The term ‘business coaching’ conjures up an image of a one-to-one session scheduled in the diary, focusing exclusively on the coachee’s goals and how s/he can work towards them. And a lot of coaching does take place in this format, particularly when delivered by an external business coach.
For a manager-coach however, the picture is not quite so clear. Formal business coaching sessions should never be undervalued – yet she can also coach people informally, in her everyday conversations with her team, so that it becomes part of her basic approach to management. In their book Solution-focused Coaching, Jane Green and Anthony Grant talk of a formal-informal continuum:
In-house workplace coaching lies on a continuum from the formal structured workplace coaching at one end to the informal, on-the-run workplace coaching at the other – what you might call corridor coaching: the few minutes snatched in the corridor in the midst of a busy project.
The two types of business coaching are not mutually exclusive – many managers use both styles in complementary ways.
The most obvious characteristic of formal business coaching is that it is being used explicitly – during the session both parties are clear that they are engaged in ‘coaching’ and are committed to this process as well as the outcome.
Formal coaching usually takes place during scheduled appointments. This sends a powerful signal to individual team members that their development and success is important, and that the manager is there to provide support.
When a series of appointments are scheduled, coaching becomes a beginning and end. This can have a motivating effect, with the well-known phenomenon of ‘deadline magic’ coming into play towards the end of the process, when both business coach and coachee focus their efforts on achieving the goal(s) within the allotted time.
The clear parameters of formal coaching mean that both coach and coachee tend to spend most sessions in coaching mode – i.e. with the coachee doing most of the talking, and the business coach primarily engaged in listening, asking questions and giving feedback, as described in the post on Key Coaching Skills.
Informal business coaching is a bit of a grey area – when the approach is used implicitly, as part of the everyday conversation between the manager and her team, it may be that neither party would describe the conversation as ‘coaching’.
Some team members are uncomfortable with the word ‘coaching’ or the idea of being coached – but respond well to a manager who takes the time to listen carefully to them and ask questions that empower them to find their own way of meeting a challenge or solving a problem, without being told what to do.
Or a manager may be so familiar with this approach (or it may be so similar to her natural communication style) that she may not consciously decide to ‘coach’ someone but instinctively listen and ask rather than ‘tell and sell’.
Informal coaching does not take place in scheduled appointments but in everyday workplace conversations. These conversations may be short or long, one-to-one or within a group, task-focused or people-focused – what qualifies them as coaching is not a formal model or structure, but a style of conversation.
The coaching style of management is one in which the manager typically takes a ‘step back’ in order to empower team members and elicit their commitment and creativity, helping them to both get the job done and learn something new in the process. So instead of giving orders or dispensing knowledge, the manager asks questions and listens to see what team members come up with.
For a manager-coach, coaching is not something that begins and ends with a session or programme – asking questions, listening, empathising and giving observational (rather than judgmental) feedback are elements of her personal communication style. For a coaching organisation, this leadership style is simply ‘the way we do things round here’.
Because informal coaching is a way of doing things rather than a clearly defined programme, there is no overall beginning and end, but an ongoing process. The conversation becomes open-ended, with markers such as goal-setting and review occurring along the way, not as book-ends but part of a larger process of learning.
As informal coaching is not confined to formal sessions, this leadership style is not used exclusively but according to the demands of the situation, as part of a range of management styles. During a given conversation a manager may switch in and out of coaching mode, as well as using other management styles, as described in the post on Coaching and Leadership.
Which style should I use?
Neither style is better or worse than the other, and many managers use both. Which one you use will depend on a range of factors:
The manager’s preference
Some managers are comfortable with scheduling formal sessions and having a clearly structured coaching programme – others’ toes curl up at the very thought. When working with people, it’s vitally important to be yourself and use an approach you feel comfortable with. So make sure you are honest with yourself and your team about your own preferences and work with, not against them.
On the other hand there’s nothing wrong with a bit of creative experiment – I’ve seen some managers achieve great results by starting the first session by saying “Well this is a new approach for me and to be honest I’m not sure whether it’s my style, but let’s try it out and see how it goes…”.
The coachee’s preference
It goes without saying that this is at least as important as the manager’s preference. Some coachees love the idea of having dedicated time for their own development, as well as clearly defined goals and a structure for achieving them. Others are deeply suspicious of a formal structure for this kind of work, and much prefer to do things in a more informal, casual way. Ignore this at your peril!
Just as individuals have preferences, so do organisations. Approaches that are well-received in a large broadcaster or newspaper may be unworkable or inflammatory in a small agency or studio. This doesn’t mean you can’t try something new, but you may have to be creative about how you sell it to people within the company.
The kind of task
It’s difficult to generalise about this, as I’ve seen both formal and informal coaching used successfully with a wide range of tasks and goals. However for ‘big picture’ goals such as a large new project, a person’s career or annual goals, a formal session can be a powerful way of setting the scene and getting people focused. There are also many instances in which a smaller or ongoing issue may not merit a formal meeting, but a brief chat by the proverbial water cooler is just the job to tease out a problem and get things moving again.