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Bossing vs. Coaching... Where's the Bench?

One of the greatest challenges facing a Leader is the shift between thinking of yourself as the star player who takes center-field...

... to thinking of yourself as the coach who stands behind the bench filled with high-performance athletes.

Former Calgary Flames Coach Bob Hartley
On June 24, 2015, Hartley won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's coach of the year. He was the first coach in Flames franchise history to win the award.

The coach doesn’t get onto the ice and play the puck for them,

or get onto the field and block the tackles for them,

or run onto the court and move players about.

In fact:

A team is heavily penalized when a coach tries to play the game with the players!

The coach is the last person you want making those small decisions (shoot or pass)...

The coach’s job is just the opposite!

To train the team so that they can make the best decisions possible while they are in the heat of the moment.

By doing this, you'll develop a team that knows how to:

  • Make better decisions

  • Solve problems that are holding them back

  • Learn new skills, and

  • Progress their careers

The more effectively the coach coaches, the less he or she has to do at the micro level, and the more time the coach can spend on strategy and performance-related issues.

Some people are fortunate enough to get formal training in coaching.

Their company invests heavily in training its managers and has offered some support in learning the art of coaching.

But many individuals work at companies that either can’t afford such manager training or don't see the value in it.

In working with numerous blue-chip organizations in the public, private and non-profit sectors I have found that managers are usually promoted into their positions because they have the requisite technical experience or proficiency.

They’ve been there long enough to know how the equipment or processes work.

As far as the hiring process is concerned, if these individuals have well-developed people skills then it's a bonus rather than a requirement.

Having the necessary job experience or knowledge doesn't necessarily equate to strong coaching or leadership skills...

It doesn't necessarily follow that if we know the equipment or processes inside out that we intuitively know how to coach individuals who are struggling so they can transform themselves into high performers.

It seems common sense when you see it in writing, but in practice far too many managers are left to learn leadership on their own.

Many have to develop this important skill through trial and error or by following their instincts.

As good as these instincts may be, we all know that quality coaches produce winning teams, so it's worth investing and learning solid coaching principles to help you.

One such model I've used with many clients of mine is a simple yet effective framework I call the C.O.A.C.H. model.

The C.O.A.C.H. Model For Leading Teams

In the model we propose to you, C.O.A.C.H. stands for five different stages.


You must first describe the CURRENT situation.

Without a clear picture of where you're starting, it's difficult to lead your team anywhere specific because you don't know which way to go!


Another great term to use here might be goal setting...

After all, if you don't know what OUTCOME you desire, it's pretty hard to give your team any clear direction.

For sporting teams the desired outcome may seem simple.

Win games by putting points on a score board!

For your organization, wins may be defined a little differently, but it's important to take the time to clearly identify "What does a win mean for us?"


Please notice that we're not actually at the action phase yet.

Coaches rarely dictate. Rather they're working on helping players learn for themselves through continuous strengthening of core principles.

You should beware of leaping into action or settling on any one of these actions prematurely.


You must ask CRITICAL questions that lead your employee to making an informed CHOICE. This is where the real skill in coaching comes in.

It can be easy to simply tell your team member what to do, and tempting to just take the stick away from them and do it yourself...


Ask those smart questions that can help your team members arrive at the correct answers themselves. This will not only solidify the process for them in a much more tangible way, but will help avoid them coming to you again and again with the same challenge.


Finally, its time to ask your employee how THEY plan to be accountable for success...

How long do THEY think they need for a particular project, then get THEM to commit to the win.

Let's take a look at some sample questions for each of these so we can get a better idea of how this process can work with your staff...

"Let's Describe the CURRENT Situation!"

This is harder than it seems, because many times you and your employees may have different interpretations of the problem at hand, the state of the company’s fortunes, or the objectives of the company as a whole.

Often this step is valuable in and of itself.

A person confronted with a difficult workplace issue may be confused as to what is really going on or they may be overwhelmed by the situation, or they may simply not be able to see the forest for the trees.

A guided conversation with a neutral third party (i.e. The Coach) helps them see the situation clearly. This can be rewarding and helpful and may even be sufficient.

So how do you go about it?

Begin by asking probing questions about the current situation so you can ensure that you are both on the same page.

Sample probing questions to Describe the CURRENT Situation could be:

(As you read through the list try to identify what is a common element to all of these questions)

  • What is Happening Now?

  • What impact is the current situation having?

  • On a scale of 1 to 10: how serious is the situation?

  • How do you think other people at work are feeling at the moment?

  • What is your biggest priority at work at the moment?

  • What has gone really well for you at work recently?

  • What is most important to you about your work?

  • On a scale of 1 to 10: how fulfilled are you in your role?

  • In which aspects of your work are you LEAST comfortable and confident?

  • In which aspects of your work are you MOST comfortable and confident?

  • Which aspects of your work do you avoid or shy away from?

  • What do you value most about working in this organization?

  • What do you think you do to enhance this organization?

  • What are the major challenges facing you at work at the moment?

  • What obstacles are holding you back from doing your job more effectively?

  • What is most important to you about your work?

  • What are you like when you are at your best at work?

  • What common elements to all of these questions did you uncover?

  • What stands out to us was that each question demands a specific answer.

"Let's Define desirable OUTCOMES!"

Once the current situation is defined, agreed upon and accepted, then you can begin to discuss the desired OUTCOME...

This stage is a bit like deciding on your destination before consulting a map.

You need to know what province or state your destination is in before you can determine which detailed map you want to unfold.

Remember that there is a big difference between deciding to leave and knowing where to go, so be sure to take your time carefully defining your where you want to go (i.e. the desired Outcome) in these early stages.

It will pay off with less back-tracking, reduced second-guessing and better results.

And it will save on gas!

You may feel tempted to rush to problem solving right away particularly if you have a limited time for this coaching session, if the situation is potentially dangerous or if a deadline is looming.

Often we want to be a hero and provide the answer to our employee if they are struggling with the question. Resist this impulse.

There’s another danger to moving too quickly...

When one leaps to a solution quickly, often it's a vision of a future in which the current problematic situation has dissolved or transformed into a more positive, problem-free state.

- Sometimes your employee expects a magical overnight change.

- Sometimes they expect you to do it for them.

If this is the case, you’re likely dealing with an individual who has surreptitiously slipped on their Sun Hat.

You’ll need to put your coaching session on hold in order to have a challenging conversation with them (be sure to go back and read about The 4 Hats in one of my previous articles).

It’s also possible that your employee is expecting everyone else (even you) to change in order to accommodate or correct their Current Situation.


Guide them towards an Outcome that envisions what the future might look like if they let go of their old way of doing business.

Remind them that the only person whose behavior they can control is their own, and if they want the Current Situation to change, it’s up to them to be proactive.

Usually your team member will have put some thought into what they want to achieve and may be presenting you with one or two desired outcomes.

Sample Open-ended questions that help define desirable OUTCOMES.

As a coach you can play an invaluable role in helping your team member expand their range of options and encourage them to explore novel ways of tackling seemingly intractable problems by asking some of the following big-picture, open-ended questions:

  • What goal do you want to achieve?

  • What are you hoping to achieve with this goal?

  • If anything was possible, what would you do?

  • What do you want to achieve from this coaching session?

  • Where do you see yourself in five years?

  • What are the key outcomes you want to achieve in your work?

  • What do you want to change?

  • What do you really want?

  • How can I, as your manager, get the best out of you?

  • What is it that you really want to be and do?

  • What are the greatest opportunities for improvement in your current role? Why?

  • What would make your job even more meaningful?

  • What are the top 5 things you’d like to do in your role?

  • What would need to happen for you to improve your performance at work?

  • What outcome would be ideal?

  • What is most important to you about your work?

  • What would you like to accomplish?

Use these open-ended questions to get to a desired outcome that does more than simply address the symptoms. Strive to help them drill down and solve root causes. Don’t quit until you get your employee to identify a solution or aspiration that excites them.

"Let's Identify possible ACTIONS."

Once you and your team member have agreed upon the outcome you desire, you can start to generate a list of actions that have the potential to get you there. By asking the right questions you may get them generating a number of new ideas that they might not previously have identified.

Working together like this is different from brainstorming as a group....

Group Brainstorming has received a lot of criticism lately, and deservedly so.

Studies have shown that traditional group brainstorming – in which we identify a problem or goal and then encourage the group to generate as many ideas as possible no matter how wacky – does not generate significantly better solutions than working alone.

This is because usually one of two hazards lie in wait.

1. The Loud Voice

Extroverts or those with authority tend to dominate brainstorming conversations to the exclusion of introverts or more junior members.

The group tends to default to those voices that get approval from the Team Lead or the majority of team members.

2. The Evaluation of Ideas

The second peril that lies in wait for brainstormers is the temptation to evaluate ideas as you go. We’ve found time and again that critiquing ideas as soon as they appear is a soul destroying habit that never fails to suck the oxygen out of a room.

Jake Knapp, who created the Google Ventures Sprint Process and co-authored the book Sprint: How To Solve Big Problems And Test New Ideas In Just Five Days notes that “these discussions are frustrating because humans have limited short-term memory and limited energy for decision-making."

When we jump from option to option, its difficult to hold important details in our heads.

On the other hand when we debate one idea for two long, we get worn out – like a judge at a baking contest who fills up on apple pie before tasting anything else.

Avoid looking for “right” answers at this point.

Your goal is to find as many options as possible without judging them as you go, and avoid exercising critical judgement while identifying possible actions. That comes later, in the next step.

Once again you should focus on open-ended questions...

Whereas in the first step you asked questions that allowed you to zero in on a specific answer, now (as in the second step) you need to use these prompts with the opposite intention in mind. You want to expand the horizon rather than narrow it.

Sample Open-ended questions to identify possible ACTIONS.

Here are some useful prompts to keep at your fingertips to spur the conversation:

  • What actions can you take to move things forward?

  • What are your options?

  • Where are you now in relation to your goal?

  • What steps have you already taken towards your goal?

  • What could be your first step?

  • What do you think you need to do right now?

  • What do you think you need to do next? Tell me how you’re going to do that.

  • Have you tackled a similar situation before?

  • What else could you do?

  • What will you do differently tomorrow to meet these challenges?

  • What would you do if time were not an issue?

  • What additional resources do you need to do your work well?

  • Who else might be able to help?

  • What do you need from me/others to help you achieve this?

  • Who do you know who can help you do your job more effectively?

  • Describe your ideal job … Now tell me: how does it differ from what you’re doing now?

  • What could you do differently?

"Let's Ask CRITICAL questions that lead to a CHOICE."

In this step you can help your team member evaluate the actions you’ve set out together by Asking CRITICAL questions that lead to a CHOICE.

This is where you can finally bring out the hard-nosed evaluator that you’ve been keeping in check for so long, right?

Not so fast.

If you are the parent of a teenager (or have ever been a teen) you’ll realize the perils of offering seasoned advice on any course of action.

Avoid letting your employee leap to the easiest solution first!

If your employee’s default setting is a Sun Hat they may try to slip that bonnet back on when you’re not looking and ask you to make the decision for you. Don't fall for it.

Keep the focus on them, and don't let them don their Viking Helmet and bully you into making the decision for them either. That’s simply giving them the opportunity to return to you next week and tell you its all your fault the plan didn't work out.

If you’re uncertain of the course of action your Team Member is insisting upon, and dead set on your own suggestion, then by all means listen to your instincts and issue a firm directive.

But remain open to the possibly that because your team member is the one in the trenches she may know the lay of the land better than you.

Let us turn the tables on you and ask you a coaching question: what would happen if you allowed your employee to embark on a rapid prototype of her idea that doesn't involve a lot of resources and has minimal risk?

Would you remain open to changing your mind?

What would it take to convince you?

Remember, you can always keep your own idea in your back pocket and suggest it again at your next meeting if your team member’s suggestion doesn’t work out.

The main point is that you must continue to approach this phase as you have all the others: as opportunity to create a shared vision. Maintain that curiosity mind-set that we spoke of earlier so that the two of you can come up with a way forward that surprises you.

Sample CRITICAL questions that lead to a CHOICE.

Someone who comes to their own conclusions about the effectiveness of a course of action will be much more likely to commit to it over the long term, so once again, guide your team member with questions such as:

  • What has contributed to your success so far?

  • What are you doing really well that is helping you get there?

  • What are you NOT doing well that is preventing you from getting there?

  • What are the pros and cons of your approach?

  • What would happen if you did nothing?

  • What have you already tried?

  • What is the best way you have handled a situation like this in the past?

  • How could you turn it around this time?

  • On a scale of 1 to 10: what is the likelihood of your plan succeeding?

  • What would be the benefits if you achieved this goal?

  • If everything goes well, how will your life be different?

  • What roadblocks do you expect?

  • What do you think is stopping you?

  • What would happen if you did that?

  • What would you gain/lose by saying that?

  • What’s motivating you to contemplate these actions?

  • Which course of action have you already decided on?

  • Which option do you feel ready to act on?

This is where some coaching models end.

Having identified a way forward, most coaches leave the team member to move forward on their own, without further support.

But the C.O.A.C.H model includes one more crucial step for you and your Team Member...

"Let's figure HOW to move forward and be accountable for success."

Your final – and pivotal – step is to help your team member look for ways to ensure that she or he is accountable for their success.

Note that we have not said that YOU should look for ways that YOU can hold them accountable.

Instead, as with every other step along the way, we strongly urge you to help the team member look for ways to hold themselves accountable.

As you guide them towards building what s essentially an accountability plan, it may be useful to think of the commonly used acronym S.M.A.R.T. and urge them to set goals which are Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Time-bound.

Sample questions for HOW to be accountable for success.

You can start by asking questions such as these:

  • When are you going to start?

  • What are three actions you can take this week?

  • What one small step will you take now?

  • What progress will you make this week?

  • How can I help?

  • What is holding you back from achieving more?

  • Who else can you share your plan with to help you be accountable?

  • What gaps do you have in your skills to achieve your objective? How will you fill those gaps?

  • How committed are you to changing?

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how committed are you to your plan? What would it take to make it a 10?

  • What will you do to ensure this becomes a regular part of how you think and behave?

  • What have you decided to do differently starting tomorrow?

  • What does success look like?

  • How can I best make you accountable for the results you want to achieve?

  • By when will you complete this?

  • If everything goes well, how will your life be different?

  • When will you evaluate your progress and how?

[1] Jake Knapp with John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz, Sprint: How To Solve Big Problems And Test New Ideas In Just Five Days, page 128.

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