One of Gallup's primary performance insights is that there are different strengths-based paths to the same outcomes. For strengths performance coaching, this means that there is no definitive style that describes a great coach. A coach's ability, for example, to envision a potential positive outcome for a series of coaching sessions can be born of any theme. A coach who sees potential might be leaning on their own theme of Maximizer, for example. Or they might equally be pulling from their Strategic or even Futuristic. Similarly, while styles may vary according to that coach's specific strengths, there are some common practices that can be seen in great coaching. Here are five I have found helpful in my own experience as a coach.
Begin with great questions. When I first began coaching around strengths, I developed a list of initial questions from a variety of sources. Over time, I culled the list as I found some questions to be more helpful than others. As I continued using my questions, I came to realize that they were, basically, "insight nets" -- useful tools that helped me gather initial discoveries to pursue later with my client. As I've certified other strengths coaches over the years, I've frequently been asked by my students to provide them my list of questions. And while I'm happy to give examples, I typically encourage new coaches to develop their own list -- one that reflects their own strengths and style. In Gallup's strengths courses, individuals pursuing strengths performance coach certification are exposed to a plethora of questions from which they can begin to assemble such a list. The purpose of such questions, of course, is to help you and your client to …
Pursue insights and emotions. While compiling such a list of questions is valuable, new coaches may sometimes spend too much time "sticking to the script" and remain married to their question list. Experienced coaches are instead constantly looking for promising rabbit trails that will help them transform the session from an interview to a conversation. Great coaches know whether an alternative path is worth pursuing or not based on whether they see their client discovering new or deeper insights or emotions. When you see your client's emotion, you may be hitting a passion point. The CliftonStrengths assessment not only reveals what people are good at, but also something about their passion and what really motivates them. When coaches lean into their client's passion, they are more likely to help them find new and helpful insights. Another indication that a profitable rabbit trail is presenting itself is when you see your client begin to have an "a-ha" Moment. Dive into that new realization and help your client explore it. Be selective, of course, about how many rabbit trails you pursue. When you pursue your client's "Aha!"s and emotions based on the past, you are following another great coaching practice …
Leverage your client's experience. Princeton's Dr. Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work demonstrating that an individual's decisions are mostly driven by emotions. Building on Kahneman's work, Gallup research has been able to quantify that 70% of our decisions are based on emotion. Therefore your clients' experiences are context for your clients' emotions. One way to leverage experience is to help your client focus on activities in which they find ease, excellence or enjoyment. Help them consider the parts of their role they enjoy the most. Then explore the connection between their Signature Themes and that experience. In this way, you are helping them to connect those emotions with an understanding of their strengths. This will both deepen their understanding of and commitment to their own key strengths. But a great coaching session doesn't just end with a deeper understanding. Coaching sessions that transform clients …
End with action. A few years ago, the Center for Creative Leadership originated the 70:20:10 learning and development ratio. It's been expressed in a variety of ways but, essentially, the ratio captures that 70% of what precipitates true change is experience, 20% is relationships and 10% is information transfer. Accordingly, smart coaches recognize that real change occurs between coaching sessions. That is when their clients can have the experience (70%) of applying their new insights. To leverage this powerful change dynamic, the best coaches complete their coaching sessions by helping their client to develop a few specific new actions.
Clients will tend to articulate their intentions as mere goals or aspirations. They may say, "I need to do a better job listening to my team." The best coach will affirm the goal, but also help drive the client to more specificity: "That's fantastic! What is one specific action you can take this week to do a better job listening to your team?" One helpful criterion for evaluating the specificity of an action is to ask, "Is this a filmable behavior?" If a film crew came in and filmed you doing that action, would anyone watching the video be able to articulate exactly what you're doing? Under this criterion "A better job listening" is not specific enough, because you can't film intention; it can't be seen. "Sending out an email one day before the next team meeting to ask everyone if they have any items they'd like to add to our agenda," is a specific filmable behavior that is easily verifiable. The email either went out or it didn't. In the coaching session, after you and your client develop one or two great actions, then you can …
Hold your client accountable to their own best intentions. Part of the powerful dynamic between great coaches and their clients is that 1) the clients generate their own actions and 2) the coaches remind them of their intentions and follow up. Less skillful coaches will overly rely on suggesting actions, not realizing that if the client generates their own action ideas, they will have far more ownership of the actions. Highly effective coaches will then send an email to their client after a session where they 1) express appreciation for the conversation, 2) review one or two key conversation points or insights that came up during the session, 3) remind the client of their intended actions, and 4) let the client know that the coach is looking forward to hearing how the execution of the client's actions went when they next meet. Then, in the next session, the first thing the coach explores is that execution -- is it an action that they wish to continue doing? What did they learn from the action's execution?
When you first begin meeting with a new client, the earlier conversations will tend to be more educational as you help the client to understand their strengths. But if education becomes the essence of ongoing conversations, the coaching relationship will most definitely have a limited shelf life. Longevity in thriving coaching relationships only comes when the client is also bringing something to the table: how they are operationalizing their understanding of their strengths, and how that is leading them to even deeper insights.
By focusing on specific actions, you are truly helping your client to transform.
Part of the challenge of coaching is accommodating the high variability of talents that coaches find in their clients. Part of the joy of coaching is identifying the best ways for coaches to apply their own coaching style to their clients! These five practices provide a helpful tactical framework within which each coach can execute their unique helping style!