Using a Coaching Approach in Leadership

When we talk about ‘coaching,’ people tend to go to one of two places. Either they think of sports coaching (and wonder what it has to do with managing a team in an organization), or they think of Executive Coaches or Life Coaches. While there are elements of both of these coaching paradigms that you can use as an organizational leader, workplace coaching means something different. Coaching for results is about how you can take a coaching approach in the everyday interactions you have with your team. A coaching approach is different from a more traditional leadership approach in a number of ways.

Perhaps the most important aspect of workplace coaching is that it is not about solving team members’ problems for them. This simple fact is transformational for many leaders and managers who have been taught that one aspect of their position is that they are supposed to have all the answers. So, many managers and leaders believe that when a team member brings up an issue or problem, the first thing to do is tell them how to solve it. The problem with this approach is that while it may help the team member get over this challenge, it likely does little to help them develop their own skills in problem solving.

Workplace coaching has the potential to create a number of preferred outcomes including:

  • Team members feel they ‘own’ solutions to challenges and problems
  • Problem analysis and problem solving skills will be improved
  • Team members’ confidence in their abilities will increase
  • You get to realize that the true high performing teams maximize everyone’s energy and intellect (not just yours!)

Using a coaching approach also frees managers up from the feeling that they need to have all of the answers. Interestingly, many leaders that we have worked with cite the day they realized that they do not have to have all of the answers as the day that they transitioned from being a manager to a leader. And the great news is that it’s much easier than you might think. All it requires is that you are willing to work in a different way with your team members.

There are 6 steps in using a coaching approach:

  1. Identify
  2. Permission
  3. Explore
  4. Actions
  5. Agreement
  6. Follow-up

Let’s look at each of these steps in more detail.


The first step in the coaching approach is to identify the situation where you feel coaching could be a benefit. Not all situations will fit this criteria, and experience has shown us that identifying an opportunity is actually one of the most important aspects of workplace coaching. Although people generally respond well to a leader who wants to use a coaching approach, there are times when all people want is someone to give them the answer. And, in some cases they will agree to be coached, but then decide that it’s not really what they want at all. They just want an answer, not someone to help them find the answer. You need to exercise your own judgment to determine when this is appropriate, but some good signals are a general lack of responsiveness or interest in your exploratory questions or an apparent frustration with questions. In these cases you might want to move away from the coaching approach and try and help your team member more directly.

So what makes a good workplace coaching opportunity? You’ll develop a sense of this over time, but here are a few examples:

  • A team member is experiencing an issue with a client/customer and has come to you for help.
  • A team member is taking on leadership of a project or assignment and has little experience in that role.
  • A team member is looking for ways to improve their performance around an aspect of their job.

While there are elements of the coaching approach that can be used with performance related issues, like a team member not completing work or not meeting quality standards, be very careful. It may need a more direct intervention approach than coaching might offer, and if the issue turns into a formalized performance process, claiming that you offered coaching to the individual rather than more directive advice and instruction is unlikely to fly.


Once you have identified what you believe is a coaching opportunity, you must then get permission from the individual. While it’s fine to simply say, ‘I would like to coach you around this opportunity,’ there are other ways of asking that are a little more, shall we say, natural. For example, you could say ‘I would really like to work with you on this and support you in finding a solution/creating the outcome/getting this done,’ etc. The bottom line is that however you ask, it’s important that the person realizes you are going to support them in finding the solution themselves, not to give them the answer, solve the problem, or do the work for them.

Part of the permission process may be to explain what’s involved in the coaching approach (in fact this is often required), in which case you can simply refer to the information here as part of that discussion.


Once permission has been gained, the next step is to start exploring the issue. Essentially this involves asking questions, getting the individual to explain what has gone on already, and asking for clarification around points that you think you may already know about. Try to stay in ‘explore mode’ until you are satisfied that you understand the issue, and that the person has revealed not just the issue but the underlying emotions, concerns, and controversies regarding the issue. Coaches often use the mnemonic WAIT for this portion of the process. WAIT is short for ‘Why Am I Talking’!


With the issue or opportunity fully exposed, the next step is to start working on actions. Good questions to ask in this phase might be ‘what ideas do you have for…’, ‘what do you think would happen if…’ or ‘what other ways could you think about this…’ There are literally dozens of great questions you can ask during this phase, but the key is that you are trying to encourage the individual to get to specific actions that they feel they can take on the issue/opportunity. And remember, these are not actions that YOU feel comfortable with – they have to be actions that the individual is comfortable with. After all, they are going to be the one doing them. By the end of the Action phase you should have a written list of actions.


The next phase is about agreement. This is where you and the individual agree not just on the actions, but also the timetable on which the actions will be performed. Additionally, you should agree on what will happen if the action does not have the intended consequence. For example, if you have agreed that the individual will call the client, also determine what will happen if the client is not available or will not talk to the individual. The agreement may be that the team member will come back to you for more discussion, or you may agree on a further course of action. Either way, make sure the agreed actions and subsequent steps are all written down and agreed upon. In keeping with the entire coaching approach, let the individual determine what the actions will be. Don’t do it for them.


The final phase is perhaps the most important of all. This is where you make a plan with the individual on how the entire coaching plan will be followed up. You might schedule a meeting for a future date after the team member has had an opportunity to complete the actions, or you might agree that once a specific action is completed you will meet. Either way, the follow up plan needs to be written down, agreed upon, and most importantly carried out. This is the phase of the coaching approach where most managers and leaders fall down – they simply get wrapped up in other issues and forget to continue their support of the individual. In addition to the scheduled follow-up meetings per the agreement that you have made, also take the opportunity to ‘check-in’ with the individual, particularly if you know that there has been some significant event or action around the agreed plan. Doing so lets the team member know that you are interested in their progress, and it can also provide an opportunity for the individual to discuss issues that may have arisen. Just make sure that the check-in is just that and not an ad-hoc review of the plan. That may send the message that you do not trust the individual to execute on the plan.

If you built the Action Plan well, it will be clear to both you and the team member what indicates completion of the plan, project, or initiative, or resolution of the issue. If this is the case, be sure to ‘celebrate’ the success with the individual, and where appropriate help to identify what the individual has achieved or learned through the process.

As you can see, there is a cycle to this approach where steps 3 to 6, Explore to Follow Up, may well get repeated over and over again until the issue is solved, or the opportunity completed. If you can see it through to the end, the team member is more likely to come to you and ask you for coaching the next time they are in need.

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