Coaching moments

Many of us find ourselves in a position to coach without it being our profession or indeed without having had much training in how to coach.

Whether you are a manager being expected to coach your direct reports or a parent coaching the soccer team the prospect of coaching can feel a bit overwhelming. What do I say? When do I say it? How will I know if I am doing it right?

A good place to start is by looking for coaching moments. These are opportunities to ask a question which enables the recipient to deepen their understanding of the situation and hence create the possibility for learning and growth. You don't need to be an expert, just observant and willing to ask a powerful question.

Lets look at an example, Feeling stuck. The recipient is stuck, they can’t make progress on the business project/fitness plan. Rather than telling them what to do the coach can ask a powerful question such as: “What is the first step?”

Think about that question for a moment in relation to something that you are stuck with. It enables the recipient to generate perspective and commit to something manageable which frequently unblocks the whole situation.

Use it or lose it

This week I went to Yoga for the first time in a month. Summer holidays, mine and the teacher’s, had meant a break. The class was a horror show for me. My strength had declined, co-ordination was all over the place and as for my balance…

In contrast I also did running drills for the first time in month. They were smooth and with no discernible quality difference from a month ago. So what was going on?

Yoga is a newish skill for me in the last couple of years. I practice once or twice a week with gaps here and there when I’m away on business. The result is that the movement patterns aren’t yet burned into my deep memory. Any let up in practice and I quickly start to go backwards in my skill level.

Running is a different game. I’ve been doing it since I was 18 months old. I’ve practiced specific technical drills countless times. The nerve cells in the relevant pathways are coated deeply in myelin and the complex skills of those drills are now as good as unforgettable.

Sport shines a bright spotlight on this learning regression when we miss practice but what about less visible skills. The kind of stuff we ‘learn’ on training courses at work and then practice only periodically while kidding ourselves and our boss that we really have improved.

Great training may start with an inspiring experience to show us new skills and get us going but it requires sustained, focused practice over an extended period of time to really shift our skill level to the point where it becomes automatic. It is one of the big challenges of the time for businesses - how to create that learning environment for employees (and suppliers, customers and freelancers?). There is much that can be learned from elite performers in sport and the arts when it comes to designing learning programs.

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When 'No compromise' becomes 'Win at all costs'

For several years now the mantra of UK Sport, the body which largely funds the British Olympic Sports, has been ‘No Comprise’. It is an approach which has brought massive success as measured by medals in the last 3 Summer Olympics.

Similar mantras have been adopted in business in pursuit of outstanding results and there is much business literature which focuses on these success stories. But what happens at the edge, when ‘No compromise’ morphs into ‘Win at all costs’ and what can organisations do to ensure that they stay true to their original intentions?

In recent years we have seen many examples of where ‘No Compromise’ strays into grey areas or even worse. In sport we have the bullying allegations at British Cycling, the McLaren 'spygate', Half Marathon winners cutting the course and the notorious Jiffy bag/shoddy medical record keeping at Team Sky. Businesses have equally been caught short. Tesco was so focused on sales targets that it lost sight of the accounting rules and importance of its relationships with suppliers while Volkswagen simply falsified emissions data because ‘everybody else does it’.

How do professional organisations run by smart people get themselves into these situations?

In pursuit of results ‘No compromise’ can lead people to stray into grey areas, especially when it comes to behaviour. The message is clear, results come first everything else second. What follows is not necessarily illegal but it is often unethical and certainly not what the original ‘No compromise’ approach envisaged. From there it is a very short step to breaking the rules when the pressure is really on to deliver results.

What can leaders do to ensure that their organisation avoid this trap?

When setting difficult targets with potentially big negative consequences there is a huge responsibility to ensure that the targets are realistic and that the resources to achieve them are available. If you are an Olympic sport with a large percentage of your future funding (and no alternative sources) determined by the number of medals that you win then straying into the grey zone becomes an option to preserve your funding. If you are a Retail or Auto Executive with impossible sales targets and your job on the line, then stepping over the line can become tempting – especially if you witness others doing it. If your people don’t believe that they can achieve the goal fairly then you are exposing your organisation to the risk that will achieve it unfairly with all the consequences that entails.

Leaders also need to be absolutely clear about where the boundaries lie. If the line is drawn at illegal/against the rules then you are inviting people to step into the grey areas, especially as every individual will have their own interpretation of what is ethical based on their own values and experiences. Leaders need to set the standard of behaviour expected and role model it visibly, calling out situations where the standard drops. The obvious consequence of this is if that standards come first then sometimes the results will not be achieved.

If you want to avoid the reputational damage that comes with straying into the grey areas of ‘No compromise’ then standards of behaviour have to come before results.