In Part 1 of this two-part article, we discussed the purpose of coaching, how effective coaching strengthens accountability and how asking “coaching questions” challenges people to own and expand their capacity.

We called the latter Coaching Skill 1. How many of you took the test we suggested to ‘Count your Questions?’

Coaching Skill 2: Building Connections

Great coaches have a person-to-person connection with those they are helping to develop. They let people inside their heads, sharing their visions and passions as well as their strategic concerns and dilemmas. Those around them feel “in touch” with the person in charge. They tell stories about their own professional development, making it clear that growth is expected.

When Dave Manager’s organization, which we introduced in Part 1, started delivering more vigorous coaching to the next level of staff members, he allowed himself to be coached by one of his direct reports in front of everyone at a staff meeting. It was not rehearsed.

Dave Manager describes the conversation as follows: The direct report “went down a path of asking some pointed questions about a position that I had taken. I put myself out there in front of a lot of people who work in our organization and it was very powerful. It would be very difficult for me to subscribe to coaching if I’m not willing to do it myself,” Dave Manager said. “After that, it was a very easy sell for the rest of the organization.”

Effective coaches are on a mission to know more about their people. They make the most of time spent traveling or lunching together by asking questions like, “What are your most challenging business relationships?” and “What projects are you most excited about?” They foster innovation by asking, “What skills do you have to offer our organization that we aren’t currently tapping?” Thinking out loud with a coach allows strategic thinking to emerge.

A coach’s job is not to “fix” frustrations and concerns, but it is absolutely their job to find out about them. “From a coaching view, you are more curiosity-driven; you’re going to encourage others to think for themselves instead of following your lead. It shouldn’t be about pleasing me, but it should be about making improvements. It is about encouraging imagination and thinking about other possibilities, and taking more ownership,” Dave said.

Strong coaches are free of the illusion that they must have all the answers. They know self-confidence grows when people overcome obstacles themselves, not from extra support. Coaches expect discipline, but foster an atmosphere of adventure and creativity.

Coaching Skill 3: Challenge Through Penetrating Insight

When a connection is established, the door to challenge automatically opens. But many leaders hesitate to walk through. Great coaches keep people on their toes.

In a multi-family dealership, a second-generation junior manager complained to a first generation senior manager about the people who worked for him. “My team hasn’t stepped up,” he complained. She responded with a clever question: “Do you think of yourself as a victim here?” The junior manager was stopped in his tracks, and it got him thinking. “How good are you at building a strong team?” she calmly but pointedly asked. She had the gumption to shake him up.

Coaches act that way. They develop penetrating insights about the professional blind spots of those they want to develop, and then challenge people to face them. Along with technical and business skills, they pay attention to people skills. Whether a talented team member is hesitant or arrogant, clumsy-with-ambition or talented-but-lazy, a true coach skillfully puts what they see on the table.

Great coaches “go for it” when it comes to giving people all the insight they have in the service of professional growth. The question: “Do you want to know what I think about you?” is not out of bounds. Subordinates are wondering anyway, and they will make up the answers if they are not hearing them directly. True coaches are blessed with the opportunity to evaluate how various team members respond to this level of challenge. The most mature rise up to meet it; the least mature can’t handle it.

“It is not about being comfortable, it is about the challenge. We face challenges every day in our profession. It is about development, self-discovery. With coaching, we have to be able to sit back and accept the challenge that it is not always going to be good news, but if you’re open to listening, you can take it and do something with it,” Dave Manager said.

Enhancing Straight Talk with Humility

The value of challenging insights is enhanced by humility. One great coach was known to say, “I’m not the sharpest guy when it comes to client relations, but here is what I see when I watch you operate.” He would then add: “Is there anything in what I’m saying that could help you, or do you think I’m off track?”

If a coach has shared his or her own flaws and efforts to mature as a professional, penetrating feedback is less likely to be taken personally. What is more likely is the coach’s value will increase exponentially. A top performer of one of our clients, who is receiving great coaching, said, “When I get approached by other organizations, I think to myself, ‘This kind of relationship is hard to replace.’”

Evaluating Your Organization’s Coaching

The biggest hurdle is making coaching a priority. For a simple test of your coaching, look at yourself. Do you have a challenging coach? Do you meet regularly with your coach to discuss growth, not projects? What would it take to make that happen? The best way to learn to be a better coach is to have one yourself. If you have a boss, ask them for more challenging coaching. If they can’t deliver it, find someone who can. If you are a leader, consider hiring a professional who can “coach the coaches,” holding them accountable for starting a cascade of better coaching throughout the organization.

Executive Summary

  • The purpose of coaching is to grow responsible team members, freeing leaders to perform higher order tasks.
  • Effective coaching drives performance by strengthening accountability.
  • A strong coach avoids perpetually giving answers; instead they ask “coaching questions” that challenge people to own tasks and expand their capacity.
  • An effective coach has a person-to-person connection, telling stories of their own professional development and getting to know their team members’ goals and challenges.
  • A strong coach should be skillfully challenging. The growth of the person being coached is a higher priority than his or her personal comfort.
  • The coach should “go for it” by sharing penetrating insights.