on relationships, including coaching relationships.

The crown coaching

It may seem on the face of it that The Crown doesn’t have much to teach us about coaching – much more about British constitutional law and the life of the Royal Family. But actually the series charts the growth and development of Elizabeth from young princess to Queen of England. And vital to this transformation is the figure of Winston Churchill as coach and mentor.

“Many have questioned my relevance, whether I still have something to offer. In public life, the answer is, I have. Which is to leave in place a Sovereign prepared for office. Equipped, armed for her duty.” – Winston Churchill S1.Ep3: Windsor

Now the nature of the Queen’s role is only in small part a technical one – how to wave, how to sit, plus an understanding of the British constitution. For the Queen’s job at critical junctures, when managing real problems and contradictions of interest in her family life and the life of the Government, there are no straightforward ‘technical’ answers, and performance in these situations instead depends on the Queen developing her own understanding of, and way of being in, the role.

Notice that Churchill does not at any point tell the Queen what to do. Churchill gives her respect and space, not providing answers, but talking with her about what he thinks are important things to consider. He encourages her to take on the responsibility of the Crown, and to have the courage to stand up to the rather intimidating members of Cabinet – including Churchill himself. In fact he admits that his work is done not when the Queen respectfully listens to his advice, but when she rebukes him for his pride and for his failure to inform her that his health had been in danger.

“It is not my job to govern. But it is my job to ensure proper governance.” – Queen Elizabeth II S1.Ep7: Scientia Potentia Est

This example might be closer to mentoring than to coaching, but it does help to illustrate the ways in which coaching can go beyond merely the provision of technical feedback.

To bring this idea more firmly back to the context of coaching in organisations, we might reference an article by Forbes entitled “The Key to Effective Coaching”, which focuses on coaching as essentially about asking questions and facilitating growth rather than straightaway providing answers:

“Coaching focuses on helping another person learn in ways that let him or her keep growing afterward. It is based on asking rather than telling, on provoking thought rather than giving directions and on holding a person accountable for his or her goals.”

Or even the New York Times article on Google’s Project Oxygen mentioned above:

“What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.”

Perhaps coaching is in some respects closer to mentoring than we might think – facilitating the growth and development of employees as people as well as jobholders and members of staff.

Guidelines for Effective Feedback and Coaching

Every coaching relationship is going to come with different objectives and ends in mind. When entering into a coaching relationship it is important for managers to consider the particular person and situation they are dealing with, and to balance effectively between the “judge” and the “facilitator” mode.

If in doubt, it may help to remember that the difficulty often lies in refraining from slipping into judge mode too easily, where we situate ourselves as the smarter, better-informed party, rather than giving the coachee space to figure out problems and develop in their own way.

Feedback and Coaching – 5 Recommendations

In case you are really unsure where to begin with a coaching conversation, and because until now we have focused only on questions of ‘why’ and ‘how’, here are a few more immediate recommendations:

  1. Make it personal – As a coach you need to show you care about the person that you are coaching, about their development and their career. Begin with some personal conversation, and show your interest.
  2. Be specific – When hosting a coaching session you should have something specific to talk about. However, when providing feedback one of the most common failings, especially when the feedback is positive, is that managers fail to be specific. Always provide specific information and examples to back up your comments.
  3. Listen – Once you have offered some specific comments, the next step is to remember the importance of listening. Master the temptation simply to tell the coachee what to do or how to respond; instead ask questions to find out what they think, how they would like to take things forward, and be willing to adapt your subsequent feedback to their input.
  4. Have a plan – You should always seek to tie the conversation into a bigger picture. Most of all, and especially if any issues have been identified, you should have a plan for moving forward – an action plan, schedule or agenda – and make sure you secure the coachee’s buy-in.
  5. Make it regular – To maintain momentum and increase the effectiveness of the coaching, regularity is key. Arrange a time for a subsequent coaching session, and be ready to provide informal feedback in the day to day environment.
Towards a Coaching Culture

When coaching is embedded in the right way throughout an organisation, it can become a major motor of learning as well as a driver of engagement and innovation. The best way to begin improving coaching practices in your organisation is to reflect on your own role as a coach. We hope this blog has got you thinking!

At LDL we know that training fits into a bigger picture of learning, and would be happy to work with you to develop more effective coaching practices to take back to your workplace. See our Performance Coaching Skills page for more.

You can also learn more about LDL Management Training, and One to One Coaching – highly focused coaching to get you to where you want to be.

Interested in reading more on the subject? Why not have a read of our recent blog post: “Leadership on Film: 5 Lessons from Star Wars: Rogue One“.

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