Book Excerpt: Action Coaching

FRAMINGHAM (03/15/2000) - In Action Coaching: How to Leverage Individual Performance for Company Success (Jossey-Bass, 1999), David L. Dotlich and Peter C. Cairo propose innovative methods for developing employees in an age in which a company's competitive advantage depends entirely on the talent and skills of its staff. The authors argue that action coaching is different from other forms of coaching in that it links corporate goals with raising an employee's self-awareness about a particular behavioral problem (like being too critical of one's direct reports) and with increasing an individual's performance level or helping a high-potential employee adapt to a changing environment. In this condensed excerpt from Chapter 3, "Action Coach's Toolkit," Dotlich and Cairo outline the basic steps of action coaching.

Determine What Needs to Happen and in What Context What needs to happen is for your client to change in ways that fit with the organizational context. One of the biggest challenges for coaches is figuring out what this context entails. If you're a manager coaching a direct report, you probably have some sense of context. You know, for example, that the company is embracing diversity, and your direct report can only work with people who are exactly like he is. Many times, however, the organizational context is complex, changing or multifaceted, and your take on it as a manager is limited to the work you do. There may be leadership development imperatives you're unaware of, or you may not recognize the underlying tensions caused by a new business direction [mandated by the CEO]. Our organization-individual diagnostic provides more specific directions for accomplishing these goals and creating a plan with organizational requirements in mind.

GATHER INFORMATION Start out gathering information from your client, as well as others, about what must be done for the organization (or department, team or individual) to gain market share, beat the competition, increase productivity or develop a crucial new skill. Ask the following questions:

What is the current agenda that the CEO is emphasizing?

Where are the opportunities to improve performance, and where are the roadblocks?

Have the programs designed to address customer, brand or service issues failed or succeeded, and why?

Is it difficult to retain people, develop them quickly or help them make significant changes?

DETERMINE A CLIENT'S STAND ON ISSUES Once you determine what the key organizational or group issue is, focus your questions on where your client stands on this issue. Structure your questions on "feel-know-do" factors. Let's say that management needs your team to create more effective strategies that capitalize on available resources rather than strategies that are blue sky thinking.

Do you feel you've been properly trained to create the strategies the company requires?

Do you know the organizational strengths and weaknesses well enough to produce the strategies required?

What have you done to date in terms of strategic planning, and what have been the results?

DEVELOP A PLAN Based on this feedback, determine what actions need to take place. Consider the following factors before creating a plan:

Are the actions focused solely on your client, or must they involve direct reports, bosses or customers? Will there be resistance to the actions you're contemplating? Be specific about what the anticipated gain is for the organization or the group. Why will your client be motivated to change?

Establish Trust and a Mutual Set of Expectations Although there are many ways to implement this step effectively, here are a few components.

Open-minded hearing. When your client talks to you, silence the voice in your head that judges and that is thinking about what to say next.

Appreciative inquiry. Reflect the other person's tone and mood by restating the essential message with phrases such as, "What you seem to be saying is...."

Self-disclosure and frankness. Share relevant problems from your past; talk about how you dealt with this type of issue. But remember not to shift the focus away from the client.

Contract with Client for Results

You're pushing your client to commit to a specific action. This means you'll probably have to challenge your client to be accountable for it. As you're negotiating results, watch for certain red flags like the ones listed below that signal that confrontation is necessary.

Focuses only on her own growth and ignores the development mandated by the organization Agrees to get feedback about her impact on others but refuses to commit to major performance improvement Insists that a serious problem is minor or that an issue will resolve itself Blames others for the situation Knows what needs to be done but is afraid to commit to a specific action Concretizing reality. Offer tape-recorded evidence of problems that direct reports are having with your client. Take your client to an executive meeting and let him hear why new competencies are necessary. Confront him with a standardized test or performance review indicating that he's not very communicative.

Transferring ownership. People will blame systems and cultures for situations, thereby absolving themselves of any responsibility. Don't allow your client to get away with statements like, "Well, there's not much I can do since it's a systemic problem."

Stopping the action. At some point, you'll find that your client is exhibiting the same negative behavior in your interaction that is hampering him in the larger work environment. This is a great opportunity to point out what's happening right then.

Call to action. After a certain amount of discussion, you need to say something like, "Yes, I understand the reasons why you're in this situation, but what are you going to do?"

Sometimes it will be tough for the person you're coaching to acknowledge this negative feedback. Typically, they go through stages of shock, anger, rejection and acceptance. You don't have to secure a commitment to specific results seconds after you confront him or her. Let your client react defensively for a bit before putting your foot down.

TRANSLATE TALK INTO ACTION One way to translate talk into action is for clients to visualize their futures. This gives people the impetus to prioritize their activities in order to achieve a desired situation.

Brainstorm. Ask the client to imagine all the ways she might change what she does and the various scenarios that might result.

Create an ideal day. Ask specific questions about what she would be doing on an ideal day, what position she would be in and what projects she would be working on. Then analyze what needs to take place for this ideal to be realized.

Anchor the vision in reality. Move from the ideal to the real by asking people a series of questions that look to the future directly.

What type of success will your company be enjoying?

What role will you play in this success?

What are the similarities and differences between your current role and the role you'll play in the future?

How will your performance improvement affect your team or your company?

SUPPORT BIG STEPS Role playing is a terrific tool to support the actions your client needs to take. Dress rehearsals give your client a chance to see how a new behavior or way of conducting business feels.

One general piece of advice about this tool: don't let the role playing scenarios go on too long. A minute often suffices.

Reverse roles. Pretend to be your client and have your client be the direct report or customer. This helps the client see things from the other person's perspective.

Create worst-case scenarios. If the situation involves your client asking a boss for more resources, turn him down cold. If it has to do with your client confronting a direct report with a difficult truth, break down crying when you hear it. Rehearsing extreme situations removes some of the fear from taking a given action.

FOSTER REFLECTION ABOUT AN ACTION Reflection is a way for your client to make sense of the actions she needs to take. Once they make sense, they're much easier to act on.

Ask clients to reflect on what they've learned from the coaching process so far. How would they act differently in a key situation? What skills do they need?

Push clients to reflect on key assumptions. Many times people don't make necessary changes or develop in key ways because they assume it won't help the team or business. For example, a client refuses to raise outside-the-box questions during meetings because he's convinced that they won't benefit the team or that team members will view him as a lightweight. Ask him, "When you consider proposing an unusual idea to your team, you don't do it because you seem to believe the team is inherently conservative and judgmental. What do you think about that?"

EVALUATE INDIVIDUAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL PROGRESS Performance reviews, management team review of productivity increases and other devices are all appropriate.

The following questions will help you balance the individual needs and issues of your client with larger business requirements.

What specific changes in behavior and attitude indicate that your client has achieved the targeted goal?

What motivated the person to achieve these objectives? Will this motivation continue to keep the person on track?

Do others in the organization believe the client has met key organizational requirements? If not, where do they believe the client has gone astray?

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