A Coaching Conversation Checklist for Smart Managers

In spite of wide-spread coach training, most of the time managers aren’t using coaching skills to grow and develop their people. Instead, many managers still believe in their role as a problem solver, cutting short conversations with employees by providing solutions, advice, and answers.

Yet managers with a coaching style usually find that their employees are more committed, willing to put in greater effort, and are less likely to leave.

“Clearly, the benefits of building a coaching culture and increasing the effectiveness of coaching are great. There are both tangible benefits (increased employee engagement and productivity) and intangible benefits (improved culture and finding meaning and purpose in work).”
~ John H. Zenger and Kathleen Stinnett, The Extraordinary Coach: How the Best Leaders Help Others Grow, McGraw-Hill, 2010

In spite of learning coaching skills, many managers struggle to have effective coaching conversations that lead to insights and change. A checklist for coaching conversations can help.

Zenger and Stinnett suggest using the FUEL model in The Extraordinary Coach:

  • F = Frame the Conversation. Set the context by agreeing on the discussion’s purpose, process, and desired outcome.
  • U = Understand the Current State. Explore the current state from the coachee’s point of view. Expand the coachee’s awareness of the situation to determine the real coaching issue.
  • E = Explore the Desired State. Help the coachee to articulate a vision of success in this scenario. Explore multiple alternative paths before prioritizing methods of achieving this vision.
  • L = Lay Out a Success Plan. Identify the specific, time-bounded action steps to be taken to achieve the desired results. Determine milestones for follow-up and accountability.

Step 1: Frame the Coaching Conversation

It’s not always that managers don’t know how to coach; it’s that conversations with employees often turn into project task updates instead of furthering their growth and development.

In spite of good intentions, managers don’t use a checklist to remind them how to set up a coaching dialogue. From the book by Zenger and Stinnett, The Extraordinary Coach, there are three steps that work well for initiating a developmental dialogue.

  1. Identify the behavior or issue to discuss. “I’d like to talk about [the issue]…”
  2. Determine the purpose or outcomes of the conversation. “By the end of this conversation, I would like to accomplish…” “What else would you like to make sure that we address?”
  3. Agree on the process for the conversation. “Here’s how I thought we could proceed…” “How does that sound?”

This sounds almost too simple to bother with, but without it, employees aren’t clear about what the issues are and how they can use them to grow and develop. Whether the manager or the coachee initiates the conversation and brings up the topic isn’t as important as setting up the conversation and clarifying what’s going to be discussed, what outcomes are intended, and how the conversation will proceed. These three steps will save the manager from needing to have the same conversation twice.

Step 2: Understanding Leads to Insights

The next step in a coaching conversation is to address the “meat” of the issue. Managers need to understand what’s going on. This part can be tricky because of our natural tendency to assume we understand what the issues are. We fill in the blanks and automatically judge–usually prematurely.

Instead, a manager needs to listen well and encourage the coachee to talk. Explore what the real challenge is for her. Be curious about what is said or merely implied. Follow emotional cues.

Here are some great pointers from the Zenger and Stinnett book.

Do:

  • Ask open-ended, non-leading questions
  • Act as a mirror, observe, and say what you hear and see
  • Follow up on emotionally charged words or expressions
  • Explore what the real issue or challenge is
  • Discuss consequences in the event things don’t change

Don’t:

  • Assume anything
  • Judge, criticize, or categorize
  • Ask for too many details or focus on other people
  • Let the person obsess or ruminate; rather let her explore possibilities
  • Offer your perspective or advice until the person has explored options
  • Find an answer for the person; let him discover insight and awareness

People won’t change until they experience a need to change, and if a manager is too helpful, the coachee won’t feel enough tension to be motivated to change. Keep the focus on them and what they need—and are willing–to do differently.

Step 3: Explore Desired Outcomes

Typically in most companies, managers are excellent problem-fixers and advice-givers. They want to jump in at Step 3. Many tend to skip over Steps 1 and 2, because managers have a bias for action. They may be more comfortable when they solve a problem quickly and influence action from others.

But that is a big trap. Instead of pouncing on the first viable solution, it’s worthwhile to explore alternatives. Managers can show their people how to think things through so that the right target becomes the objective. It’s important to let the coachee do most of the talking to find what matters most to her. If the employee’s vision is too small, the manager can help her explore broader objectives.

Here are some tips on this part of the coaching conversation:

  • Don’t rush into problem solving; create the ideal vision and generate more alternatives for achieving that vision.
  • Resist the tendency to go with the first option.
  • As the manager, you can negotiate and influence what the measures of success must include.
  • If the coachee comes up with at least three alternatives to consider, the coachee will end up with a more robust and effective solution.
  • If the coachee gets stuck, offer to become a brainstorming partner.
  • Explore possible barriers and look for alternatives.

Step 4: Lay Out a Success Plan

This is the home stretch in a coaching conversation and, like the previous steps, should not be rushed or skimmed over. Presumably, by now you have outlined the desired vision of success as well as several alternatives for getting there. You’ve prioritized the options that will work best. Now you are ready to dive into the specific detailed action steps with a follow-up plan.

The role of the manager is critical here, as a guide. You help the coachee identify the specific actions to be taken. You help the coachee enlist the support of others. You need to hear the coachee articulate exactly how he or she will proceed to increase the likelihood that it will happen. Also, you help the coachee commit to timelines for important milestones.

By assigning accountability, you will help your coachee change faster than without it. Even if 85 percent of coachees complete their assignments on the day or morning before their next coaching meeting, it is still effective.

Here are the three sub steps of this final coaching conversation:

  • Develop and agree on an action plan with timelines.
  • Enlist support from others.
  • Set milestones for follow-up and accountability.

The key role of the manager is to ask for details, clarity, and commitment. This is how managers add value to the coaching conversation. Accountability works, and it works better when there is consistent follow-up.

Managers Also Ask for Feedback

Research suggests that when the coachee can provide feedback to the manager on the value of the session, the quality and relevance of the session is significantly increased. But few managers remember to ask for feedback. One possible way to conclude a coaching conversation would be like this:

“On a scale of one to five, how valuable was this conversation with regard to providing relevant help for you?”  

Why Bother with Coaching Conversations?

Without going in to all the statistical ROI studies on the benefits of coaching, let’s look at the benefits of coaching as a managerial style. Why bother with coaching conversations?

  1. Coaching gives new meaning to work. When people feel that they are engaged in a useful cause and not merely performing menial tasks, they have more energy and motivation and will go beyond minimal requirements. Coaching provides managers opportunities to link each person’s job to the overall mission of the business.
  2. Coaching leads to more engaged and committed employees. Managerial coaching shows strong evidence of boosting engagement.
  3. Higher productivity outcomes. Coaching refocuses people on the most important objectives and lets them know that their manager is paying attention to them. Peter Drucker hypothesized that if an organization could increase productivity by only ten percent, profits would double. The bottom-line impact of coaching is hard to ignore.
  4. Coaching leads to a stronger culture. An organization’s culture has a big impact on performance and productivity. Leaders influence culture by the example they set and the behavior they reward or curb in their daily conversations with people.
  5. Coaching strengthens relationships between supervisor and employee. When managers coach, they are expressing their personal commitment to the development of an employee.
  6. Coaching promotes healthier individuals. When leaders take the time to coach someone, they contribute to that person’s self-esteem and confidence.
  7. Resilience. Coaching encourages resilience for when problems arise and mistakes are made. Managers can help people learn to think for themselves, create their own energy, and meet challenges without the need for micromanaging.
  8. Heightened creativity and innovative thinking. Coaching is a mutual exploration of better ways to approach challenging situations, thus encouraging people to have their own ideas.
  9. Increased risk taking and exploring.  Coaching encourages people to pursue projects and provides a safety net and support.
  10. Mindset of an owner instead of a hired hand. Coaching helps people take responsibility and ownership of problems and solutions.

The Coaching Conversation Checklist

There is a strong case for using a checklist to ensure success in many professions. Airline pilots have used them for years. Surgeons are now using them to lower rates of infection and death, thus saving millions in hospital expenses.

Having a guide to follow reduces stress and uncertainty. It also increases a manager’s confidence that nothing important will be forgotten. Smart managers use a coaching conversation checklist to see breakthrough results.

Key Frameworks for Coaching Conversations

I’ve been writing about why more managers don’t use coaching skills to guide and develop their people. Some managers don’t have clear framework for initiating coaching conversations. Here are two popular models that are easy to follow.

GROW Model

One of the original coaching frameworks is the GROW model, created by Graham Alexander, Alan Fine and Sir John Whitmore:

G

Goal

The Goal is where the client wants to be. It must be clearly defined so people know when they’ve achieved it.

R

Reality

The Current Reality is where the client is now. What are the issues and challenges? How far away is Goal achievement?

O

Obstacles

What Obstacles are stopping the client from reaching the Goal?

Options

Once Obstacles are identified, the client finds Options to deal with them and make progress.

W

Way Forward

The Options are converted into the Way Forward—action steps that map the way to reach the Goal.

FUEL Coaching Conversations

Zenger and Stinnett suggest using the FUEL model in The Extraordinary Coach:

  • F = Frame the Conversation. Set the context by agreeing on the discussion’s purpose, process and desired outcomes.
  • U = Understand the Current State. Explore the current state from the coachee’s point of view. Expand the coachee’s awareness of the situation to determine the real coaching issue.
  • E = Explore the Desired State. Articulate your vision of success in this scenario. Explore multiple alternative paths before prioritizing methods of achieving this vision.
  • L = Lay Out a Success Plan. Identify the specific, time-bounded action steps to be taken to achieve the desired results. Determine milestones for follow-up and accountability.

If you’ve had training in coaching skills, what framework did you learn? I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached here and on LinkedIn.

The Need for Managing with Coaching Skills

Managers who effectively harness their coaching skills reap multiple benefits. Their employees are more committed, willing to put in greater effort and are less likely to leave.

Coaching’s impact significantly affects people and profits within organizations committed to training managers, guiding performance and developing employees.

Most managers have had some training in coaching people for high performance. Ten years ago, 73% of managers received some form of training, according to BlessingWhite, a global leadership-development firm. But the firm’s 2015 report reveals that employees who receive regular feedback through coaching conversations are in the minority.

Why Don’t More Managers Coach?

Managers usually cite lack of time as the main excuse for failing to coach employees, but the real reasons may be different, note John H. Zenger and Kathleen Stinnett in The Extraordinary Coach: How the Best Leaders Help Others Grow (McGraw-Hill Education, 2010).

Three common barriers stand in the way:

  1. Misconceptions of what coaching is
  2. A desire to avoid difficult conversations
  3. No clear game plan for initiating and framing coaching conversations

Once they return to the office after training, many managers revert to old habits. Instead of taking time to ask questions and find solutions, they find it easier to explain and provide instructions. Finding a quick fix and moving on is their default response.

The Manager-Fixer

Despite good intentions, the manager-fixer creates numerous problems:

  1. Quick fixes don’t teach people to think for themselves. When managers explain what needs to be done, some learning may occur, but it isn’t necessarily retained. Employee engagement is minimal.
  2. When work is challenging, employees will look to their managers for a quick and easy fix. They’re denied any sense of ownership or autonomy. When people aren’t fully engaged or empowered, their job satisfaction significantly decreases.
  3. This leads to a third problem: Managers who fix problems encourage dependency, thereby creating additional work for themselves. Being the hero who comes to the rescue may boost your ego, but you’ll become increasingly overwhelmed with work and ultimately create a bottleneck.

The Manager-Coach

Strangely, at most companies, coaching isn’t part of what managers are formally expected to do. Even though research makes it clear that employees and job candidates alike value learning and career development above most other aspects of a job, many managers don’t see it as an important part of their role. ~ Monique Valcour, “You Can’t Be a Great Manager If You’re Not a Good Coach” (Harvard Business Review, July 2014)

Many managers believe they lack the necessary time for coaching conversations. Yet, 70% of employee learning and development happens on the job, not through formal training. If line managers are unsupportive or uninvolved, employee growth, engagement and retention are stunted.

Let’s address the three reasons why managers fail to coach.

1. Misconceptions of What Coaching Is

Skilled managers initiate coaching conversations so their people can explore what they do and how they do it. Coaching expands employee awareness, uncovers better solutions, and allows employees to make and implement sound decisions.

Coaching provides a safe platform for growth. Successful managers consciously choose growth as a priority outcome. They understand that developing people is as important as getting things done.

Coaching isn’t instructing, mentoring, counseling, cheerleading, therapy or directing, although there are some similarities. Coaching skills include:

  • Clarifying an interaction’s outcome and agreeing to a conversation’s goal
  • Listening to what is—and isn’t—said
  • Asking non-leading questions to expand awareness
  • Exploring possibilities, consequences, actions and decisions
  • Eliciting a desired future state
  • Establishing goals and expectations, including stretch goals
  • Providing support
  • Following up on progress
  • Setting accountability agreements

Managers must be non-directive, listen intently and ask the right questions. Coach training emphasizes supporting people, with an eye toward challenging them.

As a manager, you’re tasked with bringing out the best in people, including high performance and bottom-line results. When you take up the coaching baton, performance goals must share the stage with employee growth and development.

Many managers struggle to balance direction and support. They’re usually afraid of making mistakes, so they revert to telling employees what to do instead of coaching them.

2. A Desire to Avoid Difficult Conversations

Coaching conversations require time and energy, but they’re the only way to gain trust, honesty and transparency. If you’re unwilling to invest the required time and effort, coaching will inevitably fail. Both parties must be committed to creating a positive relationship.

Managers must be fully present during coaching conversations, which means turning off phones and email alerts during sessions. Keep any promises you make, and be sure to emphasize that you’ll maintain confidentiality.

3. No Game Plan for Coaching Conversations

Even after training, many managers have trouble initiating coaching conversations, let alone developing a process that expedites desired results.

Many models exist, but the best are short, simple and easy to employ whenever coaching opportunities arise. Coaching needn’t be scheduled as 50-minute sessions. With a solid framework, you can achieve results in as little as 10 minutes.

GROW Model

One of the original coaching frameworks is the GROW model, created by Graham Alexander, Alan Fine and Sir John Whitmore:

G

Goal

The Goal is where the client wants to be. It must be clearly defined so people know when they’ve achieved it.

R

Reality

The Current Reality is where the client is now. What are the issues and challenges? How far away is Goal achievement?

O

Obstacles

What Obstacles are stopping the client from reaching the Goal?

Options

Once Obstacles are identified, the client finds Options to deal with them and make progress.

W

Way Forward

The Options are converted into the Way Forward—action steps that map the way to reach the Goal.

FUEL Coaching Conversations

Zenger and Stinnett suggest using the FUEL model in The Extraordinary Coach:

  • F = Frame the Conversation. Set the context by agreeing on the discussion’s purpose, process and desired outcomes.
  • U = Understand the Current State. Explore the current state from the coachee’s point of view. Expand the coachee’s awareness of the situation to determine the real coaching issue.
  • E = Explore the Desired State. Articulate your vision of success in this scenario. Explore multiple alternative paths before prioritizing methods of achieving this vision.
  • L = Lay Out a Success Plan. Identify the specific, time-bounded action steps to be taken to achieve the desired results. Determine milestones for follow-up and accountability.

Face the Coaching FACTS

Other experts assert that being directive is an important coaching component. While people enjoy receiving their managers’ support, they also want to be challenged, note John Blakey and Ian Day in Challenging Coaching: Going Beyond Traditional Coaching to Face the FACTS (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2012).

Blakey and Day developed the FACTS coaching model from frontline observations:

  • F = Feedback: How can coaches provide challenging feedback that informs and inspires? How can we ensure that praise and recognition for a job well done are balanced with honest feedback on mistakes, learning and failures?
  • A = Accountability: How does a coach hold people accountable for commitments without blame or shame? How can accountability be extended from personal commitments to alignment with the values, strategy and ethos of the wider organization?
  • C = Courageous Goals: How does a coach move beyond incremental goal-setting models to those that engage the right-brain attributes of courage, excitement, inspiration and transformation? Which models and concepts help structure coaching conversations and provide a practical road map?
  • T = Tension: When is tension constructive? How can coaches practice creating and holding tension without risking burnout in key performers? How can the tension in a conversation be calibrated and dynamically adjusted to ensure peak performance? When does tension go too far and damage the underlying relationships?
  • S = Systems Thinking: How can a coach stay sensitive to “big-picture” issues like ethics, diversity and the environment without losing focus on bottom-line results? What can be learned from the world of systems thinking that enables the coach to be a positive agent of change for the wider organization? What is the role of intuition in guiding interventions that reach beyond the immediate coachee and touch on deeper organizational change?

The FACTS approach requires you to master core coaching skills (intent listening, asking vital questions). You must also achieve a firm foundation of trust and respect with your employees. The FACTS approach is a launch pad for high performance and change.

Powerful Questions

Managers who avoid coaching often struggle with starting a coaching conversation. In the absence of deep, hour-long coaching sessions, you can use key questions to realize change and growth.

Michael Bungay Stanier shares seven core questions to open coaching conversations in The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever (Box of Crayons Press, 2016):

  1. What’s on your mind?
  2. What else?
  3. What’s the real challenge here for you?
  4. What do you want?
  5. How can I help?
  6. If you’re saying “yes” to this, to what are you saying “no”?
  7. What was most useful for you?

Managers who effectively use their coaching skills will boost team performance and foster employee growth and development. You can achieve stellar results if you lose your fear of initiating coaching conversations. With a simple coaching framework and powerful questions, you’ll enjoy coaching conversations that are short, simple and provocative.