This past week I read the 2008 edition of the classic “Coaching for Performance” by Sir John Whitmore.
Sir Whitmore was one of the first to bring coaching from the world of sport to business. The first edition was published in 1992, so it is a somewhat older work. However, the basic principles and method are still quite accurate today, and the basis of many coaching practices around the world.
This books explores coaching’s purpose, method, and areas of application within the context of performance improvement.
In this post, I aim to share his take on the profession, method, some of the barriers to coaching effectively, and some insights you can implement on your own.
What is Coaching?
What is coaching all about? Ultimately, coaching is about building the self-belief of the coachee; the ability and confidence to achieve their goals and dreams. This approach recognizes that internal obstacles are often greater than external ones… as such much of coaching is concerned with freeing ourselves from parental, social and cultural conditioning. Coaching enhances self-belief by raising awareness (What do I REALLY want? What is REALLY stopping me?) and responsibility (What choices do I have? What can I actually control about this situation? How committed am I to taking action on this?).
Awareness is the first step to higher performance, because you cannot control that which you are not aware of. The second step is to choose responsibility. True responsibility can only be chosen. If we are told, ordered, or even advised to do something, and something goes wrong, responsibility remains with the one doing the telling, ordering or advising. Choosing responsibility is desirable in the context of performance, because it leads to a greater commitment to actions and outcomes.
Since responsibility is so dependent on choosing, an effective coach must be very careful when it comes to sharing information, and always seek to employ a non-directive approach in their work…one which helps the coachee to come to their own conclusions.
What Coaching is NOT
“Tell him all that you know” – Odysseus to Mentor
I include this to highlight the common confusion between mentoring and coaching. Mentoring is sharing knowledge and experience. Coaching is helping the individual or organization to uncover the insights for themselves and tap their innate potential and knowledge. The above quote is interesting in that it actually set significant limits as to the education Mentor was able to provide Odysseus’s son.
Philosophy on Human Potential and Learning
“I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught” -Churchill
Coaching operates from the philosophy that there is incredible potential already present within each of ourselves, and that under the right conditions, it will surface. Our evidence that this potential is there comes from examples of how humans react in times of crisis, or how competing athletes dig deep and find previously unknown reserves of energy. I have experienced both situations for myself, and all of us have had some sort of experience where they were able to rise to the occasion in a way they wouldn’t have predicted themselves being capable of.
If the potential is already inside, in the form of energy reserves or insights, then it just a matter of accessing it. Is crisis the only way to access this potential?
Conveniently, we humans have an innate mechanism which allows us to learn and bring this knowledge to the surface quite naturally. Unfortunately, the prevailing system of education and performance improvement is out of sync with this natural process.
One of the big critiques of the educational system in western society today is that it trains us to look for the answers outside of ourselves. Students are seen as empty vessels which gain value by being filled with knowledge. Teachers, managers and instructors present information, and then go on to presenting the conclusions that the student should take from it. Teaching by telling, as it is commonly practiced, diminishes self-belief and autonomy, and the learnings ultimately don’t stick.
“Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll remember. Involve me, I’ll understand.” – Ancient Chinese Proverb
This isn’t a new insight. Socrates based his method of teaching around it. Einstein has a list of quotes to the same effect.
According to Sir Whitmore this is the basis of what coaching is – asking the questions which provoke introspection and learning about oneself, in order to overcome the problems we experience internally.
Barriers to Coaching
This “telling” culture in education, business and performance improvement is one of the biggest barriers to adopting a coaching approach for two reasons. One, it is harder to give up what we’ve always done than to incorporate something new. Effective coaching requires us to stop telling in addition to incorporating a new approach to communication and problem solving. Old habits die hard. Two, telling feels quick, easy and gives the teller the illusion of control, as well as a false sense of accomplishment. Learning must be taking place, because I told them! True learning requires more than telling, as the results of this test by IBM and the UK Post attest.
While telling is only slightly less effective in the short term, in the long-term you are 6.5x more likely to retain something you’ve also experienced. Coaching allows the coachee to experience the learning for themselves.
It is important to emphasize that helping a coachee come to their own conclusions is NOT the same as leading them to the coach’s conclusions. The latter is still a telling approach, just disguised by nice questions, and naïve intentions.
“To gain control, we must first give it up.” -Sir John Whitmore
All of this translates to giving up a certain degree of control in a situation… if we truly want to tap the potential of others, we need to encourage them to think for themselves, come to their own conclusions, and make their own choices. Command and control is a strategy of the past… at least when it comes to peak performance.
Performance Coaching for Teams
The book gives a fantastic example of how giving up control leads to better performance in a team environment.
The Field Gun Race is an obstacle course competition between sub-branches of the UK’s Royal Navy, and is meant to simulate a battle the british army waged agains the Boers in South Africa. It requires incredibly complex and precise teamwork under time pressure from a 16 man team.
Check it out below:
In 1990, the trainer for one of the teams decided to implement a coaching approach to his training regime for this event. The result was that for the first time one team won all 5 trophies for the event with 30% fewer practice runs and fewer injuries. All of this in an event steeped in military culture – the birthplace of the command and control approach to performance.
The GROW Method
So what is the method which best aids the coachee in raising awareness and responsibility?
This book introduced the GROW method; a line of coaching questioning which progresses from the coachee’s Goals, to their current Reality, to Options, and finally to their Way forward.
Goal – Where do I want to go?
While for many it may seem more logical to start with Reality (where I am today), it is critical to begin performance coaching work with the end in mind. When we set goals from our current reality, it is much easier to get caught up in the assumptions and limiting belief systems we have established over years of parental, social and cultural conditioning. These goals tend to be negative, “away” oriented, and rooted in problems. Starting with the ideal outcome leads to goals which are more creative, inspiring, “towards” oriented, and motivating.
Reality – Where am I today?
The Reality phase of questioning explores the current position of the coachee with respect to their goals, in as objective a form as possible. It seeks to focus on the facts of the situation, avoids judgmental assessments, and helps the coachee uncover any assumptions they may have made about their situation.
This is usually the meat of a productive coaching session. Often, a thorough review of the facts is enough to solve any doubts and uncover the coachee’s next steps.
Options – What options do I have?
This phase is about getting down all the possible options on paper, favoring quantity over quality. The objective is to demonstrate the breadth of options the coachee actually has, and raise their feelings of autonomy and responsibility in relation to them.
Way – What options do I choose?
Finally, when all the options have been reviewed, its time to make a decision as to which action is most suitable for moving forwards. Choosing to do nothing is also a choice. Regardless, the objective of this phase is to gain absolute clarity on what actions will be taken, and then to pre-empt all foreseeable obstacles. The idea is to guarantee success for the coachee as much as possible.
The big takeaway from this book for me is about learning, and how this process can occur more naturally and faster.
I’ve included an image here describing the predominant theory of skill acquisition used in business. Basically, the idea is that we start in an unaware, incompetent state and that the path to performing a skill or task well (competently and unconsciously) involves being aware and incompetent, then aware and competent (making conscious effort). The cool thing about all of this, is that the 3rd stage of this cycle (aware and trying) can be made so natural it almost feels as if it is being skipped.
Sir Whitmore relates a number of stories in which merely measuring the degree of incompetence (aka raising awareness), has an automatic effect on its improvement.
One example he gives is of a driver who is learning how to change gears in his car more smoothly. He has two options to improve his performance.
1. He starts off as a non-driver (stage 1). He begins a driving course, and it quickly becomes apparent that he doesn’t change gears smoothly, which he knows because the car stalls and his driving companions complain (2). He then beings making a conscious effort to bring smoothness to the quality of his driving (3). Over the weeks and months that follow, through lots of conscious effort, his gear changes become smoother, and eventually automatic (4)…he no longer has to focus in order to perform this action well.
2. He begins as a non-driver (stage 1), then becomes aware of his crunchy gear-changes during classes (2). So far, the same. But now, instead of consciously making an effort to change gears more smoothly and think about the intricacies of how much gas and clutch to give, he simply assigns a rating scale to his gear changes, 1-10. A rating of 1 is a stalled car, a 10 is a completely unnoticeable gear change. Each time he changes gears, he internally rates the his performance in his head. Quickly, and seemingly without effort, his performance rises to hover between 9 and 10 on the scale he’s set for himself.
Is the secret to higher personal performance this simple? Is measuring my progress and getting frequent feedback all it takes?
From my own experience so far, there is some truth in this. If you’ve read any of the previous posts about personal productivity, you’ll have noticed I advocate using a time diary, aka, time tracking. This means accounting for all the minutes of your day on an excel spreadsheet.
I originally started doing this just to get a rough idea for how much time various tasks take me throughout the day, but I wound up sticking with it. It helps me stay aware of how I spend my time, and helps me stay on task. More on time-tracking systems later, but if you’re not using a system for this now, I strongly recommend it. Especially if you spend most of your workday in front of a computer anyway :).
Coaching requires a fundamental shift in communication, and often goes against the grain of what people want and think they need. Getting an expert to TELL us what to do doesn’t yield the long-term performance results that engaging our own problem solving skills will. This can be frustrating…especially if you see performance as a problem that you just want solved.
However, the rewards of engaging in a coaching process are great. Ultimately, coaching is about teaching people and organizations a more effective path to continuous and sustainable performance improvement. Teach the man to coach, himself and others, and his personal development will skyrocket.