Effective coaching skills for leaders

There’s universal agreement that coaching works. It is a conversation intended to develop an individual’s (or team’s) capacity to be more effective and perform better. Coaching encourages self-reflection, greater self-awareness and develops intrinsic motivation. This in turn leads to a more agile and empowered workforce, with a greater sense of their own abilities and how to use their unique talents to best effect. This results in greater discretionary effort, improved effectiveness and higher levels of performance.

This describes the kind of workplace culture that every leader aspires to achieve. They could effectively do so if they had the right skills and behavioural approach required to coach their people effectively. So, what are the effective coaching skills that leaders need?

First and foremost, the key single predictor of effective coaching outcomes is a healthy, trusting, and professional relationship. This is the primary building block for any effective leader and unfortunately, this is very often either missing or assumed.

To coach effectively, one must ask oneself the questions:

  • Do I believe that others can achieve far more than even they believe themselves capable of?
  • Do I trust that others can come up with their own ideas and solutions and make their own decisions about how they should best deliver their results?
  • Can I step back from telling others what to do, to allow others to make their own choices, learn from mistakes and be responsible for their actions?

If you can say ‘yes’ categorically to each of these questions, then you have the fundamentals of an effective coaching relationship already in place. If not, then it is important you work to improve the relationship before adopting a coaching style as it will ring hollow with coachees and could even come across as manipulative and self-serving.

This is one of the key issues with ‘sheep-dip’ coaching training of just a day – it provides some simple tools and helps build some key skills, but if these aren’t supported through effective workplace relationships, then coaching won’t deliver the huge potential benefits that it could.

Assuming then that you have an effective working relationship already, and a fundamental belief in the potential in others, then what are the effective coaching skills in the workplace? The baseline is learning to remain as non-directive as possible. ‘Ask, don’t tell’ is the coaches watchword. As soon as you start to tell someone your opinion or give them your advice you are doing the thinking and taking responsibility. So how then do you draw out the innate talent and intrinsic motivation of the coachee?

The first critical skill is Listening. This means more than just listening to someone, it means listening for someone. ‘Listening to’ means hearing the words and tone and interpreting those through your own filters. It’s rather superficial and doesn’t get below the surface. There is little true understanding available to the listener. Compare this to ‘listening for’ when the listener puts their own listening filters and opinions to one side. This creates a listening space that allows for greater understanding and appreciation of the speaker by the listener. This sense of feeling understood and being appreciated gives the speaker far greater freedom to express themselves, get clearer in their thinking and become more self-aware.

Most of us have had that rare experience when we have felt truly listened to, understood, and appreciated and we remember that person as ‘a great listener’ or ‘someone who I could really relate to’ etc. Imagine the power of this simple skill, when used effectively in the workplace to build relationships and develop effective collaborative working.

The next layer of critical skill is the Structuring of effective coaching conversations. If listening creates a space, then that space needs to be structured in a conversational way to focus it and give some purpose and direction. This can be done by using a structural model such as the TGROW model (John Whitmore et al) and others. The purpose of this is to keep the conversation manageable and on track and moving towards actions and responsibility on the part of the coachee. Learning how to use structural models such as TGROW can take just a few days of training, but it can take months or even years before the coach has reached the level of unconscious competence needed to use it in a masterful way.

It’s like learning to drive a car - you can get on the road, but it takes time and practice to make a proficient driver. It’s important to appreciate that structures such as TGROW rarely contain content from the coach – i.e. suggestions, guidance, advice, or help – it’s just a framework to give the conversation structure.

The third level of skill is Process. This is when the coach will use techniques to clarify the data being presented by the coachee into the conversation to facilitate the coachee in their thinking. Such techniques include communication cycles, summarising, and asking questions that raise awareness. Approaches that will clarify understanding for both parties and will help stimulate learning and self-awareness in the coachee.

The coach is still being non-directive around the content of the conversation, even though these elements are being added by the coach, because they are simply there to help the coachee process their own data and thinking.

The fourth and final coaching skill is Adding Knowledge. This is when the coach might add their own ideas or suggestions into the conversation to help raise awareness of options and choices for the coachee. This moves the coaching conversation from non-directive to the directive and can in some instances render the coaching less effective as a result.

An effective coach will make every effort to avoid doing this as it can disempower the coachee and move the responsibility for thinking towards the coach when it should be firm with the coachee. However, adding your own ideas and suggestions can be useful if the coachee lacks certain information that the coach has access to, or when time is short, or perhaps if the coachee appears stuck (they very rarely are, they just think they are!).

At Coaching Focus, we call these core elements the Funnel of Skills, wide at the top with Listening, and narrow at the bottom with Adding Knowledge.

Developing skilful agility with coaching requires both skills development and behavioural change and our coaching programmes help leaders develop and embed both.

Leaders don’t necessarily have to be great coaches (though the impact would be amazing if they were!) However, in the ‘new’ world it is critical that they have solid competence and confidence in coaching to be able to draw out the innate talent and capability of every member of their team.

There is no excuse in saying ‘I’m too busy in my job to coach’ – learning, development, and maximising an individual’s potential IS the job of a leader. Of course, every monthly or weekly 1:1 is a great opportunity for formal coaching. But every conversation with anyone, anywhere and at any time, is also a great coaching moment - to listen, understand, ask powerful that raise awareness and help the individual to grow and flourish. This can take just a few minutes (possibly the most valuable few minutes of your day by the way) and there may be many such opportunities that occur. And this is the other key coaching skill for leaders in the workplace – the skill of spotting opportunities to coach, no matter how brief, that will raise someone’s awareness, help them clarify their thinking, and get them back into responsible action.

By using coaching every day in this way, leaders will build stronger relationships with individuals, create a learning and action-oriented performance culture, and build a truly empowered and intrinsically motivated workforce.