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A universal tool

When you become a manager, you may find yourself wondering how you can have a tangible impact on the performance of all of your staff. After all, they are at different levels of experience and have very different skills.

For staff that you share a similar skill set with, such as JavaScript development, you may still be able to offer mentorship for technical problems. But what about for those that you don’t have a common skills background with, such as UX or Data Science? You will also potentially find yourself managing staff who are older and have much more experience than you. How can you get the best out of them when you might not have any direct advice to offer?

A relationship with your staff based purely on directive interactions (e.g. “Do this in this way”, “Have you done that?”, “When will that be done?”) quickly becomes shallow. That should only be part of the relationship, and with time, should become an increasingly smaller part of it. Your top performers probably don’t need this kind of input at all; they’ll have a keen sense of what’s important and will just get on with it.

The skill that can help you increase the performance of your staff and open up a number of other opportunities for you is coaching, and it’s actually a lot easier than you think. We’ll take a look at some techniques in this article.


So what is coaching? At an abstract level, it’s a technique for helping your staff improve their performance. But that sentence is so lofty it almost means nothing. My own take on coaching is that it is a framework for interactions with your colleagues that makes them more likely to have tangible positive effects on their work.

I learned about the techniques from Effective Modern Coaching, which I’d recommend if you’d like to explore the details. There are three main concepts that really stuck with me when reading it, and these are the tips that I would like to share here.

Before we dive in, let’s get this clear: coaching doesn’t require special planning, skills, performance, or, well, anything really. It’s just a bunch of tools that you can use when having a conversation with someone. You can use these tools in formal settings such as your 1 to 1s with your staff, or you could use them while having a chat about work in the kitchen. Equally, they can be used whilst in conversation with one person, or they can be used to steer a group discussion. If you try them out, you’ll be surprised at how useful they are.


So if coaching is effectively just having a structured conversation, how should you be talking to the person being coached? You’ll need to work out which mode you’re going to be in at different parts of the conversation. There are two mutually exclusive modes:

  • Directive: This is where you’re instructing someone on what they should do. This is considered to be a “push” action, i.e. you are solving their problem for them.
  • Following interest: Here you’re predominantly listening to understand, reflecting on what they are saying and summarizing. This is a “pull” action, i.e. you are helping them solve their own problems.

In-between these modes are questions, suggestions, and summaries that you can give to steer the conversation.

  • “What’s the difficulty with doing it in that way?”
  • “Why did you pick that method?”
  • “What’s up with Bill this week?”
  • “Why’s that?”
  • “Tell me more about that API.”
  • “Walk me through your thought process.”
  • “Can you draw me a diagram on the whiteboard?”
  • “So what you’re saying is…”
  • “So am I right in thinking that…”

As the conversation progresses, you’ll work out whether you need to be directive or continue to follow their interest until they work it out on their own. You may find that less experienced staff require you to be more directive than their more experienced colleagues. This is normal. With time, as your staff become more experienced, you will find yourself following their interests much more than you will find yourself directing them. The positive side-effect of this is that as you become more experienced yourself as a coach, you realize that you can help anyone out with pretty much any problem, as you’ll be mostly listening!

At each point of the conversation, be conscious as to whether they are honing in on the answer, and keep listening and suggesting until they do. If you think they’ll never get there, be more directive.

Keep the thought bubble over their head

Unless being explicitly directive, in order to help your staff develop their skills, both in technical and abstract problem solving, it’s to keep the thought bubble over their head. Here’s a little example.

You: “So how’s progress been this week?”
Them: “Not great. The backend is much harder than we expected, and we’re not sure how to approach it.”

Even if you are the world’s most expert engineer, don’t tell them what to do, especially if you know what the solution is. Instead, every time that you feel that you would naturally jump in and solve a problem, imagine yourself pushing a big cartoon thought bubble away from your own head and putting it over theirs.

You: “OK, so what’s hard about it?”
Them: “We were going to store it in MySQL, but there’s way too much data and it’ll be slow when we access it.”

Now, at this point, you may know exactly how to solve this problem. But you shouldn’t. Push the thought bubble back to them.

You: “Interesting. Have we solved any storage problems like this before?”
Them: “Hmm. When Alice’s team were storing alerts a few years ago, I remember they couldn’t use a relational database either.”
You: “That project was quite successful. Do you know what they used?”
Them: “I don’t. But I’m going to go and grab her for a chat after this meeting and find out.”

Note that all you did was ask some fairly open, leading questions. Not only does this solve the problem for them, it coaches an approach to thinking about problems that your staff can reuse in the future. Additionally, it encourages thinking through problems in the open, together, collaboratively.

Now, if they were totally stuck, you could be more directive, but in a way that still lets them figure it out on their own. Let’s replay that last exchange. Rewind…

You: “Interesting. Have we solved any storage problems like this before?”
Them: “I don’t know. I’m stuck.”
You: “I’ve got a feeling that Alice’s team did something similar. I think you should have a chat with her.”
Them: “OK. I’ll try and find her after this.”

The GROW model

For more structured coaching sessions, i.e. those centred around solving a specific problem, it can be useful to frame the exchange in a sequence of stages to ensure that it stays on course. This is called the GROW model, and the letters stand for the following. For a given topic or problem, you’ll want to iterate through:

  • Goal: What’s the goal of this session? What problem are we trying to solve?
  • Reality: What’s the situation like now? Who, what, where, and how much?
  • Options: What are all of the different ways in which we can tackle this issue?
  • Wrap-up: Become clear on a choice, commit to it, and discuss what support is needed.

This might seem exceedingly obvious, but it helps keep conversations from deviating. Let’s think about the above example using this model.

  • Goal: We need to work out how to store the data in some way that’s fast enough to support our use case.
  • Reality: We know a lot about relational databases, but they won’t be fast enough for this problem. We have a hard deadline and we need to get some support.
  • Options: We could get an external consultant, but that’s very expensive and they might not be available immediately. We could try out some different databases ourselves, but we are not expert enough to make an informed decision about what to use in production. We could see whether anyone else in the company has had to solve a similar problem and seek their advice.
  • Wrap-up: We’ve decided to seek advice from Alice’s team because they may have implemented a similar solution in the past. We are meeting with her later, and we’ll loop back with a decision on how we’re going to proceed. Then we’ll make a call on what to do.

Honestly, this seems so obvious when it’s written down. Yet, it works every time and prevents conversation from deviating, which is a regular occurrence when exploring technical matters.

Giving coaching elsewhere in the business

Directing your conversations using a coaching framework will greatly improve the quality of your interactions with your own staff. You’ll notice that with time you’ll get better at doing it, and similar to driving a car or riding a bike, you’ll just do it naturally.

If you get really good at it, you’ll notice that you can pretty much talk about any problem with anyone, and assist them in thinking it through. This can open up an opportunity for you to increase your influence in your department and company: you can coach others that don’t report to you. If you have demonstrated to your peers and your manager that you are a good coach, why not ask if there is anyone that they would recommend starting a regular coaching session with you?

Being a neutral third-party in the coaching relationship, rather than someone’s line manager, means that you can form a close connection with the person that you coach, without the worry that you ultimately need to judge their performance. It also allows you to have a positive impact on other parts of the business without feeling that you are meddling in their affairs. Instead, you are enabling others to solve problems for themselves by working them through with you. It’s very rewarding.

Receiving coaching

The higher up in the org chart that you go, the tricker it may be to receive the coaching support that you need. Your line manager may already be very busy, frequently traveling or based in a different country. Additionally, if you are quite senior and managerial, you may be wanting help working through problems that could be too sensitive to share with your peers or your direct reports.

It may be beneficial to ask whether the company could set you up with an external coach, who you can meet with regularly in order to unpick the knots around issues in your brain using the same techniques that we’ve described in this article. Prices vary and can potentially be quite expensive, but there is the possibility that the executive team may have connections that could offer some coaching services for free or at heavily discounted prices.

In summary

Coaching is a framework that you can use to have much more impactful and rewarding conversations with others in your organizations. Some simple techniques can dramatically improve interactions and make them more focussed, useful and impactful.

If you’d like to dive more deeply into tools and techniques then I would recommend Effective Modern Coaching as a good place to start.

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