Performance Coaching – a work in progress

Performance Coaching – a work in progress

You’ve only gone and done it! After thousands of hours cycling in all weathers, numerous injuries and a constant battle for funding, your talent and potential have finally been recognised. You’ve been invited to join Team GB’s Olympic Cycling Squad.

You arrive at the training camp in a flurry of nervous anticipation. There’s so much they can teach you and no one is willing to work harder or learn faster than you. Imagine your sense of shock then, when after a week of induction training, you’re told: “We’ll check in with you in a year to feedback on your progress and give you some tips.”

Ludicrous, eh? Yet it’s been happening in the workplace for years. After initial training, employees often don’t get the chance to evaluate their performance and progress until the dreaded annual review. Then they have just 60 minutes to recall all the highs and lows of the year, ask questions that have occurred to them along the way, and suggest how they might improve their performance and contribution to the business.

Why we need a change

It seems obvious that there should be a better way to secure the best from, and for, your employees. The world of work is changing fast, not just since the onset of Covid, but also with the rapid pace of digital transformation. What worked last year may not work this year, and gone are the days when a manager has all the answers. Achieving the best performance is an ongoing process for leaders and employees alike. We are all works in progress. Which is where performance coaching comes in.

As a collaborative process between an employee and someone with greater experience – usually a manager – performance coaching aims to support an employee’s development, build their skills, improve their performance and help them reach their full potential. It also contributes to the better working of the team and organisation as a whole. It’s an ongoing process of every day reflection and development, not an emergency solution for underperformance.

There has been a tendency to view performance coaching as elitist – useful for executives and rising stars. But it can be beneficial for both employee and employer at all levels.

In 2018, the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) surveyed 1,000 UK professionals working in Healthcare, Finance or Retail about their experiences of coaching and it’s clear that the benefits could be felt more widely across the workplace:

• 79% of those surveyed believe coaching can help teams when adopting new technology and different ways of working

• 58% said they felt more confident after coaching and 42% saw improved performance in colleagues who had been coached

• those who received coaching cited improved confidence, performance and productivity as three positive changes for themselves and their wider team and organisation.

What happens if we don’t coach?

“Starting a new job and feel like you don’t know what the hell you’re doing? Congratulations. You’ve picked the path of growth.”

The entrepreneur Steven Bartlett recently posted this on LinkedIn. He’s right, but the path can be a daunting one without someone to learn from. As humans, we’re hardwired to receive performance coaching – it’s that natural need for approval, encouragement and help to do better.

Without feedback we don’t feel appreciated or able to learn and develop; we soon become discontented. And in turn that can result in us looking for a new job where we will receive that support. For Millennials, the ideal week would include 50% more coaching /mentoring than they currently get (1), and 25% of employees suggest that support and recognition from their line manager would help keep them in their current job (2). In Project Oxygen, Google’s famed management survey, the leading quality for a good manager is being “a good coach”, with good communication, supporting career development, and discussing performance also rated highly.

What happens when we do coach

In short, people do better, feel better and stay longer! As well as improved confidence, performance and productivity, coaching can develop independence and innovation, and improve retention levels. To return to ILM’s survey:

• 84% of those surveyed said that coaching would have helped them in periods when they struggled to manage an individual, rising to 88% when they had struggled with a project.

• Managers were positive about the impact of coaching with two-thirds agreeing that coaching would make them feel good about managing others.

• More than four-fifths (84%) of employers believe coaching should be part of every organisation’s management and development programme.

How to get started

While bringing in external coaches is still common practice, more and more organisations are realising that coaching is a culture change, rather than a one-off event. According to John McGurk, learning and talent adviser at CIPD: “The real challenge is the cultural one of getting line managers to start acting in a coach-like way when they manage on a day-to-day basis.”

According to Harvard Business Review, “an effective manager-as-coach asks questions instead of providing answers, supports employees instead of judging them and facilitates their development instead of dictating what has to be done”. It’s about helping an individual become aware of what needs to be done to improve their performance and to take responsibility for doing something about it. Yet 47% of managers admit the reason they don’t coach is that they don’t know how, with a significant proportion not understanding what coaching really is (3).

Educating and training your managers to understand the benefits of coaching and experience it for themselves is a great place to start. If you want your managers to coach employees to perform to the best of their ability, then you need to teach them how. This will not only allow them to support others within their teams, but also mean they feel more engaged, valued and invested in. It’s a win win situation.

Building a coaching culture

In a large organisation, you can put plans and investment into place to develop coaching skills across your leadership team and beyond, but even in the smallest team we can all become better coaches by following a few simple pointers from day to day.

Listen – this is the key skill for any coach. Let your employees know that you care enough to listen to what they have to say, and encourage them to share their opinions.

Question – employees learn and grow the most when they uncover the answers themselves, but you can help by asking questions that help them focus on specific facts: what needs to change and how? You can help them explore the upside, the downside of each option.

Help set goals – identify opportunities for improved performance and encourage employees to challenge themselves. Goals don’t always have to be long-term – what would they like to accomplish here and now?

Encourage, don’t dictate – help employees arrive at their own solution – you’re not there to tell them how, but guide them to their own conclusions. What one thing could they start with?

Be supportive and give feedback: ask what you can do to help and be available so they’re comfortable coming to you. Coaching is about two-way check-ins, not micromanaging. So be positive, analyse, and encourage. Build confidence and recognise achievement.

Keep learning – your employees can’t develop new skills if they’re not given training, so give them the chance to grow and learn.

If the process still sounds daunting, don’t underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis. Over time they can add up to big successes. To revert to the world of cycling again – the real thing this time – Ian Drake, former Chief Executive of British Cycling said of his role: “You’re just a custodian for a very limited period of time and you’ve got to leave it in a better state than you found it.” If we aspire to coach, this is surely good advice. If we can help our employees improve their performance even a little and take them to a better place than we found them, then that’s a job well done.

(1) The 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey
(2) Deloitte, Talent 2020
(3) Harvard Business Review,