Adopting a coaching approach

Coaching is an important and valuable skill for leadership today and is a useful tool for developing people in your team.

I’ve found that by asking questions and helping individuals to think things through, they have a much deeper understanding of the issue. Compare that with a situation where you tell them the answer, you can’t be sure they have grasped the point you are trying to make.

This approach has been extremely useful in ensuring my team knows how their work fits with the bigger picture and what we are trying to achieve. Not what the job is that must be done but what the task is designed to achieve and how we can make this happen.

One of my main influences has been Myles Downey who sets out the GROW model in his book, Effective Coaching. To illustrate this model, I am going to explore an example from a time that I worked with a member of my team to develop a research project.  The individual, who I will call Lauren, needed to understand the importance of the project she was working on and the potential to influence change if approached in the right way.

GROW model
1. Identify the topic – you must first understand exactly what topic needs to be discussed. For Lauren, it was a research project she was working on.

2. Goal – this part explores what the individual needs to achieve. In my example, I wanted her to understand the purpose of the project so that she could ensure she developed the work to achieve the overall aim and bring about the change in society that we were looking to achieve. Having an understanding would ensure a better quality of work.

3. Reality – there were boundaries and constraints that would limit the project so understanding the reality would ensure the work concentrated on what was achievable within these.

4. Options – here we explored what actions she could take that would ensure the potential of this piece of work was maximised. It is important to say here that Lauren had previously been an academic researcher who would have explored a topic to add to a wider body of work. This work, however, was for a charity so I was keen that the budget was used to fund a project that pushed forward the agenda and influenced behaviours.

5. Wrap-up – after exploring a range of questions about the project, it was time to come to some conclusions so we recapped what Lauren understood about the project as a result of our discussion.  We then established a commitment to focus her actions on things that would ensure we maximised the value of the project and we agreed that I would support her going forward by meeting on a regular basis to discuss progress.

Exploring the project in this way had a significant impact on Lauren’s understanding. On a training course years ago, the tutor expressed a learning mantra which I have held close ever since. He said that in teaching others, you must remember the following –

I listen, I forget.      I see, I remember.      I do, I understand.

Rather than telling someone the answer or showing them how to do it (doing it for them), adopting a coaching approach ensures the individual does the work to think things through which means they are able to develop a real understanding of the issue at hand and develop a true commitment to taking things forward in an effective manner.

A hit of dopamine and sprinkling of oxytocin

Something that stood out for me when reading Simon Sinek’s ‘Leaders Eat Last’ was the section on chemicals in the body. In my previous organisation, my team was fortunate to be offered lots of fantastic opportunities which I encouraged them to take. This often pushed them out of their comfort zones, creating powerful feelings of challenge and achievement.

We had also introduced new organisational values at that time which encouraged ambition and, I felt, self-service. Whilst family and togetherness was the essence of one of the values, the others were in danger of encouraging competition amongst the team and whilst I want my teams to be driven, in this situation it felt like the balance was in danger of tipping in the wrong direction.

As I read the book, I realised that my team were high on dopamine and endorphins most of the time which feels great when you’re up but have a tendency to throw you down after the initial surge and make you want to chase the buzz these chemicals provide.

The opportunities in my area of work were amazing and we were all pleased to be able to enjoy this aspect but I did often feel exhausted by the highs and lows I experienced. The book also describes these chemicals as ‘selfish chemicals’ which push us to make progress but sometimes at the expense of others.

Sinek describes another two chemicals – serotonin and oxytocin – which are ‘selfless chemicals’. These chemicals encourage the strengthening of social bonds, foster connection and allow us to work together. I realised we needed more of these and I started to think of ways to introduce them.

My solution took the form of awards which provided recognition to those who went the extra mile. Not just in their work but in what they did for others. Achieving in this space provided the warm, fuzzy feeling we had been lacking, encouraging appreciation of each other and making people want to give back so others could share the love.

This idea operated on two levels – one for my team on a monthly basis and one for the organisation as part of our annual conference. The awards allowed colleagues to say thank you to each other for doing something nice which took the focus away from business results just for a moment. They rewarded the personal achievements like resilience, team work and being supportive.

It made the difference we needed. I didn’t put an end to the highs and who would want to? A dopamine rush is pretty amazing! But it did mean there was a little bit more of the cuddle drug flying around to create a sense of harmony.

Click here for a summary of Simon Sinek’s ‘Leaders Eat Last’.

Click here to watch Sinek explain the concept in person.

Or buy the book here: Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t

Mastering motivation

A few weeks ago, I was at a conference and found myself engaged in a debate around what motivates people at work.

The colleague I was talking to was from a large public sector organisation and seemed to be a Theory X thinker, assuming that people would rather be anywhere than in the office and only go to work for money.

My perspective is that whilst people ultimately work because they have bills to pay (who wouldn’t prefer to be on the beach or in the garden), once that basic need is met, money ceases to be the main motivator. In this sense, Theory Y is where I sit as I assume that people want to work and manage my people with this in mind.

Most of my thinking has developed from a concept set out in Daniel Pink’s book called ‘Drive’. This book is so recent that it was not covered in a recent management course I attended. We were told in the session that ‘there hasn’t really been any theory developed on motivation since Maslow’.

But some of us know different.

Pink starts off with an argument that book that generations coming through today are not motivated by money. He believes that the model of performance related pay where people are set targets which are rewarded with bonuses is out of date and actually those joining the workplace over the last couple of decades are driven more by values than money. With this in mind, according to Pink, the first thing employers have to get right is to ‘pay enough to take money off the table’.

Once the basic financial need has been met, we can move away from Maslow’s basic needs of food and shelter and move towards the top of the hierarchy to achieve esteem and self-actualisation.

So to bring it back to Pink’s ideas, achieving motivation requires leaders to allow our employees to achieve the following three things:

Autonomy – Mastery – Purpose

Basically, to motivate people we need to trust them to do things their own way, setting the direction and letting them get on with it. This is AUTONOMY.

We need to give them the space and support them where necessary, allowing them to get really good at what they do. This means that they are able to learn and improve until they achieve MASTERY.

And we need to be clear about why they are doing what we have asked them to do so that they know what they are doing is for a good reason. This means they understand their PURPOSE.

Applying this to the way my team works completely changed my focus and delivered some fantastic results. Of course it didn’t mean I left them on their own completely, it just changed the way we worked together. Instead of telling people what to do and how to do it, this approach requires leaders to set the direction and support individuals to achieve. It requires managers to ask more questions and find out where you can add expertise to improve the outcome. What you will find is that the team checks in with you more because they want to get things right. It’s definitely worth adopting because the rewards of empowering people are immense.

Go on try it! I dare you…

If you want to hear it from the man himself, check out this TED talk:

Or you can buy the book here:


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