The challenge of coaching the coach
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The challenge of coaching the coach

Put your lean know-how to the test in this continuous improvement dilemma

We are what I believe to be a successful and forward-thinking manufacturing business. We’ve been implementing our own form of CI over the past two years with good results; we spent a lot of time researching successful lean implementations in other organisations before we began our journey and believe that we profited from that investment.

The process is led from the top. We make every effort to incorporate continuous improvement into the normal way in which ‘work works’ so that we avoid the idea of it being a ‘project’.

We’re scrupulous in our use of the plan, do, check, act (PDCA) cycle and have understood how well we learn when we use this simple tool well. I could go on, but you get the point; we’re serious about it.

Recently, one issue has arisen for which we don’t have a straightforward answer. Some time ago we developed coaching skills in our managers and we’re also trying to introduce the idea of ‘coaching the coach’. Coaching as part of CI makes sense to us; how else do people learn to tackle their own issues? We recognise it as a key part of sustainability. We’ve trained our people very thoroughly, but despite this we notice big variations in the quality of both direct coaching and in ‘coaching the coach’.

In particular, we notice that while managers can be reasonably good at coaching in highly structured situations, like in front of the metrics board, they seem to revert to old habits when they are operating outside of these ‘highly cued’ situations. Direct reports of these managers report inconsistent behaviour. Offering more training has had some impact on coaching and on ‘coaching the coach’, but not enough to make a real difference and we’re losing faith with one or two people. We’d rather find a way of sticking with them. What do we do?

Kevin Eyre gives his view

First of all, let me congratulate you on a job well done. Not all organisations have understood the critical importance of coaching in CI.

The variation you notice in the quality of coaching provided by your managers is quite normal. It’s like any type of variation. Why would we expect uniform coaching performance of diverse people after the same training input? Some people find it harder than others to adopt a coaching style of leading and a few of your people are falling into this category. The tendency to fall back on more directive and solution-oriented styles of
managing is strong, remember this.

I like your term, ‘highly cued situations’ for this is what they are. The structure helps people to realise new behaviours, but it doesn’t necessarily make them habitual – we all stop at a zebra crossing, but few of us stop for so long when we cross the road in its absence.

Unless coaching behaviour becomes a natural way of operating it will only operate in certain situations. That, as you state, risks default and more directive behaviour having free reign and people seeing the coaching of their managers as sporadic and inauthentic.

So what should you so? In all probability, your strugglers are good people, technically strong and believers in the benefits of coaching; they just can’t do it very well. The likely reason is that they lack the necessary patience or tolerance and experience a strong sense of frustration when their coaches fail to get to an answer fast. The solution to this lies in an examination of the reason for this impatience and the development of an ability to manage the emotional trigger that causes it.

This needs close work with very regular feedback and lots of practice, but it doesn’t need more skills training. Stick at it and the people will pull through. You should expect them to need sustained support for as long as nine months; it’s probably taken 30 or 40 years for them to have developed their preferred styles of operating and these won’t be coaching oriented.

‘Coaching the coach’ is a tougher challenge still, but it follows the same principles as coaching and demands at least the same investment. Its purpose is to focus on the quality of the dialogue within the organisation and to make sure that the quality of coaching improves. In this sense it’s little different from focusing on product quality.

Only managers who are competent coaches should ‘coach the coach’ so keep your slower learners away from this in the short term, but make clear that this will be an expectation of the role. One way to speed the development of your less capable coaches is to have your better coaches ‘coach the coach’ with the strugglers. In this way everyone benefits. Keep the faith.

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