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Coaching Isn’t Just Asking Questions-From the Forbes Coaches Council

There’s a pervasive myth out there about coaching. Even though we teach that coaching calls on a broad set of skills, people boil it down to just one thing: asking powerful questions. By extension, leaders who buy into this myth come to believe that when they are coaching, they can’t share their thoughts. This narrow definition becomes quite the stumbling block for leaders who are learning to coach their people.

In an effort to avoid outright sharing, beginner leader-coaches often become adept at cloaking their thoughts and insights as questions (e.g., “Have you considered…?” “What if you…?”). But coaching isn’t just questions. As more and more leaders seek to strengthen their coaching skills, it’s essential to expand our concept of coaching.

What is coaching

The International Coach Federation speaks to 11 core competencies of coaching, many of which are equally applicable to leaders who are seeking to coach their people. In addition to “powerful questioning,” leader-coaches must learn to listen actively, communicate directly, create awareness, design actions, pursue goals, and create accountability. All of these are accomplished through conversation — through acts of speech, including but not limited to asking questions.

If you step back and observe great coaching conversations, you’ll begin to notice that leader-coaches make two basic “moves” in the conversation: (1) they ask good questions (to invoke insights, clarify, and explore), and (2) they share observations, including feedback, insights, ideas and ways forward. Simply put, sharing observations is the yin to the yang of coaching questions. But nuance matters: Just as coaches must learn to ask questions in an open, non-leading way, they must also learn to share open-ended observations.

Sharing Observations

The same characteristics that make a question open-ended also make an observation open-ended. To say something in an open-ended way is to say it such that the receiver must reflect on his or her thoughts, feelings and intuition to generate a meaningful, cohesive response. When sharing open-ended observations (as with asking open-ended questions), the person you’re coaching is invited to think expansively. In other words, open-ended observations result in the exploration of different perspectives.

Case Study on how small business uses Q12

Sue joined Nearmap two years ago. The company, an entrepreneurial small business, had a lot of staff who joined in one role but then pivoted and ended up doing something else for the business. The company wanted to put the right foundation in place to support its staff. The company looked into other engagement surveys that were quite long and didn’t have much impact and realized that they needed to find a survey that was “short and sharp” and that the company could use to impact its workforce. Sue already had a relationship with Gallup and felt comfortable implementing the Q12 at Nearmap.

Sue says the Q12 is a “health check” — showing you where your organization is at a moment in time. But what you do with that information will take you to the next level. If you’re prepared to work at it, you can achieve phenomenal results.

Nearmap rolled out its first Q12 engagement survey and saw a 90% participation rate. Sue had several Gallup people come to talk to the Nearmap executive team and managers regarding the nature of the survey, why the company was doing it and what success looked like; the company got a lot of buy-in from the team and managers.

Nearmap focused managers on action planning, and the one or two questions they would be working on, based on the first survey’s results.

When Nearmap got the scores from the first Q12 administration, the company realized they didn’t do too well. The company spent time with Gallup representatives, and formulated a strong plan for growth that has carried it through the past two years.

Mission and purpose (Q08) was an item that the company scored low on — the executive team was surprised at this. But when they actually discussed this among themselves, they realized that they didn’t have the same ideas about mission and purpose. So they came together to decide on a direction going forward that they could agree on, metrics to measure how well they are doing, and to obtain buy-in from the staff so that they would all be going on this journey together.

Regarding Q01, “I know what is expected of me at work,” the company realized that the job descriptions didn’t always match what employees were doing each day. So the company rewrote the job descriptions for every staff member so there was more clarity and consistency.

And Nearmap also looked at KPIs and what each employee does each day to help the company reach its mission and vision and hit its 2022 metrics. Every person at Nearmap is KPI’d to the 2022 metrics.

Nearmap added a verbatim custom question to its engagement survey, “If you were CEO for a day, what is the one thing you would change?” And the CEO responds to every question and makes the responses available to all of the staff to review. Transparency is a key core value for Nearmap. And all of this stems from the Q12 and the other engagement survey questions.

Nearmap has seen some powerful results in four administrations of the Q12 so far: for example, its “actively disengaged” percentage has declined sharply over that time, from 25% to below 2%.

And Q12 opened the door for strengths. The company learned a lot from the first Q12 administration, and Sue felt strengths could push the company to where it needed to be. She decided to roll out strengths in four phases. The first phase involved rolling out strengths to the company’s employees — U.S. employees first. She was overwhelmed with how well the U.S. employees accepted strengths. She then rolled out strengths to the company’s Australian employees.

Skeptical employees have often come around to buy into strengths because they realize that this is about “you learning who you are.” There’s no “hard sell” necessary. Nearmap infuses strengths and people’s Top 5 into everything they do, including posting strengths and their definitions around the office.

Phase 2 was about partnerships — with whom do I partner, and with whom do I like to partner? It involved getting people to look at the dynamics of the teams and how to make them more successful. And the company also incorporated strengths into action planning — how are you going to use your strengths to do what you need to do in this action plan? Showing the team grid to the team is also very powerful.

Phases 3 and 4 are still a work in progress. Sue wants to look at broadening partnerships, so that they are not just within teams but across the business — how can these partnerships from strengths be leveraged to the benefit of the business? That is part of what is in the works for these two phases.

Nearmap uses a “Best of Us” activity — in which people reveal when (under which circumstances) they are at their best and when they are at their worst; what they can be counted on to give the partnership; and what they need to be successful.
Having family members take strengths (Strengths Explorer for kids) has given Sue new insights about her husband and her children. It’s “relational shorthand” for family as well as work relationships.