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Coaching your employees: What to know for your first time

There I was, talking to a total stranger and hanging on her every word. She was a charming, energetic, professional woman, maybe 28 or 29 years old. The topic of conversation was Email. “My teammates at work don’t communicate very well. Especially by email!” she said. As she spoke, I wrote down every word in my notebook. After a couple of minutes, things took a dramatic turn. “You know what?” she said. “I need to just quit my job!” I froze.

The reason I was having this conversation in the first place was because I enrolled in a Coaching Certificate Program given by the Association for Talent Development (ATD). I’ve recently decided that adding “professional coach” to my LinkedIn Profile could be a good thing at this stage of my career. So, I signed up for two days of training to find out what this coaching thing was all about.

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The course I attended used a time-honored coaching process, the COACH model, which stands for Current situation, Objectives, Alternatives, and CHoices.

We even watched a video of a “good coach” and a “bad coach” and discussed the differences. One of the most important differences is that a good coach doesn’t give advice, but rather asks questions to guide someone to identify their goals, explore their options, and commit to taking some action.

“There is something about getting prepared to listen to someone with every fiber of your being that makes a conversation feel very important.”

Before I knew it, it was time to try my first coaching conversation. I was assigned a partner. One person would be the coach, the other the coachee. I was eager to begin, albeit a little apprehensive, so I volunteered to go first.

The course materials armed me with a list of recommended coaching questions designed to move the conversation along. I looked at the long list of possibilities. They all sounded something like this:

  • What would be the best topic for our discussion today?
  • When things are going badly on this issue, what happens to you?
  • What do you want to achieve long-term?

I might as well start with the first question, I thought, and in response my partner replied, “Email.” 

Email? Email! My heart leapt for joy! I have lucked out! A completely innocuous topic for my first coaching conversation! What could possibly go wrong?

So now you’re all caught up. The situation I described initially was of my first, nerve-wracking coaching conversation. And, it was a doozy. As I continued to ask questions from the list, something startling began to happen to the discussion about email, to my practice partner, and most surprisingly to me.

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“The beauty, (and scary part) of the coaching conversation may be that important things just surface all by themselves.”

First-time coaching jitters

I won’t go into the details of how things took a bee-line straight from email to quitting a job, but I will describe some of the thoughts and feelings I had, and most first-time coaches have, during the first coaching conversation.

  • There is something about getting prepared to listen to someone with every fiber of your being that makes a conversation feel very important—especially when you know that all you can do is ask questions. I wonder if I had approached some of the disappointing conversations I’ve had in my life with the same intense focus could I have changed the outcome? I’m going to guess, yes.
  • As the conversation took its amazingly-quick turn to how unhappy this young woman was in her job, my mind began racing. What am I doing wrong! This is not how this is supposed to go! So, I started to think of questions that weren’t on the list. Questions designed to stop her from making what I considered to be a rash decision. Ahem. Bad coach—right out of the video. I was being pretty judgmental, but I couldn’t stop myself from trying to make her change her mind. I wonder if I’ll learn not to do this as I gain experience? I sure hope so.
  • Somewhere towards the middle of the conversation I began to hope for a list of techniques in the appendix of my training materials that would describe how to stop a coaching conversation from taking a left—if the coachee says this, then you say that, and everything will be fine. Of course, there is no such list. The beauty, (and scary part) of the coaching conversation may be that important things just surface all by themselves. I found out later that as we switched partners and did more practice coaching, the topic of quitting her job came up again and again for this young woman. Whew! It wasn’t me! But clearly, it wasn’t the questions either.

“Knowing that an actual human being will be there to hold your feet to the fire might be the X factor.”

The coaching conversation ended with my practice partner committing to take some action steps. First, she would systematically identify what kind of activities at work made her happy and then she would explore other job possibilities to find a role where she could do more of that kind of thing. As I reflect on this now, hey, not a bad plan. Score one for the new kid!

To be completely honest, at one point coaching started to feel a little bit like a scam to me! Couldn’t they have done this without me? You know, cut out the middleman? But as I think about this more, I’m going to say, no. Someone could self-coach, ask the questions, and identify steps to take. But, I’m going to put money on the “commit to someone else” part as being the thing that makes the difference. Knowing that an actual human being will be there to hold your feet to the fire might be the X factor. 

I’ve come to appreciate that coaching is extremely powerful. Who’da thunk it! The simple act of asking questions, helping someone reflect on their goals, and asking them to commit to some actions seems to do something kind of magical!

After my first coaching session and having worked at The Predictive Index (PI) for years now, I realized just how powerful the PI Behavioral Assessment truly is. Not only does it give a deep understanding of candidates, but it provides such powerful insight that can be used to prepare to coach your people.

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If I had approached that first conversation knowing the behavioral drives and needs of the young woman I was coaching, and had a better understanding of her behavioral profile, our conversation could have been approached in a whole new way. For example, suppose I had known she is risk tolerant, loves change for its own sake, and is very self confident. What a game-changer! I bet I wouldn’t have freaked out when she blurted out that she wanted to quit her job. I might have even thought, “Oh yeah, no surprises there. I should have seen that one coming!”

What coaching is all about

So, there you have it. My first experience as a coach. A little harrowing but enlightening. Now, I bet you’re wondering if the young woman in the story has quit her job. Me too! I don’t have a way to contact her now that the class is over. I think of that conversation a lot and I wonder if some coaching relationships end like this, never knowing how things turn out.

I sincerely hope that she will follow through on the action steps we outlined. I hope she finds a way, maybe in her current job or maybe in some shiny new job, to do more of the things that make her happy. Because, in the end, that may just be what this “coaching thing” is all about.

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Thad is a senior marketing director at PI.

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