Ask most managers what the word ‘Coaching’ means to them, and they’ll probably say ‘showing people how to do the job’.  What I’ve been learning in recent years is that what they’re describing should really be called either ‘Training’ or ‘Mentoring’.

Of course team members need to be trained properly in how to carry out their tasks.  That’s the job of the training team.  They may come to you for advice on how you progressed in your own career so they can take guidance from you.  That’s OK too, although there is a strong argument that you shouldn’t mentor members of your own team.  The line between Management and Mentoring can get blurred very easily, and you run the risk of rendering both activities more difficult and less effective.

Coaching is based on a strong belief in human potential: i.e. that the coachee does in fact have the answers within them.  They have the intelligence and creativity to solve their own problems, without you having to tell them what the solution is.  It can often be very tempting to give them the answer, to ‘put them out of their misery’.  Remember – the discomfort may be more on your side than theirs.

The keys to good coaching are two sides of the same coin: asking questions, and actively listening to what they say and don’t say.  And the top tip: keep the questions open.  At all costs, avoid the temptation to ask closed questions, or pretty soon you’ll be indirectly telling them what to do.  “Don’t you think it might be a good idea if you were to … “ or “Have you tried doing such-and-such?” are not open questions – they’re leading questions!

Active listening should also encompass noticing changes in their tone of voice, their body language, just as much as the words they’re saying.  Are they comfortable with long silences?  Does their energy change?  What emotions are they experiencing?  Do they sound more animated when they talk about certain things?

I did a coaching session recently with a regional sales manager, who didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic until the conversation took us somewhat off-piste.  As well as his ‘day’ job, which he does mostly from his home office, he also helps run his family farm.  He talked about himself and his ten-year old daughter helping to birth a calf the previous week, and the wonder and joy they both felt during and after this beautiful experience.  His energy was completely different from when he was talking about ‘work’.  Retelling this episode made him realise that he needed to re-prioritise all the conflicting demands on his time, so that he could have more time with his family – and do his job better.  Very powerful stuff.

It also greatly increased the level of trust between him and me.  And trust is the cornerstone of all great teams.  If I had told him he needed to re-prioritise, I would have been just another nagging voice telling him what to do.  He worked it out for himself, which is infinitely more powerful and long-lasting.