Coaching from Afar

Coaching from AfarCoaching tops the list of skills that many executives look for in their frontline managers, and for good reason: effective coaching can dramatically increase employee engagement and intrinsic motivation, which in turn can lead to “16 percent overall better performance, 125 percent less burnout, 32 percent more commitment to their organization, [and] 46 percent more satisfaction.” Considering that only “30 percent of US workers are engaged” and managers have a huge influence on employee engagement (they “account for at least 70 percent of the variance” in those metrics—wow!), it’s clear that managers need to ramp up their coaching skills.  

Learning how to coach well can be challenging, especially for people who aren’t naturally gifted in that area. Even managers who are already pretty experienced (and accomplished) coaches still have more to learn. People aren’t static, which means that managers and their employees—and the relationships between them—are always changing. 

The continually evolving nature of the coaching relationship is further complicated today by the fact that managers and employees are no longer working together onsite. During these (temporary, I hope!) times of widespread work-from-home arrangements, managers have to be even more intentional in their efforts to motivate and engage employees. Coaching from afar is possible during these crazy times! It just requires a slight shift in approach, intentionality, and mindset.

Coaching versus Feedback

Coaching versus feedbackFirst, let’s get on the same page for terminology. Many people use the terms coaching and feedback interchangeably. That’s a mistake, because those words describe two very different things.

Feedback is:

  • focused on past behavior 
  • evaluative 
  • advice (or “telling”) oriented 

Coaching is: 

  • focused on future behavior 
  • developmental 
  • inquiry oriented 

Feedback helps employees change their behavior or learn from previous mistakes. Coaching, on other hand, helps employees move ahead by releasing their potential (even if they don’t know they have it in them!).

Benefits of Coaching

Benefits of CoachingWhy should you care about coaching? For starters, good coaching can yield tons of benefits—for your employees, for your organization, and for you. For example:

  • It gives you more time to focus on strategic issues facing your department.
  • It enables employees to take on more responsibility and become more accomplished. 
  • It strengthens relationships and builds trust. 
  • It improves the quality and quantity of work from your department.
  • It helps you avoid bottlenecks and keeps projects moving forward.
  • It can result in greater employee retention. 

Coaching also has one key benefit that’s of particular value to you, as a manager: by increasing the skills and value of your employees, it enables you to set yourself up for your next opportunity. After all, without a succession plan, how can you move on to the next chapter in your career?

How to Coach for Greater Motivation

Coach for MotivationMotivation is defined as “the act or process of giving someone a reason for doing something.” A manager must lead in a way that results in employees caring about their jobs and about the company. To be an effective coach—one who helps employees develop greater intrinsic motivation—a manager should use the following strategies:

  • Support your employees—and challenge them, too.

    Obviously, you want to give your employees the support they need to get their jobs done. But you also have a responsibility to push them beyond their comfort zones. After all, coaching is about helping your employees develop new skills, which can be an unnerving process for top performers who are accustomed to having all the answers. Remember, change is hard, and it’s your job as a coach to encourage your employees to take that leap of faith—even when there’s a chance they will fail.    

  • Listen.

    As a coach you want to offer your employees guidance based on where they are now. Through careful listening, you can hear not only what people tell you directly about their jobs and career paths, but also what they aren’t saying (for example, if they are reluctant to admit that they are struggling for fear that will make them look bad in their manager’s eyes) and therefore better understand the limitations they’ve put on their problem-solving abilities. 

  • Ask challenging questions, but don’t hand out answers.

    Your job as a coach isn’t to tell employees how to proceed but to help them figure out their own next steps. That’s accomplished not by telling them what’s available but by asking challenging questions that encourage them to discover (and shape) their own options. We have to let our employees try options that we may not agree with, even if we think those efforts will fail. (In fact, the best learning experiences often emerge from failure, not success!)

  • Provide a new lens.

    By sharing a different perspective, you can reduce your employees’ tunnel vision and expand their viewpoints. Open up their thinking can help them be better prepared to solve future problems, particularly in an ever-changing world. 

  • Offer a wider range of options.

    For solving most complex problems, two heads really are better than one. By sharing the depth and breadth of your own experience and knowledge, you can help your direct reports unlock new ways to solve problems. 

  • Emphasize ownership and accountability.

    Great coaches demonstrate confidence in their employees’ abilities to tackle new projects that require them to stretch their current skills and hold their employees accountable for their work. This expression of confidence and accountability can increase employees’ sense of investment in—and ownership of—their work, and therefore motivate them to do their best. 

GROW Your Employees

Grow your EmployeesI’ve used the GROW (Goal, Reality, Options, Will) methodology for several years and have found to be one of the most effective tools for effective coaching. I wrote about it here a while ago, but since then I’ve found that many of my clients and students want a fuller explanation of it. So here’s an expanded overview of what the GROW approach entails.

  • Goal: After establishing a stretch goal for your employee, plan on multiple coaching sessions to help the employee move outside their comfort zone. Each coaching session should have a short-term goal that fits into the longer-term objective. (In the example below, for example, you’re pushing the employee to develop their skill in influencing without authority; however, the employee still relies on you to solve the problem when another department continually misses deadlines.)
  • Reality: Ask probing questions to understand the current status of the project, how the employee knows that this is information is accurate, the reasons why the project has its current status, and what steps the employee has taken to advance (or complete) the project.
  • Options: Now it’s time to push the employee to come up with other options or new possibilities that they may not have envisioned. One technique I’ve used successfully is to tell someone to brainstorm on their own for the next hour (so I know that they are actively thinking of—and learning—new ways to approach problem solving), then come back to me with pros and cons for each new idea they’ve identified. 
  • Will: If your employee gets stuck on the previous step, you may have to help (“Have you thought about X?”), but try to stay away from telling the employee what to do next. Leave the choice up to them. For urgent projects, monitor the situation more closely (especially if you don’t think the employee made the right choice), but try to give some space so that the employee can test their theory and (hopefully) quickly move to Plan B if things don’t going well. 

GROW Coaching Method: Sample Scenario

To demonstrate the GROW coaching method, I’ve created a sample scenario below (you see my questions for each step and possible employee responses). Hopefully this is helpful for incorporating this methodology in your day-to-day people leadership plan.

THE SITUATION: One of your employees needs data from another department by the 5th of each month. The other department is consistently late in delivering this data (and does so only after significant follow-up). Your employee asks you for help in getting that department to deliver the information within the required timeframe. You’ve established an overall goal for your employee to develop their skills in influencing without authority in order to expand their overall leadership within the organization.

Description of this step Possible questions to ask the employee Possible responses from the employee
Goal Determine what you and the employee want to accomplish in this coaching session.

Determine the focus of coaching.

“What would you like to achieve during this session (that feeds into the overall goal of your employee developing their influencing skills)?

(Alternatively, you can state, “This is what I would like to accomplish during this coaching session.”)

“I’m not getting support from another team.”

“I want to develop a plan for getting support and overcoming resistance.”

Reality Raise awareness of the present reality.

Examine how the current situation is affecting the goal.

“What do you think is the issue? (And how do you know this is accurate?)”

“How often does this occur?”

“Are there other relevant factors?”

“What have you done or tried already?”

“They just don’t care about the deadline.” (This may be an initial response. By asking probing questions, you may shed light on other possible explanations, such as “They are very busy with their own workload and don’t see the benefit in providing data to other teams.”)

“They occasionally get the data in on time.”

“They seem to be busy all the time.”

“I send them multiple requests and have no choice but to wait until they finally provide the data I need.”

Options Identify and assess options.

Encourage solution-focused thinking and brainstorming. 

“What prevents you from achieving your goals?”

“Are there others to whom you could reach out for assistance?”

“What options are available?”

“What is your preferred option?”

“I can escalate to their manager, but I’m concerned that it may not work all the time. Escalation may also cause hard feelings.”

  • Option 1: “I wil be more assertive and spend time in front of them (rather than just sending them e-mail) until the data is received.”
  • Option 2: “I will provide them with more information about why the data is important for the organization.”
  • Option 3: “I will befriend them with coffee and snacks to cultivate a more positive relationship with them.”
Will Help your employee determine their next steps (but let them choose what do to!).

Have your employee develop an action plan and build momentum.

“What are your next steps?”

“What is your timeframe?”

“Can you anticipate anything that might get in your way (and how you might work around it)?”

“What support do you need from me?”

“When I request the data next month, I will use option 2 and provide more detail about why I need it. I will also employ option 1.““Option 3 is a longer process, but I will start on it immediately in hopes of smoothing out future requests for this data.”

“No support is needed for this at this point. I will try out these options and see how they work. “

(To download an editable coaching worksheet that you can use with your own employees, click here.)  

Coaching from Afar

Coaching from afarHow does coaching change when we’re all working from home? 

First, let me emphasize that good coaching is good coaching. That holds true whether you and your employee are seated on opposite sides of the same desk or looking at each other in a virtual meeting. Regardless of the setting, the foundations of effective coaching remain the same: intentionality and consistency.

If you have the best of intentions to communicate regularly, “out of sight, out of mind” can still rear its ugly head. Even when everyone is in the office, it’s easy for managers to focus on the tasks on their own plates and not spend enough time checking in on—and developing—their direct reports. When everyone’s in a shared physical workplace, at least there’s the possibility of having ad-hoc meetings (“Hey, glad I caught you! Let’s go grab a quick coffee and chat!”). But those aren’t even an option when everyone is geographically scattered.

That’s why when everyone is working remotely and not seeing each other regularly in the office, it’s more critical than ever to schedule—and follow through on—weekly check-ins. At the start of each week, block out time on your calendar for employee coaching, then treat that time as sacred (because frequent rescheduling sends a “you’re not a priority” message to your employees). You need to be fully present (and free of distractions) to provide good coaching, so be sure to choose times when you can truly focus your energies on being the coach you wish you had had. 

These meetings aren’t just for making sure that projects are on schedule. Even though the concept of an “office” has changed recently, that doesn’t mean that your employees, your company, and you have stopped pursuing growth opportunities and working toward goals. 

Coaching is still essential. In fact, it may even be more essential than ever now, as employees increasingly look to their leaders for guidance during these uncertain times. If you have any specific suggestions for how coach remotely under the current circumstances, please share them!

Good luck—and get coaching!  

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