The coach-as-expert approach rightly acknowledges that the person really does have deep expertise and experience. But it makes them a bottleneck for the whole team. The purely neutral, content-free coaching approach rightly recognizes that the people being coached have capability. But it can leave the team rudderless and limits their growth.
In the previous episode of the show, Peter and Richard mentioned the importance of team coaching to increase your chances of a healthy, successful team. In this episode, they look at the seven skills all great coaches master.
In our last episode on the 6 conditions for a successful team, we mentioned that one of the key enablers for a team is ongoing coaching. There is a range of understandings about what coaching even is, let alone how to get good at it. Over the past two decades, we’ve worked as coaches ourselves, we’ve studied the literature on coaching, we’ve taken classes, we’ve observed coaches we admire, and we’ve helped a lot of others learn to coach well. In that process, we’ve developed our own opinions about effective coaching…and that’s what this episode is about.
Many people who come to us with a desire to understand and improve at coaching are in that place because they’re a manager for a team or group of teams and they want to take more of a coaching approach than a directive approach with their teams. We see the same pattern with someone who has been successful helping one team adopt an Agile approach when they get asked to coach another team. There’s a natural tendency to show up as an expert and be directive, but some people come to us asking about coaching skills because they recognize the expert approach has pretty stark limits.
Sometimes people overcorrect in their desire to be less directive. They adopt a style that’s very hands-off, only asking questions and listening, setting aside their own expertise, thinking this captures the essence of a “coaching” approach.
Most models for so-called “professional coaching” emphasize the neutral non-expert coach approach. This is a useful skill to develop since it acknowledges the inherent intelligence, creativity, and ability to solve problems for who you’re coaching. But if you get just beyond the community of professional coaches, and ask anyone else what a coach does, they’ll think of sports, music, and other coaches in a particular field. Those coaches are content experts, and the best ones move masterfully between sharing their expertise and tapping into what the person is already capable of with the right nudging.
I remember two back-to-back experiences about a decade ago that made this clear to me. I’d just come back from a big Agile conference, and at the conference, I attended sessions on how to be a better coach. The presenters had emphasized that coaching, by definition, is taking that neutral, content-free stance and focusing on bringing out the solutions your client already has inside them. The models I learned at the conference always had a sort of escape hatch, where you could switch from coaching to, say, mentoring or training or something else and then you could bring your relevant expertise. But the implication, sometimes stated, sometimes just implied, was that if you had to do that, you were somehow less effective as a coach. It was like you were giving up on coaching at that point in order to do something else, because you couldn’t manage it as a coach.
So, that was the background in my head when the weekend after the conference my wife and I were at the bike park in Boulder with our mountain bike coach, Lee McCormack. Lee was helping us get ready to race downhill and dual slalom races at the Sea Otter Classic bike event. Lee, if you don’t know him, is one of the best coaches I know, of any kind. So, I was paying close attention to what Lee was doing that day to see if what I’d learned at the Agile conference would help me reverse engineer why Lee was so effective as a coach.
I observed that Lee clearly wasn’t just showing up as the bike expert and dumping his knowledge on us. But neither was he just asking us questions and working to bring out our innate bike racing capability. He was fluently moving among a variety of approaches, sometimes sharing a concept or demonstrating a technique, sometimes asking a question to get us to reflect on something, sometimes giving us a hands-on activity to do. And it was really striking that he did it differently for each of us. I’m pretty cerebral, so at times he’d be drawing a physics diagram in the dirt for me before having me practice something. My wife is highly kinesthetic, so he wouldn’t bother with that for her; he’d address the same concept with her by putting her in a situation where she would feel the concept in her body.
Clearly, for Lee, high-level coaching was neither being the expert nor being the content-free listener. His coaching was so much more integrated across a range of approaches.
And we’ve concluded it’s the same with effective team coaching. Neither extreme—coach-as-expert or content-free coach—really works when it comes to building effective teams.
The leader- or coach-as-expert approach rightly acknowledges that the person really does have deep expertise and experience. But it makes them a bottleneck for the whole team.
The purely neutral, content-free “coaching” approach, on the other hand, rightly recognizes that the people being coached have capability. But it can leave the team rudderless and can limit their growth.
Neither of these approaches allows an organization to thrive in complexity. We need everyone’s best ideas and growth to do that.
So, we’d like to introduce a richer model for the different ways you can lead from a coaching stance (and, as part of that, bring your expertise to the table). These are skills that can be practiced and learned, and will help unlock a team’s capability to thrive in complexity.
The thing that finally made sense of this integrated coaching approach for us is a model from the late Doug Silsbee. In his book The Mindful Coach, Silsbee laid out a model he called The Septet, which is 7 roles or 7 voices that a coach moves between for the good of their client.
We teach a half-day workshop on how leaders and managers can use this approach to coach their employees and teams and we’ll do a quick overview here.
First is the role or voice Silsbee calls “Partner.” The Partner defines, negotiates, and shares responsibility for the coaching relationship. So, this is the voice a coach is using when he or she negotiates with a team about what kind of coaching they need, how often they’ll meet, what the team is hoping to get out of the coaching, etc.
Next is the “Investigator” role. The Investigator sounds the most like the classic, neutral coach stereotype, asking questions and listening. The goal in this role is to surface what the true needs are, to reveal information about the situation, about desired outcomes, and about possible actions. Importantly, in this role, the coach isn’t asking questions to then be able to make an expert recommendation or give advice. They’re not collecting information for themselves. Rather, the questions are meant to help the team or individual being coached discover something so that they can make a better decision or take informed action.
Silsbee’s treatment of how to ask good coaching questions in the Investigator chapter of The Mindful Coach is one of the best resources on the topic. I especially like his criteria for what makes a powerful question: He says it’s one where neither the coach nor the client knows the answer to the question before it’s asked. Answering the question is the thing that provokes discovery.
This is such a different approach to using questions. I really enjoy the part of our coaching workshop where we practice the Investigator role, because there are so many light bulb moments for participants when they experience a different style of questioning than they’ve experienced before.
Ok, so we’ve talked about Partner and Investigator. The third role is “Reflector.” In the Reflector role, the coach acts as a mirror, sharing an observation to provide feedback and encourage self-awareness. Importantly, the Reflector role avoids assigning meaning to the observation. Sometimes the observation can be very concrete, like a team’s coach making their work in progress visible to them through something like a cumulative flow diagram. Other times, it can be something related to the energy or emotion the coach is noticing, for example, “Hey, I notice the ideas being generated in this activity have slowed down quite a bit.” This observation stays squarely in the reflector voice because it holds no interpretation. It simply reflects something back to the team, and would probably be followed up with an Investigator voice, asking questions about what might be causing the rate of ideas to slow down in that example.
Next is the “Teacher” role. The Teacher provides new distinctions, language, mental models, and knowledge. This is what Lee was doing when he drew a diagram in the dirt of the physics of cornering at speed on a mountain bike. He was giving me a mental model for the thing so I would have more capability to act in that situation.
Here, it’s important that the coach as Teacher isn’t telling the individual or team what to do. Rather, the coach is introducing a model or language that will be useful for the client to leverage. Typically, a good coach will move right back to Investigator after teaching something and invite the client to interact with and apply the new concept somehow.
The fifth role or voice is what Silsbee calls “Guide.” As Guide, the coach starts nudging the individual or the team toward an action; not arguing for a specific action, but starting to ask questions that take the client in that direction. This voice acknowledges that the purpose of the coaching conversation is not just a casual chat to build the relationship. It’s about getting into action, and it’s a critical transition from the exploration that happens in Investigator, Reflector, and Teacher. If the Partner role has been done well, the coach has already committed to help the team to get to some concrete outcome, and the guide role honors that accountability by shifting the conversation to explore those possible actions.
Sixth is the “Contractor” role. After exploring possible actions in the Guide voice, the Contractor is about narrowing down the options to specifics: who will do what by when, and how will they let the rest of the team, and possibly the coach, know that they’ve done it? An effective coach doesn’t finish a conversation with vague outcomes. They ensure that everyone is clear on exactly what will happen next, including exploring what might get in the way of accomplishing those actions and how we’ll overcome those impediments.
There’s a natural arc through these six roles in a coaching session. It almost always starts with Partner and ends with Guide and then Contractor. In the middle, there’s a dance back and forth between Investigator, Reflector, and Teacher.
And this brings us to the 7th role, which is somewhat different from the other six. Silsbee calls the last role “Master,” and it’s one that the effective coach is using at all times internally to mindfully and fluently pick the right role for the moment. So, it’s really about the coach’s own self-awareness and mastery of their coaching. Because this one is different from the others, we treat it as a sort of meta-role and don’t usually list it with the other six that a coach navigates among: Partner, Investigator, Reflector, Teacher, Guide, and Contractor.
As you think about your own coaching, which of the roles is most natural for you? Which is most unfamiliar or difficult? When do you find yourself doing something outside these roles such as gathering data for yourself or just giving advice or direction?
We’ve found this model really helpful to keep us away from those pitfalls and to make us more mindful about the choices we’re making as coaches from moment to moment as we coach.
So, that’s the quick summary of how we think about coaching. We go into lots of depth on how to play each of these roles effectively and how to move among them skillfully in our coach training, which is part of the Humanizing Work “3 Jobs of Management” series. If you’d like to learn more, you can check out what we offer for managers on our site at the link in the episode page, where you can also join the waitlist for future public classes, or reach out to us if you’re curious about bringing that series into your company.