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Friday, 18 April 2008

"Not Coaching" delivers "Not Excellence" - Surprised?

A rant by Tony Ericson

For some time many management “experts” have been telling us that Coaching is the new “IT” for the Management of the Future. It certainly is - but certainly won’t be the way they tell it.

It's Not New - and It's Not Working

In fact they have been telling us this since the early 1990’s. Sadly, apart from some outstanding individual examples, there is little evidence of coaching management culture developing across business as a whole. For example in a survey published in Harvard Business Review in 2006 of nearly 7,700 mid-career employees (aged 35 – 55) over a third were not motivated by their work. This group also has the lowest satisfaction rates with their managers and the least confidence in senior executives. What's more, the trend of dissatisfaction is accelerating. Another survey of more than a 1,000 middle managers published last year reported that one third say they are kept in the dark about company plans and almost two-thirds confess they are at a loss to understand their role.

Even in this year’s Sunday Times Best Companies To Work For, employees from half the winners 11 to 100 reported a need for improvement in company leadership, relationships with middle and line managers, teamwork and personal growth – areas where it is claimed that coaching should bring benefits. If so many of the best still need to improve, what has happened in the rest?

And yet there is More that will Not Work

In spite of, or maybe because of, this “Coaching” products are springing up like acne across the blotchy, punch drunk face of the "Management Fashionista" supply establishment. People who only know to do what they have done before are doing what they only know to do – clambering onto the next bandwagon that they see. Just as in the past, in a scramble of translation, transcription and adulteration to secure commercial advantage, they have devalued and debilitated valuable transformational tools and techniques such as MBO, project management, Black Box Analysis, FMEA, TQM, MRP, Kaizan, 6 Sigma and so many others. They are forming the “Institutes”, the “Academies”, the Service Packages, the Product Bundles – I will not be surprised to see the new Inter-Relational Database Coaching Toolset – “why talk with smelly, tricky, scary people when you can just communicate via a machine”?

Am I Angry about This?

By now you may possibly think that I have an axe to grind. Correct. I have been working as a professional Coach for 15 years. My business partner is another successful Coach. We were especially fortunate to learn our core skills within a small group of gifted coaches influenced by Paul Kalinauckas (co-author of a definitive book published in 1994). We have successfully coached individuals, groups, teams, and stretched the skills to use them with other toolsets to enable effective and sustained change in organisations.
  • “We have successfully coached” – what does that mean? It means that those individuals, groups, teams and organisations have been successful – that as an outcome of their coaching process they have in some way or other transformed their own performance and often their working lives.
Abuse the Idea - Devalue the Results

Coaching has become a sadly abused and overworked word. How on earth can anyone understand what it really is all about underneath all the wrappers, the labels and the over-simplifications? There are so many things that are said to be “coaching” – training an athlete or a sports team; academic tutoring; personal training (in all its many interpretations); performance appraisal; management mentoring; Life coaching; Executive coaching; even, Counselling.

Coaching Skills do underlie to some extent all of these but none are actually “Pure Coaching” – they are all processes that contain some selected and truncated sub-set, usually to deliver a particular agenda. That means that the purpose of their use is defined before the start of whatever is going to be called “coaching”. This approach equips someone with but a single “coaching process”; it is like having only one single tip screwdriver regardless what type of screw head you will meet (this analogy holds, if you use the wrong tip, the head gets damaged, sometimes wrecked! – the pun is intentional).

This is not only 100% wrong, it completely misses the point and, we believe, this is the reason why, so far, “coaching” has failed to impact on management culture in any meaningful way.

Doing it Right

Pure Coaching starts with no agenda. The challenge of Pure Coaching is that it starts with the premise that the Coach knows absolutely nothing, has no need other than the other person’s need, has no purpose other than theirs and no agenda other than the resolution of whatever needs to be resolved. This sounds simple and it is, but is not an easy point of view to acquire let alone sustain. Even so the skills have been acquired successfully by many strongly driven, over-achieving, over-competitive, “difficult” people – and it has transformed their lives and the working experience of those around them.

It may be helpful to describe what happens in Pure Coaching. The coach asks questions and listens to the answers, the next questions are driven by the last answers, the only purpose is to seek clarity and comprehension by the speaker, the only structure is whatever is needed to assist the speaker’s understanding. There is never a coach’s point of view or opinion; there is no advice, no information transfer, no emotional engagement, no external referencing. The Pure Coach may often speak for a total time that is as little as 10% of the whole coaching conversation – 12 minutes in two hours.

For the coach there is enormous concentration and focus on the person being coached, little sensation of the outside world, no topic in mind except what is being said and what that may or may not mean. It is extremely intense and demands high energy yet with virtual silence. It demands enormous self discipline and self control. It demands the exclusion of everything that you think you know. It insists that you do not need to know. It needs complete humility to the process and the client. It is possible to have a productive coaching conversation with someone about something of which you are totally ignorant. Here are a couple of examples.

  • In a client training session where they were learning Pure Coaching skills, one of their accounting staff did a role play coaching one of their IT managers. She was a quiet, modest technophobe and he was …. the total opposite. He selected an arcane and complex technical issue as “his big problem” and the coaching conversation started. Little external assistance was needed. Neither we nor the other trainees had a clue what it was all about. After 15 minutes, he sat back and said “That has cracked it. I really was stuck on this. How the heck did that happen?” and the trainee coach asked “What was that all about?” Then we all knew we had seen what Pure Coaching Skills really could do.
  • Another and more personal illustration – some years ago, in a refresher training exercise, I had the task of acting as coach for a colleague, an extremely talented and knowledgeable individual. Our conversation took over one hour, I gathered afterwards. I was totally exhausted at the end, something had been emotionally extremely intense and my shirt was damp with sweat. Yet, I had no idea before, during or immediately after what we had been discussing. A few days later, we discovered that she had made one of the biggest life changing decisions of her career.

How does Doing It Right compare?

Pure Coaching Skills are therefore the ability to conduct a purposeful non-judgemental dialogue. They lie at the far end of what we call our “Teller-Seller” Spectrum. At the other end of this spectrum is the Instructor, someone who gives out exact information and/or instructions. In the middle of this spectrum is the Mentor, a person that provides knowledge transfer and guidance, advice and enquiry. It is this “Mentor” capability that is now seen as the “next big thing” and is the subject of countless training initiatives, support programmes and training courses. Why? Well, we suspect that the most attractive thing is that is fairly easy to teach people with some experience and/or knowledge how to do it by means of some structured format.

And, my Mr Nasty pixie whispers in my ear, "Is that perhaps all they know how to do?

In our own shorthand, we call this Situational Coaching – it may help someone deal with “a situation”. The potential risk with this approach is immediately obvious – have you selected the “appropriate” coach (or "coaching process") for this situation or is the actual situation not what you thought? The other limitation is that the assistance relates to the situation, once that is resolved, the opportunity for transformation of result may be limited. The step that gets taken is very often only the step that could be seen at the start.

At the Pure Coaching end of the spectrum, we find ourselves delivering “Outcome” Coaching. Our conversations are not directly about the situation but about the consequences of it, the understanding of it, the hitherto unexplored implications of it and its impact on the individual being coached. This is a very different type of conversation. From time to time we may, but only by invitation, take up the Mentoring role briefly to move past a point where specific knowledge is absent. And, in our case, there is always the only agenda we ever have available, helping the coached person to acquire and use these same Pure Coaching Skills to better manage their own work and that of those they work with.

  • We have been able to have such productive conversations and, using a related Getting Things Done Process, assist substantial Transformations in Performance with electrical engineers, packaging makers, railway contractors, nuclear engineers and scientists, pottery workers, lighting factory workers, car dealers, steel manufacturers, brewery sales people, advanced technology manufacturers and accountants – to name but a sample. It certainly has not been our knowledge that has delivered the value!

What is the Big Difference?

What we have observed with these clients is that when faced with new situations, new challenges, new relationships, they have been able to rely on their core Pure Coaching Skills and the Getting Things Done Process to successfully tackle and surmount all that comes. They have achieved an immediate Transformation of Performance – but worth much more than that, they have acquired the continued capability to Transform their Performance; to be able to master Change. We call this Changeability and Pure Coaching is one of the core elements for this.

And, this is why this blog is here - Changeability is one of the key attributes of those organisations that Exceed Expectations - that demonstrate exceptionally high levels of Competitive Strength - that consistently outperform the average in good times and bad times on a number of financial criteria by up to 50% - that survive in stormy times whilst others perish.

Wow, is it stormy times NOW or what?

It is going to get a whole lot rougher!

So, we urge everyone that can to acquire and use Pure Coaching. It will transform their working relationships, their performance and their potential. It may do the same for all they work with. It will make any one of the specific applications that they may then need to tackle simple and straightforward – whether it be appraisal, persuasion, mentoring, training (even), personal development or investigation. It is not easy to learn, but once learnt well, it does become an embedded behaviour skill.

We say “everyone that can” because learning Pure Coaching is challenging, requires high self discipline, mental rigour, active intelligence, and a lot of sheer hard graft in practice. There will be a few who will not succeed, there will be a minority where some form of Situational Coaching package will match limited capability. But these folk are not the majority – yet sadly, it is the majority that is now being targeted by the Management Fashionistas.

So, ignore all the “Coaching” Products and Programmes – get yourself Pure Coaching Skills. They will make everything much simpler, but they are not easy to acquire. However once you have gained them you will have them for life – your transformed life, and potentially, the transformation of performance for all you work with.