What makes coaching successful?

Success is often attributed to mutual chemistry, technique, and readiness to learn. I agree that those are important ingredients in the process. But in reality, they are steps to achieving results. And that’s what we’re looking for, right?

How do we reach the movement and momentum we want?

coaching was discussing performance management on an HR.COM webinar. Managers are often concerned about how to use performance data to really help employees.

That thought popped into mind when, a little while ago, I was in the midst of a coaching session and realized that we were on a roll. So I started paying attention to what was happening–like watching a movie where you are one of the actors. When I looked at the plot, it revealed four components that I think are essential for a coaching session to be successful.

1. Clarity

Ultimately, nothing will happen until you gain laser-like clarity on the issue or goal. The client in this case needed to put a lot of information out there before I could start to ask the right questions after hearing overlapping themes. Finally, he uttered a single phrase that summed up his goal. What was the take away?:

Total clarity before continuing.

2. Confirmation

When I repeated the phrase and asked him if that’s where he wanted to go he smiled and his energy level went up noticeably. As a coach or client, ask the question: Is the excitement increasing because you’ve hit upon the real thing or an exciting thing?

Confirm the real deal or go back to step 1.

3. Communicate it

When we keep a goal or an issue to ourselves, there’s no accountability for action. Once we state our desires or intentions to other people, we have a much greater chance of success. It’s human nature. Tell someone else that you are planning on doing something and the likelihood of you doing it increases. Ask “Who else will you tell about this?” “Who else needs to be involved to help you accomplish this?”

Communicate to motivate.

4. Commitment

Create an immediate action–something that will happen today. Too often we become satisfied with the “Aha” and ignore the “Ah, when?” I ask for an action that can be taken before the end of the day. It creates momentum, makes something happen (we both get paid to make something happen), and shows genuine commitment. It also provides a specific action that allows for follow up. “What was the outcome of your phone call to the customer?” “How did your team react to your initial meeting about the new software integration?

If the coach hears about how things went, then it opens the door to identify next steps. If the action didn’t happen, it’s a signal for both to examine what is happening and to get quickly on track. (That could ultimately lead to a return to Clarity). Without a commitment and follow-up, it’s easy to feel good about the session and still have nothing happen. (I hate when nothing happens!)

Commit to an action that will happen today.

There seems to be an ongoing attempt to recycle, re-package, re-label and microwave new leaders into existence. Yet that approach must be important, fascinating, or both because it’s a huge moneymaker. Look at this:

Leadership books at Amazon: 72,587  vs. 26,086 for Nutrition & Diet. There are twice as many authors and publishers banking on people wanting to become leaders than paying attention to staying alive long enough to get there.

Google the word “leadership” and you can spend the rest of your lunch break reading your choice of 160,000,000 results. Want to know the definition of “leadership”? No problem. There are 9,650,000 search results for “leadership definition”. That one got me thinking: “If we have so many people concerned about leadership (a good thing), what happens if they all define it differently (a potentially confusing thing).

Pause for just a moment. If you were asked by a “leader” how you define that role, what would you say?

Leadership Definitions From Four Experts:

  • Peter Drucker: “The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers.”
  • John C. Maxwell: “leadership is an influence – nothing more, nothing less.”
  • Warren Bennis:  “Leadership is a function of knowing yourself, having a vision that is well communicated, building trust among colleagues, and taking effective action to realize your own leadership potential.”
  • John W. Gardner: Leadership is the process of persuasion and example by which an individual (or leadership team) induces a group to take action that is in accord with the leader’s purpose, or the shared purposes of all.”



Can You Find the Similarities?

One striking similarity for me is that none of the definitions includes rank or title. Three of the four are explicit about influence and persuasion. Two of the four-state or imply process and potential vs. “I’ve reached it!”

But my personal favorite is Drucker. He’s saying “Look over your shoulder. If you don’t see anyone, you’re not leading.” More importantly, if you have followers, you better recognize that you’re leading!

Some food for thought:

  • If it’s really that simple, then why do you and I, along with thousands of others, meditate on the deep meaning of “leadership?”
  • Do individual definitions vary so much that leaders simply can’t win when employees are surveyed?
  • Could part of the problem be that you and I won’t let someone lead because we refuse to be followers? (Instead of arrogant, “sucky” leadership, perhaps we have some arrogant, “sucky” followership.
  • If it’s all about influence and being influenced, what gets in the way?

Leadership, stripped bare, involves two elements:  the boldness to stand up and lead, and the humility to stand up and follow. I’m wondering if the bigger leadership challenge may actually rest with the second.

Employees want development and developmental feedback. Every legitimate, broad-based survey from the past ten years confirms that as a fact.

Here’s the challenge: most managers aren’t very skilled at developing people over the long-term.

The data show that, although managers acknowledge the importance of development, they are usually ranked near the bottom in terms of there effectiveness and attention to “development.” Related to this is the ability to deliver critical feedback, also a skill that receives a consistently low rating. In all fairness, colleagues and others in the organizational food chain aren’t really any better when the data are analyzed. (Makes sense. Colleagues and others are also executives, managers, and supervisors).

What About High Potentials?

In a study done by Kaplan et al., in 1991, the findings revealed that high potential employees, especially executives, receive less feedback than others. (Subsequent research yields the same information). When high-po’s do get feedback, it’s more along the lines of how terrific they are. Feedback to high potentials is seldom specific and their bosses even tend to skip over the formal, face-to-face, yearly performance appraisal. We should all be so fortunate.

What to Do?

OK, let’s agree that delivering pointed, negative feedback is uncomfortable for most people. It must be, otherwise there’d be more of it. 

The easiest way I know of to “get honest and developmental” is to sit down and agree on a set of specific skills or competencies needed to achieve strategic objectives. In general, we all lean toward the notion that skills can be developed and, when they are, it will bump up performance. Taking this approach makes it easier to discuss specific performance issues because each is tied to a skill that was agreed to at the outset.

Sure, it takes thoughtfulness and face time. If you need a little more motivation, research also shows that employees rate managerial/executive performance, in part, on the relationship established with direct reports. 

The very act of sitting down together is experienced as an indicator of managerial competency.