Coaching skills for leaders
What coaching skills does every leader need?
For the moment, let’s take it as a given that every leader needs to have good coaching skills.
In this article, we’ll start by considering how and where these coaching skills can be learnt. Then we’ll look at the specific skills to learn
Two great myths about coaching skills
The first myth is that coaching skills are some mysterious set of competencies. Only learnt by shutting yourself away in a training room for days on end, working on the skills until they take hold. Many coaching skills are an extension of strong and positive skills that many leaders possess.
And secondly, that some people are “natural” coaches, and others aren’t. There has been wonderful research carried out by people like Carol Dweck (Growth Mindset) and K Anders Ericsson (10,000 hours rule). Their work that show us clearly that these competencies can be developed if we back ourselves, and if we practice enough.
What are the top 10 coaching skills for leaders?
- Powerful questions
- Challening respectfully
- Structuring a conversation
- Holding back form giving advice
- Being brief
- Drawing out the team member strengths
- Know when not to coach
Let’s get into each of those:
No one ever went home from work complaining about their boss, saying “they just never stop listening!”. The idea that we talk more than we listen has been around for thousands of years. Yet many people don’t devote enough time to listening. And I’m not just talking about nodding and paraphrasing to show that you’ve heard, but deep listening. Listening for the worries, the anxieties, the confidence, the moral challenges. And being able to do this without judgement.
Probably the most overused and underexamined skill. Often leaders ask questions to catch people out, to lead their teams in a certain direction, to judge and critique. Questions are so much more powerful when they are used in a spirit of exploration, a spirit of curiosity, and a spirit of trust. They show that we trust that the person opposite us has the answer they need within them.
Arguably not a skill, but a choice. In coach training, we see questions, listening and pausing as the three key skills needed in order to create the powerful space for reflection. And it is pausing that gives the talker the greatest opportunity to keep going. A pause sends strong messages – take your time, we trust you, the answer will emerge. Leaders who pause well are handing over power and autonomy to their teams, and so draw out their strengths.
Taking a coaching approach doesn’t mean being weak, soft or a pushover. It does mean that when we challenge, we do so in a respectful way. We need to have no attachment to us having the “right” answer. We are looking to get the talker to explore obstacles, alternatives, blind spots and ways to move on. The challenge can create the impetus to do so.
Structuring a conversation
Some people who can access these first four skills have also learnt how to put them into a structured approach. Imagine the scene: a team member asks for a few minutes to talk through a situation they have. A good questioner will probably start with “tell me about this situation”. By contrast, a good questioner who also understands coaching structures will probably ask an extra question. “Where do you want to be by the end of this conversation?” Both ways will encourage exploration. But only the second way will give a focus on the outcome and next steps.
Holding back from giving advice
It is very hard for managers to hold back from offering a view when coaching direct reports. But it is important that they do so. If we are coaching, we are coaching, and not waiting for an opportunity to advise. Of course, there will always be critical/high stakes situations where direct instruction is needed. But mostly, handing over control of the topic AND the outcome is a skill of the manager/coach.
During a coaching conversation, the only times the manager will be talking is when asking questions, and when summarising what they have heard. If done well, this is brief. The manager encapsulates what they hear. And their questions are sharp, precise and singular. This is a skill that takes many coaches and manager coaches time to develop. But it is worth it. It keeps the focus, the attention and the time on the employee, for their benefit.
By contracting, we mean giving the team member the choice whether they want a coaching approach, or not. Some managers will offer regular coaching sessions to their reports. In these cases, it is clear that the contracting has taken plan. On a daily basis, it is those occasions when the team member asks to talk to the manager that contracting is important. Think of the scene. The team member says, “can I have a word about a situation?” At this point, the manger/coach does well to ask a clear question. “Do you want coaching, direct guidance, mentoring or a different approach, for this situation?”. Putting the choice back to the team member is empowering for all.
Drawing out the team member strengths
Coaching isn’t about telling people they are great, or high fiving them. It is helping them to see their own strengths. Rather than offering bland praise, a manager/coach can ask “what strengths did you draw on in that situation?” “How much have you developed in this role?” “How have you surprised yourself in what you are able to do?” These and similar questions will help their team member see their hidden strengths.
Know when to not coach
We coach whenever we can, but also reserve the right to offer a more directive form of support. A wise manager decides in advance what are the types of circumstances when coaching should be suspended. They know that it will be more useful to use another approach adopted. Such a list may look like:
- Imminent high stakes mistakes for the organisation/team member.
- High levels of stress for the team member, that are not reducing with a coaching approach.
- Personal or professional risk, safety or wellbeing issues.
In the fullness of time managers who learn to coach find their list becomes smaller. Their temptation to stop coaching is reserved for only critical situations.
Final thoughts and suggestions
Did you like the list? Does it resonate with you? And can you recognise the skills that you may already have in place? Other experienced coaches may offer different lists (most would agree with the first four!). So, don’t take this as gospel – just the view of this coach trainer.
If you want to improve, get some feedback on how well you are using these skills. Then start thinking about how you can improve them.
Happy coaching and happy managing
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Charlie Warshawski is a leadership coach and coach trainer. He runs an accredited coach training organisation, Love Your Coaching, offering coaching qualifications. In his coaching, he works 1:1 with leaders, business owners and entrepreneurs, supporting them on topics that are both professional and personal – according to their needs
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