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What It Takes to Coach Your People

Just holding reviews and giving advice is not enough. To be a true leader-coach, you must develop and motivate your direct reports — find out how.

You know you need to coach your employees. If they perform well, you perform well.

And if you aren’t currently measured on your “ability to coach and develop others” — that’s likely to change soon.

Coaching provided by outside experts continues to be important and valuable, but increasingly, organizations are looking at on-the-job coaching as a vital tool for developing talent and meeting performance goals. And you, the manager, play the key role.

The problem is that leaders are being held accountable for developing others, but few are taught coaching skills or know effective ways to coach others. So they end up giving reviews and giving advice, but they don’t really understand how to have a coaching conversation with their people.

That’s why we’ve been helping leader-coaches understand how to be an effective coach, and boiling it down to specific actions.

How to Coach Your People Using LACE

4 Core Skills for Coaching Your People

At CCL, our coaching methodology is based on research and our 50 years of experience coaching leaders in organizations around the world. We believe that whether you’re a professional coach or a leader with coaching responsibilities, you need to build your coaching skills and the relationship.

Unlike some coaching models that can be convoluted and theoretical, the 4 core coaching skills we teach (adapted from our Better Conversations suite of coaching skills solutions) ensure that in the moment, you’re not trying to remember a concept or a theory, but have pragmatic guidance to follow. Just remember LACE, our acronym for the 4 core skills for coaching conversations:

  • Listen to Understand
  • Ask Powerful Questions
  • Challenge & Support
  • Establish Next Steps & Accountability

1. Listen to Understand

Listening starts with paying close attention, repeating back concepts to build understanding, and summarizing what you hear. But listening to understand goes beyond these active listening techniques for coaching others.

Listening to truly understand someone starts with recognizing that multiple levels of information are conveyed in a conversation: facts, emotions, and values. Naturally, when listening, you pay attention to the facts being discussed. But listening to understand also means paying attention to other levels. Listen too for the values behind the matter at hand, as well as the emotions that people feel. Notice not only their words, but also the tone of voice, body language, beliefs, and what seems to be most important for the other person. Listen for all 3 levels, and you will really be listening to understand the other person’s perspective.

2. Ask Powerful Questions 

This is really the ability to ask courageous questions, moving the conversation forward, and provoking new insights, rather than just providing them for the other person. Making non-directive inquiries that draw out more information and stretch the other person’s thinking is a learned skill that must be practiced. Examples of powerful questions include:

  • What else could you do?
  • Who else have you talked to about this?
  • Who else is affected in this situation?
  • How do you want the rest of the team to feel about this?

Beyond creating mutual understanding about facts, asking powerful questions like these can help uncover insights and unspoken reservations that wouldn’t have come to light otherwise.

3. Challenge and Support 

We all need our thinking challenged at times. Challenge can stress-test ideas, yield productive dialogue, and uncover unexamined assumptions. It can lead to stronger, shared understanding.

Ultimately, coaching your people is about getting them to try something different from what they have done before, or creating a significant shift in perspective. It’s about uncovering answers through inquiry, openness, and exploration, and there usually aren’t quick fixes.

But challenging someone is only effective when combined with the right amount of support. You must show that you’ve truly listened to the other person and understand their feelings and values. A challenge should be offered within an environment of safety. Taken too far — or offered at the wrong moment and without sufficient support — challenge can cause damage.

When done well, challenge builds trust and encourages honesty and transparency, rather than triggering defensiveness.

4. Establish Next Steps and Accountability 

Having an effective conversation is only one aspect of successful coaching. The real work happens later when insights are applied and new behaviors are tried. The skill of creating accountability lies in creating clear, specific, and meaningful actions.

Connect conversations to action by establishing next steps (“So, I’ll send you an email by Friday, letting you know how it went”). This ensures that the value, insights, and decisions created by a better conversation aren’t lost.

The goal of a conversation is always that those involved walk away with a shared understanding of what they discussed, and coaching conversations like these increase the chance of successful follow-through that creates growth and fosters courageous actions that lead to meaningful change.

"[The BCE] program helped me take a step back to see from a different angle how I listen, ask questions, provide feedback and support. 80% of the program is the practical part, so you can start improving immediately."

Nataliia ShpakovychStrategy Development, JTI (Better Conversations Every Day Participant)

To Coach Your People, Focus on the Relationship, Too

Leader-coaches can aim for transformation, even in 10-minute hallway conversations.

But creating the right relationship is critical. This ensures you have a safe, trusting, and productive space for coaching conversations.

To be a leader-coach, focus on boosting your self-awareness, showing vulnerability and empathy, and creating an environment of psychological safety. In addition, set a foundation of high ethical standards and ground rules of agreement.

Once you have the tools and some practice with the 4 core conversation skills under your belt, you’ll find that coaching conversations are an effective way to develop and motivate your direct reports. And you will benefit, too; as you improve your coaching skills, you’re developing leadership capabilities that have benefits in other work relationships as well. A manager’s ability to build relationships, elicit information, challenge assumptions, support others, and clarify goals goes a long way in helping you to succeed as a leader.

Create a Coaching Culture by Scaling Conversational Skills

Coaching can have individual and organizational impact. Helping individual leaders build the coaching and conversational skills they need to hold effective coaching conversations is the first step toward implementing a coaching culture across your entire company.

Everyone in your organization can benefit from using coaching skills every day. The analogy is that of an “operating system” embedded in your organization. Enabling the 4 core conversation skills can create a common language, a better foundation, and a stronger platform on which to build other solutions.

Once these 4 core skills permeate everyday conversations, it will enable leaders to build stronger relationships and enhance a culture of psychological safety, increase engagement, and foster development.

Organizations that want to truly scale a coaching culture will also want to:

  • Develop the 4 core skills for everyone, no matter where they sit in the org chart.
  • “Seed” the organization with coaching role models.
  • Link coaching outcomes to the business.
  • Coach senior leadership teams.
  • Recognize and reward coaching behaviors.
  • Integrate coaching with other people-management processes.
Ready to Take the Next Step?
Participants in our Better Conversations & Coaching coach training for leaders learn how best to coach their people. 

Originally posted in CCL’s Leading Effectively Blog. Eckerd College has been a Network Associate of CCL since 1981.

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