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8 Indispensable Coaching Lessons

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Recently, I attended an event with some current colleagues and a few former colleagues. At one point, I was standing in a small group with three people I had coached or mentored in some way during their careers. One, whom I had not seen in over three years, remarked to the other two that she would not be where she was today if it were not for me. I was caught off guard. It was genuine appreciation that was expressed many years after our work relationship had ended.

It was only three weeks earlier that I sent a message to a former colleague, who, many more years ago, had once mentored me at a critical junction in my career. In my youth and naïveté, I had made a mistake that risked a valuable business relationship. It was not an easy conversation, but it changed my perspective, I learned a great deal from it, and I probably would not be where I am today if not for that person. I just wanted her to know how much I valued that coaching.

Coaching and mentoring can have lasting impacts that often extend well beyond their immediate purpose, and as leaders we should never forget the importance that coaching brings. Some lessons last a lifetime. With that in mind, I would like to share eight indispensable coaching lessons that I hope you find useful.

#1 – Effective Coaching Requires Trust

How do you create a foundation of trust? The old saying of “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” is where you start. Making them feel safe and demonstrating that you care about their professional development and them as a person will lay a foundation of trust upon which you can build.

#2 – Set KPI Goals but Focus on Behaviors

Performance is generally measured with a variety of KPIs – Key Performance Indicators – but KPIs are measuring outcomes impacted by a variety of behaviors. To change outcomes, you must change behaviors. By establishing SMART Goals, you can create an actionable plan that lays out the specific behaviors and skill improvements that will accomplish the KPI goals.

#3 – Facilitate Self-Discovery

How many times did the child version of you utter, “You’re not the boss of me!?” From an early age, we crave autonomy – we want to make our own decisions about what we do. By using an effective self-discovery coaching method like Pendleton’s Model of Feedback, often referred to as What Went Well/Even Better If, the person being coached is the one making decisions about what behaviors need changing. I like to think of this process as guiding without judgement by asking lots of open-ended questions, like, “What led you to that decision?” or “How did that person respond when you said…?” or “How might you do that differently if you could do it again?” This method creates a sense of ownership and internal motivation to change.

#4 – Equip for Success

Do they need a new skill? Is there a software solution that will help them succeed? Do they need advice on how to approach something? Don’t give them a job if you’re not going to equip them with the tools they need to accomplish it.

#5 – Use Confident Language

The language we use has powerful consequences on our mindset which, in turn, has powerful consequences on our outcomes. Framing the desired outcomes as inevitable – “When you start using that confident phrasing, you’ll hear less objections and achieve more sales” – does not assume the possibility of failure. Ask any athlete who has been in a “slump” or “in the zone” about how confidence impacts performance.

#6 – Set Expectations and Get Commitments

Motivation and confidence are important to performance, but a clear understanding of what is expected of you is critical. Are you supposed to do this often? Most of the time? All the time? Are there exceptions? Are there potential obstacles still standing in the way? When people have clear expectations about what to do and when to do it, the chances of success are far greater.

As for commitments, Beyoncé provided great advice: “If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it!” Too strong? Okay, maybe just ask, “When are you going to implement this?”

#7 – Follow Up and Celebrate Success

The single hardest part of behavioral change is keeping focus on the change over a long enough period to physically rewire your brain. Doing something different today is one thing. Doing it over and over and over and not falling back into autopilot mode is hard. Roughly 90% of New Year’s resolutions fail because long-term change is hard. You can help dramatically increase the success rate of behavioral changes by regularly checking in on progress and celebrating small victories. It can be as simple as asking, “How’s it going with using that confident phrasing you’ve been working on?” or “Tell me how that confident phrasing is working for you.” This puts the behavior back in focus, rewards the successful execution of the behavior, and allows you to discover any remaining obstacles that need to be overcome.

#8 – Be Accountable

In her bestselling book, Spark: How to Lead Yourself and Others to Greater Success, Courtney Lynch says, “Leaders inspire accountability through their ability to accept responsibility before they place blame.” Before you approach a conversation with someone who is not meeting expectations, ask yourself, have you done your part? Have you jointly established goals? Have you discussed what behaviors to improve to meet those goals and are you confident they are the right behaviors? Have you equipped them to execute those behaviors? Have you set clear expectations? Have you been following up and celebrating their successes? In short, have you effectively coached them?

By now, some of you might be thinking: That may only be eight lessons, but this seems like an awful lot of work – which ones are the most important? When you are ready to make real and lasting changes to performance, you will put in the work because that is what leaders do.