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How Coaching Skills will Make You a Better Project Leader

How Coaching Skills will make You a Better Project Leader

Coaching is more than just a flavor-of-the-month management fad. It’s a powerful approach to getting better performance from your colleagues and supporting their long-term professional development.

And it has stood the first test of time. Twenty-five years since I learned to coach, it is used far more widely, with no sign of diminishing.

Coaching is therefore a valuable skill for project leaders. It will help you with both your day-to-day project challenges and developing team members over your whole project lifecycle.

Of all the skills I acquired, which gave me a boost to my project management practice, I’d rate coaching as the single most valuable. It transformed the way I worked with my team members. As a result, it also transformed the culture of my projects. We became more effective and my colleagues were able to progress rapidly in their careers. And, if I’m honest, what I enjoyed the most was the loyalty it inspired.

If you want these benefits, and more, then read on. Coaching could well have a huge impact on your project management and leadership too.

How Coaching Skills will make You a Better Project Leader
How Coaching Skills will make you a Better Project Leader

Here’s What We Will Cover…

What is Coaching?

The concept behind coaching is deceptively simple. As a coach, you ask questions, to help the person you are coaching to discover ideas that will help them:

  • solve whatever problem they are grappling with
  • make an improvement to the way they are doing something
  • come up with ideas for what they want to do
  • learn how to do what they want o be able to do
  • think through a challenging issue
  • make a difficult decision
  • set clear goals and create a plan to achieve them

While questions are the fundamental part of your coaching process, the balancing skill is your ability to listen. And there are two reasons for this:

  1. Being listened to is a valuable part of the coaching experience
  2. If you listen well, you will have a better idea of what question to ask next

What Coaching is Not

It’s also worth contrasting coaching with some of the things it is not. It is not:

Teaching
…passing on your knowledge about the way to do things.
The assumption in coaching is that the person you are helping can figure this out for themselves, with the right questions, and enough time to reflect.

Training
…giving a structured sequence of knowledge, experiences, and instructions.
Instead, the learner builds their own curriculum, by leading their own process of acquiring the knowledge, experience, and insights they need.

Mentoring
…passing on your wisdom and experience.
A big part of the skill of a coach is to get yourself out of the way, and suppress your temptation to say: ‘what I would do is…’

Counseling
…providing a listening ear to help someone deal with an emotional challenge.
Coaching is about helping someone to move forward with what they want to achieve.

What Coaching is…

Coaching is a process of asking questions to help the other person to reflect on a situation and their own knowledge and experience. This enhances their awareness and gives them the time, the space, and the respect, to work on their own resolutions to the questions, problems, and objectives they face.

Why Use Coaching?

Or, to put it another way…

Why does coaching work?

There are a number of important principles that underpin coaching. From a Project Manager’s point of view, there are three we can focus on.

Argue for your Limitations… and they are Yours

To start with, as project managers, we tend to take a ‘can-do’ attitude. This gives us the sense that, whatever the project needs of us… we’ll find a way. This is also a central attitude of coaching. And, therefore, a part of the role of a coach is to show the person you’re helping that their self-imposed limitations aren’t real. They are just perceptions.

And, if someone sticks with an idea that they can’t do something; then that idea will hold them back. It’s not some inherent limitation.

So in our conversations as a coach, we help people to see how, and believe that, they can do new things, improve their performance, and find creative solutions.

Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.

Illusions, by Richard Bach

Constant Learning

The second attitude that overlaps nicely between coaching and project management is the belief that we are always learning. Experiences – positive or negative – are opportunities to learn and improve our practice.

(Chech-out our video on Carol Dweck’s idea of the Growth Mindset.)

So, the role of a coach is to let us see undesired or desired results as opportunities to learn and grow. By using good questions, a coach can help us understand our experiences and learn from them. Too rarely do we get a chance to reflect on experiences, yet all research shows that this is what leads to some people acquiring what others recognize as wisdom.

We already Know What We Need to Know

The third belief that coaches and project managers share is that we can figure stuff out. We are resourceful and can find what we need to do.

Whether this is access to knowledge, people, materials, or equipment; accessing the resources we need is just a matter of tapping into our reserves and finding a way. In coaching, we presume that the person we are helping can figure things out for themselves. So we ask questions that will direct their thinking in the right way, and give them time for their thought processes to mature.

Time to Think

And we must not neglect the importance of giving someone time (and permission to take the time) to think. In the frenetic and sometimes chaotic world of projects, thinking time is at a premium. A long or even a short coaching session grants that time.

What is the Basis of Coaching?

Drawing all of this together, there are two central ideas at the heart of coaching:

  1. Awareness
  2. Responsibility

We’ll look at what I mean by each of these in turn.

Awareness

The first task of a coach is to help evoke a high-quality awareness of all of the relevant facts around the issue that the person you’re coaching is grappling with. Often, when we are faced with a problem, especially an urgent one, we dive in and focus on only the most obvious information.

The coach’s role is to help us to see the wood for the trees: to not get distracted by the obvious stuff, without considering other details. It’s about:

  • prioritizing
  • not missing stuff
  • evaluating meaning
  • understanding our reactions to the situation
  • looking at outliers
  • seeing thigs from multiple perspectives

The presumption built into coaching is simple…

The more precise and accurate our awareness is, the better is our ability to select the best choices

Responsibility

The second key aspect of coaching is to help the learner to take responsibility for their choices. This means:

  • recognizing their own agency (ability to act meaningfully) in the situation
  • understanding that what they decide and do will determine the outcomes
  • accepting that, once they have made a choice, nothing will happen unless they act
  • making a full evaluatin of the consequences of potential choices and actions
  • therefore, choosing to take action

Once again, this concept of personal responsibility is entirely consistent with the principles of Project Management.

There is no change without action

How to Apply Coaching: Introducing the GROW Model

You won’t be surprised to know that there is a wide range of different models and processes to help us to coach. Each one guides us through a coaching conversation. They set out steps to follow and usually offer a memorable acronym.

Of all of them, perhaps the best-known, most widely-used, and simplest is the GROW Model. Yet, for all of its simplicity, the GROW Model is astonishingly effective.

Coaching for Performance - 5th edition - Sir John Whitmore
Coaching for Performance – 5th edition – Sir John Whitmore

The GROW model was developed by Grahame Alexander. It is described in great detail and with terrific simplicity and impact, in ‘Coaching for Performance’ by Sir John Whitmore.

Whitmore is one of the eminent names in performance coaching in the world of work. He worked with Alexander and also with Timothy Gallwey – founder of Inner Game coaching.

There is no one better able to guide you through learning to coach, and this is a book I recommend any leader, manager, supervisor, or business person who wants to develop the people around them. Do buy it. I am sorely tempted by the new Fully Revised 25th Anniversary Edition‘. But, on my shelf, I already have the 2nd and 4th editions!

So, the model we’ll use is called the GROW model. GROW is an acronym. Indeed, the full acronym is GROW ME:

  • Goal
  • Reality
  • Options
  • Will
    .
  • Monitor
  • Evaluate
Coaching for Project Leaders - the GROW Model
Coaching for Project Leaders – the GROW Model

Terminology

To be absolutely clear:

  • Coaching:
    Supporting, helping, challenging another person to find their own solutions to the challenges they want to work on
  • Coach:
    The person who is coaching (supporting, helping, challenging) the other person
  • Coachee (also, performer or learner):
    The person who wants to resolve an issue or improve their performance. The coachee is receiving the coaching
  • Performance Coaching:
    Specifically describes coaching to improve performance (usually in the workplace). Distinct from, say:
    • life coaching (helping the coachee to address problems in their life)
    • wealth coaching (helping the coachee to plan their finances)
    • career coaching (helping the coachee to determine the next steps in their career)

How to Use the GROW Model to Coach Your Colleagues

The Purpose of the Coaching Session: Goal

At the first stage of a coaching conversation, the coach will help the coachee to articulate a realistic goal.

This helps the coach to understand what they need to help with. But, more important, it is about ensuring the person who is receiving coaching is absolutely clear what they are and are not setting out to do. It is about awareness, and also setting them up to take responsibility.

Questions you’ll ask at this stage include:

  • What do you want?
  • When and where do you want it?
  • What is most important to you?
  • What would you like to have happen?
  • How would you measure success?
  • What difference are you trying to make?
  • What would be the consequences of achieving your goal?

A good performance goal will be:

  • Specific and measurable
  • Stretching but realistic
  • Relevant and responsible
  • Have a time limit

Coaching for Awareness: Reality

If the goal setting is about understanding the end-point, the next part of your conversation explores where the coachee is starting from. Your questioning should help the performer to inventory:

  • What they know already
  • The resources they have available to them
  • What has happened in the past
  • The things they have tried – and how it turned out
  • The current situation
  • Who else is involved, and what their perceptions and priorities are
  • The risks and issues surrounding the goal

As a Project Manager, you’ll still think of this as a part of the ‘Definition’ stage! And part of your exploration and questioning needs to cover stakeholders and risks.

One of the things I learned early on as a coach, is to allow plenty of time for the Reality stage of the conversation. Often your coachee’s problem can seem to resolve itself spontaneously, as they better understand the reality of the situation. There can often come an ‘aha’ moment, when they link an unexpected aspect of reality with their goal – now more clearly understood than it was before.

But, even if you don’t get that kind of magical breakthrough, time spent on reality is always a good investment. It forms the foundations of the next steps.

Coaching to Unlock Possibility: Options

The creative part of your coaching conversation is where you start to turn your coachee’s attention towards what they can do to achieve their goal.

Think of the goal as the destination. Thus, reality sets out the starting point. In the Options part of your conversation, you are helping set out as many possible routes that the learner could take. The more options you help them find; the more choices they have. And, the more choices; the better the chance that they will have an option (or combination of options) that will get them to their goal quickly and safely.

The most important single question you can ask at this stage is:

‘What else could you do?’

When you have exhausted every possible approach to eliciting more ideas, it’s time for the second part of this stage. As a coach, you should have been noting down all the options your coachee found. Now help them to evaluate the options.

Evaluating Options

First, I like to help my coachee define what criteria they want to measure their options against. What’s important? It may be:

  • Speed and efficiency
  • Reliability and confidence
  • Risk and safety
  • Innovation and fun

As a coach, it doesn’t matter to you what their priorities are. What matters is that they fully accept those priorities and are prepared to take responsibility against them. Once they have their evaluation criteria. Help them to test each option against them. Here again, the concepts of awareness and reality are valuable. Don’t let them get away with a shallow analysis. Push them hard to validate their evaluation with real data and experience.

The outcome of this stage of your conversation will be a preferred course of action – one or more options in combination that the coachee believes will best serve them.

This is where the coaching conversation is going to get tough…

Coaching to Secure Responsibility: Will

The final stage in the initial conversation is to secure that responsibility.

‘What will you do?’

It’s more than just getting them to make a commitment too. It’s also about testing that commitment, and ensuring they have the resources to meet it.

Help your coachee to make plans and test them out. Then, at the end, ask a question like:

‘On a scale of 1 to 10, how committed are you to doing this?’

If the answer isn’t a 9 or a 10, you need to explore what’s getting in the way. Then, you will be able to help them to uncover the resources, ideas, or actions that they need, to move it to a 9 or 10.

Often a low score suggests a reservation about the selected option. This will suggest that there is a criterion that is important to the coachee that you did not surface. You need to cycle your conversation back to the Options stage. Maybe even to the reality stage, if you suspect there is a material fact that has gone with you both acknowledging it.

Follow-up to the Coaching Conversation: Monitor and Evaluate

Many coaches forget the last part of the GROW Model. It’s your responsibility to follow up with your learned, monitor their progress, and help them to evaluate where they are and whether they need to check reality and find some new options.

For project managers, coaching is rarely a one-off conversation. Rather, it’s a part of a long-term commitment to developing the people you lead.

Core Coaching Skills for Project Managers

The last section I want to cover briefly is the core skills a coach needs to develop. And I’ve picked on four:

  • Rapport
  • Questioning
  • Listening
  • Silence

Let’s see why each one is particularly important…

Creating a Coaching Environment: Rapport

To coach well, you must share a rapport with the person you are coaching. You need to ensure that your coachee feels at ease and safe with you.

The conversation is not soft and fluffy, but tough and demanding. Without a good rapport, your questions could be heard as critical, rather than challenging.

The Fundamental Coaching Skill: Questions

Questions sit at the very heart of the coaching process. And the quality of the answers your coachee finds for themselves will largely depend on the quality of the questions you ask. However, when you are in doubt, you can always ask exploratory or probing questions until it becomes clearer which way to take your questioning next.

There’s also a master question that you can deploy if you have no idea what to ask next.

But you’ll need to wait for that one…

The Power of Good Coaching: Listening

First, you need to deploy the skill that brings real power to your questions: your ability to listen completely.

Learn more about our short course, I Beg Your Pardon: The Power of Listening.

You need to hone your ability to pay absolute attention and not let your mind wander. If you listen well, you won’t be thinking to yourself: ‘what’s the next question?’ But, because you will be hearing every detail of what your coachee says, there’s a good chance that, when they stop speaking, you will understand where to go next.

And, if you don’t…

The Magical Ingredient of Coaching: Silence

Sometimes the best response or the best next question is…

[Silence].

We feel a need to fill a silence. Often, if you make no comment and ask no question, your coachee will say more. And many times, this will take them deeper than they had intended to go, and open up a new insight.

In any conversation, the person who is most comfortable with silence will have the upper hand.

Check out our video: The Rule of Silence: The Free Source of Power in a Meeting | Video

What is Your Experience of Project Coaching?

We’d love to hear about your experiences of either coaching or being coached. Please comment below, and we will respond to everyone who does.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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