Organizations are counting on their managers to help with two of the biggest challenges in today’s work environment—keeping people engaged and keeping them productive. It’s a results and people approach that coaching expert Madeleine Homan Blanchard is very familiar with. As the chief coaching architect for The Ken Blanchard Companies, Madeleine is regularly brought in when a client requests to improve the coaching skills of an organization’s managers.
Listen to Learn is a refined way of listening that is subtle but powerful
“People have to show up at work every day as their best possible selves, firing on all cylinders. At the same time, organizations are looking to their managers to keep people engaged and growing. Managers need coaching skills to rise to that challenge.
“A manager with good coaching skills can help direct reports think through problems that don't have an obvious solution. These managers learn how to create a safe environment where a person can look at the whole landscape of their work and prioritize what needs to be done. Managers also learn how to stay quiet, ask good questions, and help people hear their own voice and find their own answers. Sometimes that's the best thing you can do as a leader.”
But before Blanchard moves to that step, she always asks an important fundamental question.
“When people come to us and say, “We want our people to be coaches,” or “We want a coaching culture,” my first question is, “How are you managing performance now?”
Blanchard asks that question to make sure the organization already has a system in place for setting clear goals and providing feedback on basic performance.
“Many times, when an organization brings us in to create what they call a ‘coaching culture,’ what they are really envisioning is a culture where managers make sure people have clear goals they are held accountable for, people understand what a good job looks like, and people get what they need when they need it.
“That’s extremely important, but that’s not coaching—it’s performance management.”
If performance management is what a client really needs, Blanchard recommends they start with a proven performance management process such as her company’s SLII® performance management model. SLII® teaches the basics: goal setting, diagnosing development level, and providing a matching leadership style.
“Goal setting, diagnosing, and matching are the foundation of effective performance management. From there, you can layer on the skills of coaching.”
For Blanchard, the coach approach includes how to create an environment where people will be eager to grow. To do this, managers need a different mindset, a foolproof process, and some upgraded skills.
“The number one coaching skill no one talks about is self-regulation: understanding one’s own natural tendencies and how they get in the way of building trust. From there, almost everyone can improve their listening skills, learn to ask better questions and get more courageous in talking about reality.
“These are advanced skills that assume a performance management foundation is already in place. I didn't understand this until I was a couple of years into teaching coaching skills. I kept getting questions such as: ‘What do I do when I have an employee who wears white socks with a navy blue suit?’
“That doesn’t require advanced coaching skills; it just requires being able to give clear direction.
“Managers are skittish about giving direct, timely feedback—but we have found they can earn the right to do it by listening carefully and asking good questions. When employees are performing to expectation, the manager can put on their coach hat and create an environment where people feel safe to reveal themselves, experiment, push themselves, and maybe fail.
“That's the modality a manager can use to get innovation. That's how you get the highest and best out of each person on your team. But you're not going to do that unless the basic performance is there and the person is actually doing the job the way it needs to be done.”
For clients who are ready, Blanchard first introduces the importance of shifting to a coaching mindset, which includes demonstrating that you have the coachee’s best interests at heart. Then she shares a coaching conversation process that works every time. The coaching conversation consists of four steps: how to Connect, Focus, Activate, and Review.
“Connect requires the manager to be fully present in the here and now—truly paying attention to the person being coached,” Blanchard explains. “Focus means clarifying and putting in order the topics to be discussed. Activate means identifying action steps—what will we do next? Review, a step which is often skipped, ensures crystal clear agreement on what was decided, what actions will be taken, and in what time frame.”
From there, Blanchard shares the four LITE skills of Listen to Learn, Inquire for Insight, Tell Your Truth, and Express Confidence.
“Listen to Learn is a refined way of listening that is subtle but powerful. It teaches managers to listen for the heart of the matter—something that is easy to miss. We remind managers that you can’t listen if you are talking, and we give them a memorable acronym: W.A.I.T. – Why Am I Talking? It’s about quieting your mind so you can really hear what the other person is sharing.
“Inquire for Insight challenges managers to ask better questions. There is a big distinction between asking decent questions and asking the best question. For example, instead of asking ‘Why did you do it that way?’ or ‘Tell me what you were thinking,’ which deals with the past and asks you to defend your actions, a manager will learn to ask ‘How could you have done it differently?’ or ‘How might you approach it differently in the future?’ This looks ahead at new possibilities and responses.
“Tell Your Truth is all about having the courage to say what needs to be said, which often means giving feedback. We teach managers to examine their motive and intention for saying something. Is this something the person needs to hear or something you just feel the need to say? This skill teaches managers how to make better decisions about what to share and what not to share. Intentions are often murky. We have managers ask themselves: Am I sharing an observation I think will be helpful, am I making a request for a behavior change that needs to happen, or is this a hard-core demand? We help managers navigate the ins and outs of this tricky skill.
“Express Confidence is all about maintaining the distinction between people and their performance. ‘As a person, you are innately brilliant and valuable. Your recent behavior, on the other hand—’ It’s all about creating a strong, trusting relationship.”
Blanchard sometimes hears comments about how basic these skills seem.
“On the surface these skills may seem basic, but when they are actually applied, they are surprisingly powerful.
“We strive for simplicity so the skill is doable—so managers can do it! This approach to developing coaching skills provides managers with a proven way to explore. How am I developing this person for the next role? How are they growing? What are their concerns? What is this person most interested in and most passionate about? These are the types of questions people are asking themselves today.
“The Great Resignation has caused people everywhere to think hard about where they are going and how their current organization is helping them get there. Managers who develop coaching skills on top of good performance management skills have an advantage. They know how to have conversations so they can get insight into where someone might want go in the organization even if it has nothing to do with the role they have now.”
“A coaching mindset earns you the right to coach and to be the person who makes a difference—the person your people can trust—where they can be vulnerable, where they can tell the truth about themselves, and where they can have conversations that will get them where they need to go.”