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Coaching Conversations - Teaching People to Think

Working Resources is a San Francisco Bay Area Executive Coaching Firm Helping Innovative Companies and Law Firms Assess, Select, Coach, Engage  and Retain Emotionally Intelligent Leaders; Executive Coaching; Leadership Development; Performance-Based Interviewing; Competency Modeling; Succession Management; Culture Change; Career Coaching and Leadership Retreats

Dr. Maynard Brusman
Consulting Psychologist and Executive Coach
Trusted Advisor to Senior Leadership Teams

Coaching Conversations

I recently spoke with a director of human resources who was searching for a San Francisco executive coach for the leaders at her company. The director of human resourcesasked some very insightful questions to determine whether we were a good fit. She specifically wanted to know how I worked with different personality styles, and my methods for helping leaders have coaching conversations. She was very interested in my leadership development work with helping executives think better.

The director of human resources and I spoke about my approach to working with leaders, and my belief that better thinking can improve creativity and innovation. We also spoke of the need for her organization to work with a management consultant to help their company create a culture where creativity and innovation thrives.

The director of human resources is interested in partnering with me in helping their leaders have coaching conversations with employees and teach people to think differently. We further discussed how other company executives could benefit by working with a seasoned executive coach.

Teaching People to Think

A century ago, most people were paid for physical labor. The dominant management model was master/apprentice, with the master showing his employees how to perform their jobs.

The Industrial Age introduced systems. Process management became the dominant paradigm, with scientific analysis of linear systems for greater efficiency. Employees were trained to follow, unquestioningly, their bosses’ best-laid plans.

Over the last two decades, the most routine business tasks have been computerized or outsourced. As a result, today’s employees are increasingly hired to think. In 2005, 40 percent of employees were considered knowledge workers; for mid-level management and higher, the number is closer to 100 percent.

Modern leaders must increasingly shift management styles to reflect the needs of a more educated labor force. “Yet we have not significantly reinvented our management models since the time Henry Ford hired a pair of hands and wished they’d left their brains behind,” writes NeuroLeadership CEO David Rock, author of  Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work.

Generations X and Y have been making major organizational contributions, albeit with different expectations. They embrace personal development, while valuing freedom and independence. They want to work for leaders who will help them fulfill their career potential—mentors who can help them improve their thinking.

 (From based on Edward T. Hall's cultural iceberg model:

The Iceberg Model

Some leadership experts have adopted the “iceberg” model to describe human performance. This metaphor suggests that some of our behaviors are visible, while most other behaviors, thoughts and feelings lurk below water.

Our work achievements are driven by how we think. Why, then, do leaders focus on what’s superficially visible when addressing employee performance? Evaluations rarely consider the factors that drive habits, nor do managers reflect on employees’ feelings or thoughts.

Many employees are highly capable individuals who want to work—and be—smarter. They’re crying out for help. It’s up to their leaders to learn how to ask the right questions and conduct truly engaging coaching conversations.

Start a Coaching Conversation

If we want people to think better, we must essentially let them do all the thinking. Dr. Rock suggests the following five-step process for establishing a coaching conversation that enables self-directed learning:

1. Let the employee think through his specific issue. Avoid telling him what to do or giving advice. Ask questions about his thought process.

2. Keep him focused on solutions, not problems.

3. Challenge him to expand his thinking and stretch himself, instead of clinging to his comfort zone.

4. Focus on what he’s doing well so you can play to his strengths.

5. Make sure there are clear processes behind every conversation. To be truly helpful, a coaching conversation requires permission to ask questions and explore possibilities.

Posing questions allows you to focus on your employees’ mental processes. Asking them to share thoughts:

·  Helps them find connections in their minds

·  Makes them more self-aware

·  Encourages them to take greater responsibility for solutions

Useful Questions

The following questions can facilitate a constructive coaching conversation:

·   How long have you been thinking about this?

·   How often do you think about it?

·   On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is this?

·   How clear are you about the issue?

·   How high a priority does this issue have?

·   How committed are you to resolving this?

·   Can you see any gaps in your thinking?

·   What impact is thinking about this issue having on you?

·   How do you react when you think of this?

·   How do you feel about the resources you’ve invested thus far?

·   Do you have a plan for shifting this issue?

·   How can you deepen your insight on this?

·   How clear are you on what to do next?

·   How can I best help you further?

None of these questions focuses on the problem’s specific details. Notice how the questions avoid suggesting what employees should think or do. They’re designed to help your people take notice of their own thinking.

Asking Permission

An effective coaching conversation requires an environment where people feel safe enough to explore their thoughts and reach new insights. Four elements should be in place:

1. Permission: “Is this a good time to talk and explore your thinking?”

2. Placement: “Let’s see if you can come up with some ideas in the next few minutes.”

3.  Questioning: “Is it OK if I ask you to share your thoughts with me?”

4.  Clarifying: “Tell me more about this. What do you mean?”

As you approach the most personal questions, ask yet again for permission. People can quickly become defensive and stop listening to you. Asking permission frequently helps people feel safe, acknowledged and respected. Here are some sample approaches:

1.  I get the sense you have more to say about this. Could I probe a little further?

2.  I’d like to have a more open conversation than we’ve had before. Would it be OK to ask you some more specific questions right now?

3.  Can we spend a few minutes brainstorming ideas around this?

4.  I’d like to understand more about your thinking. Would you be OK with talking more about this?

5.  I’d like to discuss some more personal matters. Would this be OK with you?

Empowering subordinates is hard and complicated work. You have to be willing to give up control and let people work through their own thinking. A good leader acts as a guide rather than the all-knowing expert.

Are you working in a professional services firm or other organization where executive coaches provide leadership development to help leaders have coaching conversations and teach people to think? Does your organization provide executive coaching for leaders who need to learn how to have coaching conversations? Enlightened leaders tap into their emotional intelligence and social intelligence skills to create a more fulfilling future.

One of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself is “How can I have coaching conversations at work and think better?” Emotionally intelligent and socially intelligent organizations provide executive coaching to help leaders develop more effective teams.

Working with a seasoned executive coach and leadership consultant trained in emotional intelligence and incorporating assessments such as the Bar-On EQ-I, CPI 260 and Denison Culture Survey can help leaders build high performance organizations. You can become a leader who models emotional intelligence and social intelligence, and who inspires people to become fully engaged with the vision, mission and strategy of your company or law firm.

About Dr. Maynard Brusman

Dr. Maynard Brusman is a consulting psychologist, executive coach and trusted advisor to senior leadership teams. He is the president of Working Resources, a leadership consulting and executive coaching firm. We specialize in helping San Francisco Bay Area companies and law firms assess, select, coach, and retain emotionally intelligent leaders.  Maynard is a highly sought-after speaker and workshop leader. He facilitates leadership retreats in Northern California and Costa Rica. The Society for Advancement of Consulting (SAC) awarded Dr. Maynard Brusman "Board Approved" designations in the specialties of Executive Coaching and Leadership Development.

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