“Making sense of how we define a coaching approach from each of our professional experiences” by Doug Montgomery and Laurent Terseur

We are both passionate about how, by using a coaching style, leaders can change the nature of the conversations within their organisations to increase engagement and performance.  Through our conversations together we realised how each of our individual experiences have influenced and shaped how we perceive a coaching approach and coaching ingredients make a difference when used by leaders. We are still working towards a shared definition of how a coaching approach can best be applied, and realise how much work would be required to create and build consensus amongst all practitioners because of all the different experiences and skills integral to this approach.

There’s still much to do in our field of practice called coaching.  As our way of sharing the learning and congruencies we’ve developed so far, we’ve put together a three-part series that provides our respective perspectives of building a common ground with all its nuances and complexities of where both the edges and similarities may exist and overlap. The three themes we began to cover include:

  • Our professional experience and journey to adopting a coaching leadership style

  • What changes when leaders adopt a coaching style

  • How a leadership style can be developed systematically in organisations

We start with our individual journeys into coaching

Doug Montgomery’s story: the value of applying a coaching approach to collectively deliver results for projects and foster individual empowerment and development, took a while to develop.

My working definition and description

For me a coaching approach is the capability to invite the other person to solve their own problems. I think it starts with trust, empowerment and engagement. And it begins with asking pertinent questions and properly listening to the response whilst also having a mindset that you actually trust that they can solve their problems, rather than telling them what should be done. And I think it’s important to know what is it that is wanted from the conversation.

A coaching approach is not the same as a formal coaching session, in the sense that a leader taking a coaching approach uses a coaching style as part of their day to day conversations with their staff and colleagues. It is not their only style, and it is not the best or appropriate style for all conversations, however it is a style that listens to what the other person has to say and encourages them to think for themselves most effectively.

The starting point for any style of conversation is knowing or finding out what is wanted from the conversation. Those situations where creativity is required, a plan needs to be formulated, or someone is stuck in their thinking, are all examples of opportunities for a coaching approach.

How often have you heard (or taken part in) a conversation, in which the leader explains the goal and its importance, and goes on to tell the individual or team what they will do, step by step, to get there.  

The “How” part opens the way for a coaching approach, with its opportunity to really engage the individual or team by asking them for how they can get there. By encouraging and trusting their plans and solution, their way of doing it, they become engaged with the problem and they’re much more likely to commit to whatever the action is they come up with.  I believe that adopting a coaching approach is a major contributor for managers and leaders to truly engage their staff and to release more of the potential of their organisation into performance and free up their own time. So that is what a coaching approach is for me, compared to other leadership approaches such as telling, teaching or advising, each of which are useful and necessary but not sufficient.

My journey to coaching started from organisational leadership

I worked in the pharmaceutical industry for many years and I remember as a young and relatively inexperienced line manager struggling to get the best from myself and from my people. I found myself believing that to deliver results, I needed to know how to do everything and thought my role was to tell others what to do and how to do it. It felt really important to be seen to know everything. It seemed to be how I would be judged by others. And boy did it make me work long hard hours and make my life challenging and stressful!

I guess I saw leaders as heroic all-knowing figures leading people forward with great confidence. However, I ended up working too hard, making all the decisions and essentially doing everybody else’s thinking for them.  I wanted them to do it my way because that way I felt in control. I was frightened of getting things wrong, yet unable to stop telling others what to do, even when I was not sure myself. Asking for help seemed like a sign of failure, and now with the benefit of hindsight, what utter madness that was!

Slowly I learnt to delegate and to ask for help and learnt how to harness other people’s expertise and thinking. In fact, I became so good at using other people’s expertise to solve problems that I often ended up leading teams and projects in areas with which I was not familiar. That’s when I become involved in the internal coaching program and trained to be an internal coach.  That was my first step towards becoming the executive coach,, coach supervisor and coach trainer I am today.

My insights from delivering coaching to leaders and managers

As a coach I’ve also been lucky enough to facilitate workshops for leaders wanting to take a coaching approach into their day-to-day working conversations. This has distilled for me the value of this “coaching approach” for leaders and their people. Having met lots of leaders, managers, supervisors and individual contributors during these workshops I now know that the “telling” and “advising” style of leadership is pretty much a default setting for most of us. There’s a lot of wasted effort going on – leaders taking all the responsibility for the thinking away from the team members.  

Let me share an example: A quality assurance auditor, who came on a coaching approach workshop I ran shared his experience with me. His job is to audit parts of the business and write reports about failures to comply with standards, protocols.  

He contacted me a little while after the course and declared, “It was amazing. We used to go and deliver an audit report and tell people this is what you need to fix, and it would be a battle and we were not welcome, and it was a horrible job. Since learning how to use this approach, I’ve delivered the outcomes of the audits and then we sit down and ask… “So what can you do about it?” Just that change of approach from - you must do this - to - here’s what you need to achieve and what are your options for achieving that compliance?  How can I  support you to make sure that you’re getting to the right place – is a completely different conversation.” His approach to his job and his appreciation of his job had changed dramatically.

Another aspect that I learnt through these workshops is that leadership and management are seen primarily as delivering results and that developing people is often seen as a luxury or ignored altogether.  Organisations seem to create the impression in the minds of leaders and managers that there’s just not enough time for developing people. Typically sending people on a course is seen as development – despite there being no time to embed whatever learnings are gained.   I am sure that organisations don’t do this deliberately – but somehow the message gets distorted in the objective setting and reward systems. 

Taking a coaching approach appropriately into the day-to-day conversations actually delivers results while developing people. It’s a win-win: it frees up the leader or manager’s time because so much of the thinking and decision-making is done by their team members allowing leaders and managers to get on with their own unique contribution and for the team to get on with theirs.

In a business or work situation, where it’s the manager or the leader taking the coaching approach, there is an agenda about what needs to be delivered and part of their role is to set clear objectives. Yet, I think there also needs to be an agenda about developing people.  I want to see how the other person thinks, and to develop their thinking skills, I want to get their potential out into the work of the business. It’s about a mindset of trusting the people that you’re using this approach with. It’s about a way of eliciting from them what they can do, rather than the manager telling them what to do and how to do it. So it saves time in the long run and it really engages them and provides, I think, a sure route for empowerment.

Laurent Terseur’s story: Coaching ingredients necessary for a coaching approach to be effectively applied in various organisational situations.

My working definition and description

I think of a coaching approach as being in service to the other person(s) by stimulating their thinking in a different way than if they were on their own, and by encouraging and challenging them to use the resulting insights to take actions that will bring the change they desire.

I also believe roles and agendas in the context of an organisation may make it difficult to apply a full coaching approach in a large number of management situations. In my leadership practice I prefer to speak about coaching ingredients, a way to break down the coaching approach into as many possibilities to change the traditional recipe by demonstrating a supportive and empowering intention

So for instance, typically within organisations you generally do not get to choose your manager as you would have free choice in choosing your coach. Yet, coaching someone requires the permission from that person to be coached. And I would see this permission as the first ingredient to any coaching approach and an essential condition to make sure when starting a conversation that it will be in a safe environment. In practical terms, it starts by securing first the mandate or the permission for such a conversation. It might not always be intuitive for a manager to ask for the permission from their report, but there are different ways to bring the degree of empowerment and autonomy that will set the level of coaching that can be used as opposed to more prescriptive conversation modes. 

A next ingredient is about giving predictability and structure. It's about setting the framework for the conversation, starting by how much time is available, and when it’s going to happen. Let me share the practical example of the manager asking someone to come in their office. In some instances it can be perceived as quite a threat, to be asked in the manager's office out of the blue, whereas in the same conditions, being mentioned what the discussion will be about and what’s going to happen paves the way for a much more open and constructive conversation.

Another ingredient I see is showing appreciation; using encouragements and accentuating the positives. For example, we often see how feedback conversations can be very deflating, whereas with the encouraging coaching ingredient in mind, the picture can be changed by simply starting by pointing what’s been done well. With their positive contribution being fairly acknowledged, the recipient can open up and be more receptive to the rest of the feedback, as they feel considered.

An additional ingredient is adding the dimension of stretch where something new or being done differently will provide a learning or a growth opportunity.  What exact level of stretch will be relevant will need to be appreciated from the situation and the context - and to be constitutive of a coaching approach, will still need to be in line with the permission or mandate secured, or will require a new permission.

As mentioned earlier, not all management situations allow for the presence of these coaching ingredients, let alone all of them at the same time, which is why I am cautious with the “coaching approach” as a whole in a managerial context.

Having a coaching mindset though, is the next level.  There needs to exist trust and respect.  I can think of people who are genuinely open to change however they might be imposing change, or forgetting that people around them might not be just as open to change as themselves. It’s being mindful of the “how” that creates the conditions for the change as well as the ability to foster engagement by building the relevant bridges between competing agendas.

So, using coaching ingredients to make change happen will actually bring the agenda of the people you coach in the equation, in a relevant way.

My journey to coaching started with personal leadership

I spent over two decades leading teams in highly competitive, international and multicultural, matrix environments. All the way through this career, it has always been deeply important to me to demonstrate that strong performance could be delivered through positive values and collaborative behaviours. This concern initially was intuitive and somewhat unconscious and I became ever increasingly aware of it over the years, investing more time in reflecting on it and experimenting different ways to deliver on it.

I also had the luck to have two distinct and very different experiences in receiving coaching during my career. For my first experience I was imposed a coach I did not chose, in conditions that didn't make me feel safe. As a coach now, I cherish this experience as it gave me the opportunity to experience first-hand how intrusive and unproductive it can feel when ethical fundamentals are not met. For my second experience I enjoyed a wonderful opportunity of development with a coach who earned my trust and provided me with a safe environment in which a high degree of stimulation and challenge made me truly grow. and reflect on my leadership style, and on how I could make it more inspiring.

When I became a member of a senior leadership team implementing considerable amounts of change, I dedicated more coaching time to the individuals and teams involved, and then decided to formally train as a Coach in order to become both a better leader and to start building my own practice. Investing in my own development resulted at one point in being being a senior leader, an external coach, and an internal coach, all at the same time, and with all facets of this experience nurturing each other

Those were great years, which finished the work in making me passionate about working on the best ways for leaders to inspire and deliver stronger performance by bringing more coaching ingredients in their leadership style and their organisation's culture.

My insights from delivering coaching to leaders and managers

Let me share an example: During my career as a leader, over time I changed my approach to performance conversations. Appraisal cycles in the organizations I was working for were generally well defined, with clear frameworks and agendas,  buteventually I reflected on how I was using this time with my reports, and benchmarked it against what I was doing in my young coaching practice. I found that for these formal conversations to have greater impact on my report's performance and development, I might achieve more by increasing the level of attention paid to their agenda.

To manage that, I brought in three ingredients.

  • Providing some structure and visibility - I wanted to change the nature of that conversation, introduce permissions and make sure to give my reports the opportunity to work as partners on owning the agenda and defining what a successful conversation would be looking like

  • Asking more and telling less. In the past I would generally speak first. Part of the new structure I offered was to ask them to speak first, and share their thoughts on their performance,. I would then where appropriate reinforce or add my observations - only if needed.

  • Accentuating the positive, offering to start first on what they had done well and showing appreciation, then on what they would think doing differently and providing encouragement.

Taking this approach completely changed the nature of this type of conversation.  The biggest impact was that it led to much more open conversations, and so much more in-depth understanding of their expectations and motivation drivers. The development part of the conversation dramatically changed, as they were much more engaged, enactors of their development and no longer just at the receiving end of the manager's thoughts. And this turned into deeper, more specific and much more motivating insights about how to increase their performance and their future.

Our reflections and learnings

In many ways the role of executive coach is freer than that of the leaders and managers that we coach.   Both of us are experienced leaders and managers and have learned the value of a coaching approach and the use of the coaching ingredients as part of our leadership style.   What is emerging from our discussion of how this arose is the realisation that it is important to be able to adopt a variety of styles (teaching, telling, advising, guiding or coaching) and to be aware of what we as leaders are trying to achieve.  

That gives us the choice about which style to choose.

The choice depends on the organisational context, the situation, the relationship with and the stage of development of the individual we are working with. When choosing to use the coaching ingredients or a coaching approach our intention is to encourage the other to think for themselves, to engage with the conversation whether it is to problem solve, to receive feedback, to self-assess, or to plan a project or a personal development path. As leaders we are trusting the other person’s ability, expertise and creativity. From this style of leadership, we start to see what they are really capable of, not just that they can follow our instructions.  Creating the conditions in which this style is effective is a key and requires both inner awareness and creation of the appropriate environment.

For managers and leaders who are used to taking a predominant directive or command and control style, the coaching ingredients and approach may feel strange as it requires one to let go of control and actually ask others to solve their problems, and to do their own thinking.  It may feel threatening or even an abdication of hard earned authority and expertise, however, in today’s changing complex uncertain commercial world, there are few managers and leaders who have all the answers and experience, nor the time to do all the thinking. Can leaders afford not to take a more coaching approach into their day to day conversations and engage and empower their people?  Our experience leads us to believe that the coaching ingredients and coaching approach we have described here are essential leadership skills.

In the next two blogs we will explore in more detail of what it is like for leaders to take a coaching approach and incorporate the coaching ingredients into their day to day work.

To connect with either Doug Montgomery and/or Laurent Terseur