Coaching frameworks

I received a question a few weeks back on if I used a coaching framework and which one. My response was that I use a framework of my own design: a combination of SWOT analysis with OKR-style reporting. At the time, it didn't seem satisfying as an answer. The reality is always a little more nuanced; I've read multiple books on coaching, practiced various systems with my directs and received executive coaching myself. Over time and experience, I've dialled in a system that has resulted in many of my reports' professional growth and promotion.

But in retrospect, it's clearer to say that I use the GROW model. It's become widespread in tech, and it's generally the answer that folks want to hear.

GROW Model of Coaching

So what is the GROW model? It's a way of speaking that is intended to result in better nondirective coaching. Why non-directive coaching? Because most leaders naturally employ a directed style of leadership which takes place primarily through "telling" and leans heavily on authority. This style is prevalent in training a report for a specific job that is likely low-variability.

The challenge of modern teams is a fast-moving world: objectives change, technologies evolve, and it's no longer feasible to expect a manager or leader always to know the best way forward. Directed leadership also has the unfortunate property of stifling ownership and does not build organizational capacity well.

A GROW approach to coaching requires patience to learn and apply but is rewarding and energizing when used successfully. Avoiding leading questions means that the direct report always owns the problem to be solved, and the coaching method is specifically tailored to open perspective and draw out insight.

  • GOAL: Asking what the person wants to achieve from the session and in the immediate future, such as "What do you want when you walk out the door that you don't have now?"
  • Reality: This means asking probing questions about the current situation in detail. The trick here is to inquire about facts describing reality, such as what, who, when, and where – but explicitly not why, because it is tied to motivations and justifications, which border on judgment and can raise defences, which is counter-productive. A good question here is, "What are the key things we need to know?"
  • Options: This step is to help broaden the perspective. Often people who are seeking help feel like they have limited options. By opening the floor to creative thinking, more possibilities and perspectives emerge. I learned a trick from Product Management: Diverge for Options, Converge for Decisions. A good question here is, "If you had a magic wand, what would you do?"
  • Will: Asking "What will you do?" encourages detailing a specific plan. Sometimes the plan might just be to learn more about the situation, to show appreciative inquiry in learning more about a problem or someone's perspective or concerns. Sometimes, it's about preparing for a conversation or drafting a proposal. Another trick here is to ask how confident the person is in their plan and how likely they will be to act on it. Investing in helping someone through a problem, only for them not to feel confident enough to action on it, can be demotivating for all parties. My job as a people manager is to validate that my coaching serves the intended function.

The Effective Manager

This is the book I come back to more than anything. According to Mark Horstman, successful coaching is simply about asking for more. Supporting, mentoring, and coaching is not an end in itself. People managers are intended to drive value for the company. Effective managing is giving frequent feedback on performance, and effective coaching is continuously asking for higher levels of performance.

This may sound aggressive or counter-intuitive, but in a high-trust environment, it's a superpower. Too many managers feel like coaching is something to apply to low-performers, but coaching high-performers is satisfying and can yield much more.

Either way, every direct report should know their performance expectations in their role, and a regular review on the topic should occur. Not every direct will be rushing to exceed, and that's okay. They know what it is and are directly responsible for their career development. They also know that their manager will work with them to achieve their performance goals.

These are the steps for effective coaching that MT recommends:

  1. Collaborate to Set a Goal: Describe a behaviour or result to achieve by a date. For example: by (four months from now), you will deliver admin features within one week on average without introducing any regressions. (This is an example of the MT goal structure DBQ – Date Behaviour Quality). MT specifies that coaching goals are long-term behavioural goals – if they can be achieved in less than four months, a frequent feedback model will suffice.  
  2. Collaborate to Brainstorm Resources: There are no silver bullets. Go for volume, not accuracy.
  3. Collaborate to Create a Plan: Each step in the plan contains a deadline and behaviour and is completed when the reporting happens to the manager – effectively, the plan is an accountability system that you are directly investing in for the sake of your report. The plan is only for the first few weeks – it's not worth planning four months if they can't make it past the first week.
  4. The Direct Acts and Reports on the Plan: If the system has been set up correctly, we should receive regular updates in the form of task completion emails, and we then are briefly discussing the progress each week in 1:1s.

Steps 3 and 4 become iterative toward achieving the goal from step 1. If the direct report fails to accomplish a coaching task, we give the direct report negative feedback. MT gives an example: "When you miss your coaching deadlines, that's more work for later. Can you change that?". Similarly, positive feedback can be given when the direct report completes a coaching deliverable.

I love that Manager Tools willingly leverages what we know about organizational behaviour to set short deadlines on doable tasks to increase the chance of completion. Whenever possible, look for opportunities to observe the direct engaging in the behaviour we want, to provide the direct with feedback on what we observe, and make that a regular, very short-scope task. If coaching is behavioural, then the best way to achieve it is to enable and incentivize frequent practice.

The Coaching Habit

This book claims that seven questions and a coaching habit will foster team autonomy and empowerment. The central argument of this book is that successful coaching is through asking questions rather than providing answers. I found this book to be too long for its little substance, but if you are looking for a way to refresh your 1:1 questions, you can look to the seven questions for inspiration.