Time for a New Focus on Coaching

When Bob Dylan wrote his classic anthem The times they are a changin’ in 1964, little would the great American songwriter have known how much the world would change in those intervening 50 years.From hippies, free love and rock ’n roll we’ve moved to today’s plugged-in,stressed-out world where time is scarce and stress levels are through the roof.Our leaders used to be treated like gods who knew everything, were always right and nobody ever challenged their decisions. But the times have changed and a new approach is clearly needed. Managers and leaders, faced with an inbox of 100 emails, multiple meetings and endless reports and calls to make,are trying to keep their heads above water, but it is proving difficult.


In today’s ever-changing business world, coaching skills are a ‘must have’ for future-fit leaders, say Ruth Donde and Graham Hart. But coaching is also a skill that needs to be learned and honed over time.

When Jane comes to her boss for advice or some ideas, the default for manager Mike is to jump in early in the conversation and give Jane the answers as quickly as possible so that he can get back to his emails, calls and a million other things.If only Mike could stop for a moment and realise that this approach does notwork anymore. That the best way is to‘ask’ rather than ‘tell’. But, of course,he is so busy and distracted that he doesn’t have the time or inclination to really help Jane grow and develop professionally.If he could step back for a moment,then Mike would realise why it is so important for leaders to use more of an asking approach than a telling approach.If Mike could say: “What do you think you should do, Jane?’’ or “what ideas do you have?’’, then Jane could learn and grow. Another benefit of this ‘asking’approach is that Jane’s growing self dependence and confidence would then free up Mike to do his own work. Win win situation.


It is clear that corporate leaders and business bosses need help navigating this new world of technology overload and time-challenged days. Managers no longer have all the answers and so are reliant on asking the experts around them. Hierarchies are under challenge and workplaces have more diversity, so getting to understand other perspectives requires a different approach. People are needing to collaborate more to get jobs done.According to the World Economic Forum Future of Work studies focused on 2020 (just around the corner),key skills include the categories of complex analytical skills—being able to decipher meaning from data—and social skills—operating in an environment that requires collaboration, influence,inspiration and communication.No longer is being tech savvy the domain of the IT department, or being people savvy the exclusive domain of HR. We are all expected to have these transferable skills. Gallup 2018 research identified empathy as the number one element that people need from their leaders.And this is where coaching skills can play such an important role. 


In an article in the Harvard Business Review, authors Julia and Trenton Milner pose the question: Are you successful at coaching your employees?

The Milners’ research found that when initially asked to coach, many managers instead demonstrated a form of consulting. Essentially they simply provided the other person with advice or a solution. “We regularly heard comments like ‘first you do this’ or ‘why don’t you do this’.’’The research looked at how you can train people to be better coaches and leaders and they found that they focused on nine leadership coaching skills. These are:• listening;• questioning;• giving feedback;• assisting with goal setting;• showing empathy;• letting the coachee arrive at their own solution;• recognising and pointing out strengths;• providing structure;• encouraging a solution-focused approach.While their research is ongoing, the Milner’s believe that coaching is a skill that needs to be learned and honed over time.


For David Peterson, director of leadership and coaching at Google,equipping leaders to deal with disruption, complexity and change has become his life’s work.In an interview with Forbes magazine,Peterson noted: “Over the last 20 years I’ve been focused on how coaches go from novice, to good, to expert. That personal journey is important to me. It’seasy to be a good coach; it’s very hard to be a great coach. How do we get better has always been a part of my work.’’Peterson is focused in particular on the DNA of the VUCA world. His version of ‘DNA’ stands for “diverse,novel and adverse’’ and these are the conditions we all face in a world which isVUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.Although technology is a major part of this alchemy, Peterson called out three trends that are not technology related.

1. Leaders are becoming more reflective,trying things more, asking for feedback more naturally—things they have learned from good coaching.

2. Coaching is being embedded in organisations—peers, managers,HR—all learning coaching skills.

3. The nature of organisations is changing and the pace of change is growing exponentially. What leaders need to do is changing and they need help to manage that change.

Coaching is really about moving peoplet hrough change, about doing something differently. We need to be in the right mental state to embrace change and a coaching approach provides the conditions necessary for people to embrace that change.


The benefits of taking a coaching approach are summed up by Judith and Richard Glaser in The Neurochemistry of Positive Conversations where they differentiate positive ( oxytocin-producing) vs negative(cortisol-producing) interactions:

• Fewer interruptions for managers;

• Others learning to think through issues to solutions;

• We all benefit from the creativity andthinking of many

;• We encourage learning and capacityfor learning;

• Teams feel more supported,empowered and motivated to takeaction;

• Increasing collective capability and innovation.Taking an ‘ask’ approach to conversations rather than ‘telling’ (inmost cases) has proven to be a successful tool that unlocks the potential of the person being asked, allowing them to grow and become more independent in their thought and actions.It also frees up the time-challenged managers and leaders to utilise their days to the full potential without constant interruptions.

There is a place for telling;however, this should be reserved for situations where, for example, time is critical, there is high risk, or only one answer or one way of doing something.So remember, you don’t always have to be the smartest or have all the answers.And you won’t always be! Use the brainpower around you and let others carry some of the cognitive load too. Everyone will benefit from it.