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How to Coach to help Organisational Change

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Time to change

Jo barely made eye contact. Even over the video call, she came across as downtrodden, disempowered and hopeless; an engineering manager in name only. She’d been the same in previous meetings – I’d been doing business improvement consulting with the SAAS company for long enough to have met most of the senior team a few times.

But this time it was different. This was a coaching session, not consulting – and that made all the difference. Instead of interrogating her with a set of questions, and giving my opinions, consultant-style – I was there specifically to help her work out her own best way forward.  

Coaching is largely about listening, with a few key questions to help the client clarify their thinking. It’s a practical approach to help people who are struggling, or who would value help in achieving their full potential – and tends to be particularly useful at times of organisational change. Every company has few key folks who could have a huge positive business impact with the help of some coaching to tweak their approach.

So it proved with Jo. She shared issues that had been burning away at her – for several years. By the end of the first meeting, her phrasing had changed spontaneously from “What do they want from me?” to “What do I want?”. 

That’s huge – she’d managed to shift her mentality away from reacting to others’ demands, to realising that she had her own value to add to the company – and herself.

Second meeting – she was on fire to tell me everything that had happened. She’d stepped forward: she was telling people what she believed the best course of action was, instead of accepting the constant request to do it quickly (and badly). She had spent a lot more time with her team and said thoughtfully of a junior, “You know, I really gotta bring him out of his shell”. Nice.

Then there was Sam. He was pretty much the opposite to Jo – he was full of energy and ideas for ways to help the company. That was also his downfall – his time was spent helping others and doing everything but his own work; he was his own lowest priority. And with the changes I had introduced, this gap was getting very visible – as it had with Jo. So, time for coaching. 

We looked into what he got from helping others; what he’d get if he focused on his own work; what would happen if he said ‘No’ occasionally; his discomfort with prioritising his own work. Again – two weeks later, he’d achieved far more than he’d planned. Once he started, he discovered that breaking the lifetime habit was less difficult than he’d thought; people didn’t hate him for saying ‘No’ – and it felt good to focus on himself.

These are just two examples of how organisational change (in this case, a clarification of role, structure and expectations which had previously been left undefined) can have impact on people; and of how coaching can help. 

I’ve been a consultant working in project management and company operations for decades; I’ve helped a wide range of companies define and improve their tools and processes, and manage their projects and operations more efficiently. But adding coaching to consultancy has helped hugely in the success of the changes are introduced – and ultimately, the business’ success, and people’s happiness and pride in their job. This article should equip you with the basics of what coaching is, how and when it can help, and how anyone can start coaching.

What is coaching?

The definition of coaching, according to the International Coaching Federation (the ICF – the biggest global coaching body), is:

partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.

This means that: as a coach, you’re wholly focused on the client, and questioning them to help them explore and clarify their thoughts. This is pretty much the opposite of being a consultant, where you’re telling clients your opinion, based on your experience and expertise. The client is the expert – in themselves and their situation. Coaching is similar to psychotherapy, with emphasis on listening and questions. But it’s far more goal and action focused, and tends to be of huge practical value for businesses in helping people be at their professional – and personal – best.

And one of the great things about coaching is that everyone can do it. Yes, studying it in detail and getting a qualification (such as the ICF’s accreditations) will help in understanding the psychological models, neuroscience and using the many coaching tools to support behaviour change. However, at its simplest, anyone can immediately start to use some coaching techniques to improve the ‘people’ side of change and project management.

When to use coaching

Coaching tends to be most useful when you’re working with someone who wants to modify their behaviour – which often is highlighted when the organisation is going through change. Perhaps they’ve moved into a leadership role and their old behaviours no longer fit; maybe they lack confidence, or have built up some unproductive habits, from people-pleasing to being excessively abrasive. 

For coaching to work, the person being coached – the ‘coachee’ – needs to be aware of and want some change. So, for example, if you want an employee to be more proactive but they themselves don’t feel any urge to change – coaching is unlikely to help. If they’ve expressed that there’s something they’d like to adjust – whether it’s finding ways to handle conflict, or leadership skills – you can discuss whether they’d be interested in coaching for that area. Using it to achieve your own ends isn’t coaching.

Four tips

With all this in mind, here are four tips to help you start coaching at work:

1. Clarify at the start

Make your coaching sessions separate from ‘normal’ work conversations. Set aside a specific slot dedicated to coaching, where you’ll deliberately take a different approach. Discuss with them what coaching is and how it will differ, before you start – get your expectations aligned. This is helpful to get you both into a different mindset and step away from your normal roles and ways of working. Mixing coaching with consulting or managing in the same conversation is difficult, and less likely to succeed than dedicated time.

An essential part of this clarity, is confidentiality. In a coaching environment, the coachee needs to be able to trust you with more deeply personal information than they might normally. They’ll need to know that this won’t be shared or used outside the context of the coaching conversations. A relationship of trust is crucial to good coaching – which is part of why it can be tricky to build into an existing work relationship. So discuss this in detail. 

In coaching terms, all this is called ‘contracting’ and is an essential part of every coaching conversation.

2. The GROW Structure 

This is probably the simplest coaching structure for anyone to use in a work context. It was originally articulated by one of the main original business coaches, Sir John Whitmore, back in the 80s and 90s, and still one of the most popular today. For far more information, see his main book ‘Coaching for performance’ – or videos such as this one of him talking about coaching, and one by his company summarising the GROW model. While the below points are broadly in the order of discussion, it’s normal to jump back and forth between the areas occasionally during the conversation. Aim to allow roughly a quarter of the time for each area – or at least, avoid glossing over one area in just a couple of minutes.  

  • Goal – where does the coachee want to get to today?
    • Take time to explore this and get clear. Flesh out what a successful session would look like. Revisit the goal occasionally during the conversation – are we making good progress towards the goal? Is this still the best goal for this conversation? How does what the coachee has just said, impact the goal?
  • Reality – what is the current ‘reality’, the situation for the coachee?
    • This is the area where coachees can tend to spend a lot of time, if there are many stories to tell. If this is taking too long – check with them if this is the best use of their time today. Sometimes people need to vent and be less ‘productive’ – discuss this and let the coachee choose whether to continue venting. Your role as coach is to keep an eye on the time and reflect what’s happening; the agenda is ultimately their choice.
  • Options – what are the options for moving forward?
    • Let the coachee generate ideas and keep moving towards the goal. Avoid getting tied to one solution and refining it at the start. Summarise and reflect back what they’ve got to so far, and keep asking ‘and what else might be possible?’. Also avoid asking leading questions or telling them the brilliant ideas that you’ve had – this can be the most difficult area for the coach! Only when the coachee has no more ideas to give, might you suggest something they haven’t thought of – and even then, offer it without attachment or enthusiastic detail; let them reject, ignore or change it.
  • Will – what actions will the coachee will commit to?
    • Get crisp on this – what exactly will they do; when; what are the steps; what are the risks / potential blockers; what could help with success? How committed are they to this path – and what would increase this? You could offer to help them, whether by holding them accountable, or in some more practical way – but almost all the work should stay with the coachee to do.

3. The Coaching Conversation: silence, questions, reflections 

As a coach, your side of the conversation is relatively little – but important. 

  • Silence. Give the coachee lots of time to think. Don’t jump in with your opinion, or the next question. Look closely at them – you’ll often realise they’re thinking, and talking will interrupt the thought process. For more about the power of silence, see Nancy Kline’s ‘Time to think’
  • Powerful questions.
    • Keep the questions open, with a view to understanding where the coachee is coming from – questions that help them discover deeper understanding for themselves. A colleague would ask ‘Have you tried X?’ – a coach would ask ‘What have you tried?’.  
    • Avoid ‘Why’ questions – these tend to lead to defensive answers.
    • Keep it simple – ask single simple questions; don’t stack a complex set of thoughts and questions together. 
    • But most importantly – focus just on questions; avoid giving answers or talking at any length yourself. This session is for them to talk.
  • Reflections.
    • Listen closely – and really listen; look at how they’re coming across; absorb what’s behind their way of saying things. 
    • Reflect back what you’re noticing – do they seem energised or subdued when talking about something; have they used a particular phrase multiple times; do you sense there’s something they’re not saying; is the way they’re coming across now one that could cause issues? Again, treat these lightly: you could be wrong – but what you’re picking up could help them explore something important. 
    • Summarise and paraphrase occasionally during the sessions – using their exact wording, if you can. This can help them move on, or generate new options – or help them realise that when they hear someone else say it, it sounds odd (“So, because you did a bad presentation when you had the flu, you might be fired – do I understand you correctly?”). 
    • Get the coachee to summarise for themselves (and maybe make notes) at the end – their own action plan, in their own words.

4. Attitude – the coaching approach

What underlies all this – and what the coachee will perceive  – is your attitude. As their coach, you need to regard the coachee as the expert in their own life; they are capable of finding the best solutions for their problems. Aim for an attitude of curiosity, and what coaches call ‘unconditional positive regard’ (as popularised by Carl Rogers). 

Your normal working relationship with the person might be friendly or fraught; you might have a lot of previous opinions about them. Try to discard all this and discover the person anew. This can be difficult – it is another reason that having an external coach can be helpful. But if you can let go of your preconceptions, withhold judgements, and just happily explore what the coachee is feeling, with respect for their ability to find the best way forward for them – you’ll be more likely to establish a trusting relationship and get successful outcomes from the coaching. And you’ll probably find that this changed approach helps your relationship more permanently.

Coaching in a nutshell

Coaching is a powerful tool for professional and personal development. In the business context, it can be tremendously useful in helping people adapt to change, and live up to their potential. Whether you’re delivering projects or changing a whole company, you’re working with people – and they make the biggest difference. No matter how many process, tool and template changes you make, the biggest impact will come from helping the people around you perform at their best. Coaching is the key to this. 

Set aside time; agree how you’ll work; listen with rapt regard and curiosity; ask open questions for clarity; reflect back what you’re picking up; use the GROW structure to get to solid outcomes. Use these to get to a solid foundation of coaching – and reflect back on each session: what worked, what didn’t, what to improve for next time.

Above all else – keep learning and reading about coaching! You can never get too good at coaching – and it’s something that almost everyone will enjoy and benefit from.