Lean Transformations Group

Be the Coach Your Coachee Needs

To be the coach you want to be, you need to recognize the coach you need to be. And that varies from situation to situation and person to person. But good coaching is coaching, isn’t it? Not so fast.

Think about these three different coaching scenarios. How would you approach each of them as a coach?

Scenario 1

You are training a new, inexperienced employee to perform the basic tasks in her job. You demonstrate the tasks, use a Job Instruction breakdown to walk her through the steps and key points, and observe her repeat the process. After each repetition, you ask her to describe what she trying to do, what worked, and what didn’t work. For each step that didn’t work, you ask why and show her where and how to adjust her process if she doesn’t recognize her mistake. You ask her to practice until her actions are effective, habitual, and flowing smoothly.

Scenario 2

Employee Relations alerts you that one of your supervisors is denying a much greater percentage of requests for Family Medical Leave than other supervisors. You check and find out that he did attend the FMLA training for supervisors who are responsible for reviewing and approving these requests. With a copy of the most current policy in hand, you sit down with the supervisor, explain your concern, and ask to see the requests he’s reviewed in the past year (both the ones he approved and those he denied). You ask him to share his thinking, based on the policy, in approving or denying each one. You detect that he is assuming “need” means only emergency situations, which is a much narrower interpretation than the company intended. You explain that the policy makes leave available not only to employees with a serious medical condition but also to employees in situations where they need to care for family members who have serious medical conditions including a spouse giving birth. You ask the supervisor to take another look at the requests he recently reviewed and explain how he would decide on each based on his new understanding of “need”. You see that his decisions are now much closer to the intent of the policy and thank him for listening to your concerns. He says he will check with his employees whose requests he denied to see if their need still exists.

Scenario 3

Your department is responsible for leading a cross-functional project with Marketing and Purchasing to design and source a new easier-to-open packaging for one of the company’s top products. You assign your top project engineer who has led several successful projects to be the project leader. You send an email to the other departments informing them of his assignment. In the first three weekly project reports you notice that there is no mention of this activity with the other two departments. You ask the project engineer to discuss the status of the project with you. Although your project lead talks confidently about the assignments he’s made within the department, you sense reluctance to do the same with the other two departments. When you ask what he has initiated with Marketing and Purchasing, he says he not sure where to start. You pause and ask how involving staff from the other departments is different from what he has done in his own department. He says he’s not sure if he can tell people that he wants them to be part of the team. You ask again, “What is different between asking people in his department and asking people from the other departments?” He responds that in his department everybody knows he can assign people to the project because everyone knows he’s the project leader. So you ask what would give him confidence with the other departments. He says “if the other department heads announce he will be asking people from their departments to be on the team.” Ok! So you ask if he might contact the other two department heads to set up the meeting. He says he can do that because “they know he’s the project leader.”

These three examples are activities that are all often referred to as “coaching.” Given that they each involve a relationship in which one person is trying to help another person improve their capability to perform, sure, they can be called coaching. But in each of these scenarios, what each person needs (and the kind of coaching that is actually required) is something deeply different.

The “train-by-telling” approach would likely be resented as talking down to by the project leader trying to figure out how to lead in a novel situation. Similarly, the “develop-by-asking” approach would likely be lost on the person who lacks the basic process knowledge and skills to perform their tasks. Coaching may be coaching, but one size does not fit all.

To illustrate how your coaching style needs to vary based on the person and the performance capability that they need to develop, take a look at this scale:

No alt text provided for this image
  • Tell: For the person who has none of the required knowledge and tools to perform a given task, this person needs to be told (and often shown) what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. 
  • Ask, then Tell: The person who can perform a task well, but is not yet able to recognize appropriate and effective performance typically needs to hear questions and be given feedback to prompt his/her own awareness of their underlying assumptions.
  • Ask: The person who has deep knowledge and skills generally needs to be listened to first and then prompted to think about key points and considerations in the new situation.  
No matter how well-intentioned the coach, coaching is simply not helpful unless it is needed, wanted, and understood

That means the coach’s capability to assess the coachee’s current level of performance is critical. Equally important, every coach needs to be able to determine if their coaching capabilities are recognized as valuable coaching. As a coach, you always want to match your coaching style to the individual you’re working with so that it will be welcomed.

Language Matters

Language is strange and imperfect. We use words to communicate our thoughts, feelings, and concerns to another person, but these words don’t always convey the same meaning we intend. 

Take the expression, “communication problem.” We use these words to describe an issue we’ve witnessed between two people or groups. But the statement, “they have a communication problem”—which means one thing to you—may mean something totally different to someone else. One thing I learned while working in Japan is that words can have very different meanings depending on the situation. For English speakers, we take words to mean what they mean to us, but the truth is, others don’t always hear what we want them to hear; they hear what the words mean to them… based on their experience.

Just the word “coaching” is a good example. I recently had a coachee ask why I wasn’t coaching him on his A3. I replied, “What do you mean?” He said, “That’s what I mean… All you do is ask questions, but I want to know how to fix my A3.”

Now, I won’t totally go into why I use "humble inquiry" rather than “telling-to-fix” when I’m coaching someone on their A3. I learned long ago that I can’t “fix” someone else’s thinking. But that’s what “coaching” means to me: asking intentional, powerful questions. In any case, I learned from that situation that I may need more Japanese thinking in my own use of words. I may need to pay more attention to the situation in which I use a word like “coaching” and explain how I am using it in that context

In my efforts to help coaches develop their own coaching capabilities, I frequently remind them of an Edgar Schein quote that I paraphrased above, “Help is only helpful if it seen as helpful by the person being helped.” It is so easy when we are trying to be helpful as coaches to forget that coachee is the “customer.” I believe that puts the burden on us to remember (as I sometimes forget) that what coaching means depends on the context. As the coach, I am responsible for making sure that the coachee and I agree on what coaching really means in his or her situation.

A coaching relationship is too important to waste on a “communication problem.” Or as I would say, a “failure to communicate.”

Significantly improving your
operational performance.

Contact us to learn more