Coaching people at work. How can I learn it?

When I first started work, many years ago, people spoke a lot about “leader as coach,” and “Self-directed careers.”

The idea that any team leader and any senior technician, administrator or artisan was also a teacher of others became ingrained into my expectations myself and those that I worked with. Similarly, the idea that we were all responsible for our own careers meant that everyone was a leader.

This gave me an awesome start to what has been a divergent and luck driven career, because it meant that I was being taught leadership, learning and teaching from the first days in my career. I like to think we still teach these things to each new person at work, but I sometimes think that I somehow drew the lucky straw and that many others miss out on this in their early careers.

At first I learned that leadership meant “servant leadership,” or the ability to serve others. Then I learned about something called “situational leadership,” which meant that the way you serve others depended on the situation that you and “the others” found yourselves in.” Both of these have turned out to be applicable in every job I have had, even short term projects and assignments.

So it is no surprise that most of my leadership roles (and coaching roles) have been more about my ability to discover and champion the competency of others, rather than being about my own competence. This probably differentiates me from great leaders who depend on strategy thinking, clear goal setting and being driven to deliver results.

Don’t get me wrong – I believe that clear goal setting (for example) is something that is core to good leadership and I practice to get better at it. I also believe that I have many strengths other than “benefiting from the competence of others”.

But when I have been in a leadership role, the general pattern of my success has, in all honesty, been to identify, respect and benefit from the competence of others. My very best successes were also when I was able to help others identify and leverage their strengths and to understand their own stories so that they could write the next chapter for themselves.

Sometimes seeing others start to flourish gave me to energy to tackle to the more painful and unsatisfying parts of my own work, which helped me drive myself harder. Mostly though, I was in the right team as it really came together and really flourished. People tell me that I helped them see their potential but the truth is that I really benefited from them doing great work at just the right time.

As a result, I think I am also good at recognising birds of a feather (people with a similar propensity for coaching others and also giving them the space and credit to succeed with me in tow). I also like to think that I can help others become better at “identifying, building, unleashing and benefiting from the competence of others.”

Based on that, I recently told someone that “you are good at coaching people, you should probably do more of that.”

Unfortunately he exhibited one of the things that I think differentiates natural coaches from others. He displayed curiosity and asked “what do you mean by that and where should I learn about it?”.

I had to stop and think about my answer and when I gave it enough thought, I decided that it would be worth sharing it here.

To be good at coaching other people you need to make some decisions about yourself and you need to follow through on these. Then you need to practice some really basic, core skills. It is not hard if you focus on these and it is nearly impossible if you do not.

This is the starting point:

  • You have to be curious about others and also be hopeful that they will do well.
    • It is incredibly hard to coach others if you are not curious to understand their perspective or you want them to fail. This seems kind of obvious to me, but this is still the real starting point and it is worth calling it out.
  • Next you need to be able to build two core competencies
    • Create mutual trust with the people you want to help; and
    • Facilitate conversations with them that are “generative,” which means that the conversation helps them grow.

There are many things that you can add to your kitbag to become a great coach, but I think these few things are really the foundation of all coaching.

But building trust and holding conversations that are “generative” is not about being charismatic or being a scintillating conversationalist. I am sure these things would help a lot, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient.

So where would I start if I wanted to move from being a professional manager/leader to a specialist in benefiting from the competence of others, assuming that I was curious and hopeful for others and that I wanted to create good trust and good generative conversations?

Creating the trust needed to coach

There are many books about the culture an organisation should have and about influencing people. However I think the best starting point is to read “Smart Trust,” by Stephen Covey, Greg Link and Rebecca Merril.

Why this book? Because it is based on creating trust in a low trust world. It gets straight into the challenge of avoiding blind trust and also avoiding distrust. It also focuses on practical steps to be able to trust yourself, build your credibility and extend trust to others.

Understanding what good conversations look like

There are quite a few good books on coaching and on having robust, meaningful conversations. One of my favourites is “Fierce Conversations,” By Susan Scott. It gets right into the detail of how to understand different perspectives, ask others tough questions in a respectful way and present you own views and issues to others.

It also assumes that you will NOT actually understand what others are thinking. I believe that is the best place to start in a conversation that is generative, even if you are empathetic and good at listening.

Getting straight into coaching conversations

People who want to coach others are often already reasonably good at having meaningful conversations, trusting others and building trust in themselves. So it might be best to jump straight to a book on coaching, if you only have the energy to get through one book.

It is possible to have great conversations with people, with them seeking you out for your advice and insight. Sadly this actually means that you and they are relying on your competence and not theirs. Instead, if you want a simple and practical place to start with coaching others (and relying on their ability to learn to solve problems) then a specialist book on coaching is a good place to start.

I think the best starting point (and a good book to go back to when you are experienced) is “The Coaching Habit,” by Michael Bungay Stanier.

Once you have read that, there are many great books I could recommend that are as good, or potentially better as a place to learn good coaching. However I think this book gets straight to the point of shifting from advising and teaching others to really listening to them and helping them to grow.

But those are all books

It seems odd to suggest reading a book when you want to learn about working better with people. Maybe it is my bias in my own preferred learning. It is my dark secret as an agile coach that I often prefer sitting and reading a book rather than interacting with individuals and collaborating with customers.

So maybe the best place to start is to be curious and care about others and then just work on it yourself. However I think that you will already be doing some coaching and collaboration naturally if you are already on the journey and you will already have both good and bad habits in doing them.

So the best places to learn to really bring out your ability to coach and then to really identify, develop, unleash and benefit from others is to either get yourself a coach or to find a resource that helps you take a step back and reflect on what you are currently doing and what you could enhance, shift. Books are a good way of doing that.

Anyway those are my views on where to start.

  1. Decide to be both curious and interested in the growth and success of others
  2. Learn to build trust
  3. Understand what good interaction and conversations look like
  4. Practice generative conversations (conversations that are designed to help others grow and succeed).

It is worth practicing each of these – and it is worth pausing to reflect with either a book on each of topics 2-4, or a coach/peer who wants to help you get better at these area.

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