Do coaches pay tax (part one: time on task)

I love coaching

I like to believe that coaching has a really positive impact on the person being coached. At best it is a “generative conversation” that leads to either new action or new insight. I have heard this summarised as discovering what is “next or new.”

When coaching an individual, the conversation is one sided because it is all about, and all for the benefit of, the person being coached. This differs from collaborative problem solving where both participants share the burden of thinking, listening and talking. It also differs from normal conversations over coffee which are often a free exchange of ideas or an experience of feeling connected to another human, without any agenda.

This means that when coaching, the coach is a thinking partner and not a guru. The coach focuses on listening while the other person (the thinker) expresses and explores their thinking. It would be great if the coach could interpret and explain that thinking, like a psychologist, or ponder it and give wise advice, like a sage, but this is not coaching. In coaching the thinking partner hears what is said (or often not said) and reflects that back so that the thinker can see what their thinking looks like. This involves listening, questioning and summarising but not really any problem solving. The result is that the thinker can observe themes, insights, gaps and biases in their own thinking, allowing them to either understand something new or to find the motivation to move to action on something they have already decided that they should do.

This is a great thing to be a part of, whether you are the coach or the thinker.

Unfortunately, as a coach, I do not get to spend all my time actually in these great coaching conversations.

Like all other jobs there are things that distract me from the actual coaching. Some of these things are just bureaucracy or distraction (unnecessary waste) and others are necessary to enable the actual coaching to occur (necessary waste). I measure these roughly by looking at my “time on task.” I will discuss time on task in this article.

Even when I am coaching someone there is often a portion of the conversation that is not about growth but rather about other things. These include banter (saying good morning), mindset tax (dealing with people having a fixed mindset), building trust to enable robust conversations and thinking traps (catastrophising or getting stuck in a way of thinking that inhibits insight). These are all part of coaching and dealing with them is an important part of the job. However they are often the things stopping someone from fully exploring the “new or next” results I get excited by. I loved the term mindset tax when I heard it, so I have stolen the term to create a more generic “tax” that I will call “coaching tax.” I will cover coaching tax in my next article.

Coaching tax – the frustrating thinking effort that we go through to enable insights

Time on task

I often think of “time on task” as a good measure of whether I am adding value as a coach. Time on task is the percentage of time I spend coaching, rather than going to management meetings, talking to other coaches about coaching, setting up coaching engagements, reviewing Jira data to find the insights to share with teams etc.

If I am spending more time “not coaching” than coaching, then it is harder to have an impact than if I am fully on task, coaching and sharing insights.

So if I want to be effective, then I want to spend my time either enabling my coaching or actually coaching. The rest of the time I spend is potentially wasteful.

A simple way to assess this is to just look at your diary for each day of the week. For an external coach I guess you need to look at the time assigned to a client, but for me these days my entire diary is basically my dataset because I work as an internal coach. Look at what time is spent on interacting with people to coach them and then look at what time is spent not doing that. This gives a simple ratio that you can call time on task. You will never be 100% on task but you can consciously monitor it and experiment with how to improve it.

A slightly more nuanced view

Some things though are kind of on task. This could include observing the person or team I coach in action or it could include assessing the data they have about the tools they use to track their work (product metrics, Jira data, Product Board, OKR things, SLA’s, Zendesk, bugs and issues etc).

Tracking this work is necessary for coaching teams and sometimes individuals. In fact one of the challenges of remote coaching (being online or in a different office) is that you may not have sufficient access to data and the observing people “in the wild.” It is possible to coach without this insight if you are working only as a thinking partner, but it is a significant constraint if you are meant to be designing training or making recommendations for improvement. In fact it is like looking out a window or a video feed when observing a sunset – you get a picture of things but you do not get the full nuance and majesty of the experience.

Then there are other things, such as comparing notes with other coaches and updating management so they have some faith in what you are doing.

These things are necessary, but I am not sure if they are purely on task because insight comes from interacting with the coach and these are examples of the coach gaining perspective or interacting with others. They therefore represent the potential value of coaching but not the realisation of it.

So I guess you could look at three things if you want to optimise the focus of your coaching:

On task (coaching)On task (context)Not on task
Drop in session with Zac
Running retro
Delivering feedback to Kim
Planned coaching with Marie
Run course on listening
Reviewing Jira
Observing sprint
Interviewing stakeholder
Self development
Attending all-hands
Updating management
A fictional table of time on task

At some points in the coaching journey I will be deliberately on task (gaining context) and at other points I will be on task (actually coaching someone).

A more nuanced look could also dig into how much of my on-task time is with a particular team (the web team or the management team) or person (the scrum master or the tech guru). You could also split it into a more deliberate look at where you spend your time versus where you see the potential leverage of spending your time. I do this with my own, very basic, model that I shared in an article a while ago.

I sometimes formalise this coaching breakdown in a coaching agreement, though I like to keep the “time on task” measure among the coaches because I always seem to be embarrassed about how little of my time is spent at the pointy end of actually coaching someone. Maybe that is something I should focus on in the future, but in my defence I do actively manage it and I use it to nudge myself to being deliberate in gaining context and getting to the actual coaching conversations.

My simple coaching model – sometimes “coaching” is not pure “coaching”

Using these rough ideas I find I can be more deliberate with where I spend my time. Even when I am right on task though, not every conversation turns out the be “generative” leading to great insights about what to do next or discovering something new.

So I will tackle the topic of “Coaching Tax” next week.


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