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InfoQ Homepage Articles How Tech Leaders Can Leverage Their Mentoring and Teaching with Coaching

How Tech Leaders Can Leverage Their Mentoring and Teaching with Coaching

Key Takeaways

  • Strong leaders create more leaders; put the focus on others to demonstrate your belief in their abilities.
  • Start conversations with a coaching mindset, rather than an expert mindset, to foster and support greater learning and growth
  • Make yourself part of people’s problem-solving process, rather than making them a part of yours, to encourage their self-accountability
  • Ask questions that encourage, inspire, and stimulate to help people leverage their strengths and discover areas for improvement
  • Give all decisions to those who will carry them out to help build their self-reliance

You may have heard about coaching and wondered what it entails and how you might incorporate it into your role. Do you need to have "coach" as part of your job description in order to use coaching skills? In this article, I will define coaching and show how anybody can use it in their role. I’ll also show how coaching can be incorporated into management and technical leadership roles as examples.

Before defining coaching, let’s review the standard tools in the toolbox of a technical leader in order to place coaching in context. These tools include teaching, mentoring, setting expectations, and evaluating. In addition, as a manager or technical lead, you are responsible for helping others grow their knowledge, capability, and self-awareness. To do that, you need to work with people to determine areas of improvement and growth, encourage exploration, help them when they are stuck, and help them uncover root causes of whatever is getting in their way. Coaching is a powerful tool to add to your toolbox to help accomplish these goals.

Coaching Defined

The International Coaching Federation defines coaching as "partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential." There’s an important piece however that they don’t cover in their definition. We often think in terms of problems that people bring to us as a manager or leader, and helping others solve those problems.

Coaching focuses on the person rather than the problems that they bring. Coaching assumes that the other person is self-sufficient and can solve their problems on their own; they may just be stuck at the moment because they are missing a piece of information, aren’t fully utilizing their existing capabilities, or could benefit from growth in a particular area. The information that they are missing may not be obvious at first.

Coaching can help them discover what they are missing so that we can then provide them with that information if we have it, or help them discover other paths to finding the missing information. Providing missing information is better than solving the problem for them because it emphasizes their existing capabilities and reinforces our role as a partner, rather than problem-solver. Coaching also helps to discover potential areas of growth to enable people to accelerate their ability to come up with solutions on their own.

In summary, coaching is anything we do to help people move towards discovering solutions on their own, that will work best for them that doesn’t involve any teaching, mentoring, sharing of expertise, or opinions, and doesn’t influence them toward any particular solution. You may well ask "What does that leave?" Very often, what is keeping people from moving toward a solution has nothing to do with their expertise. Very often, what people need is somebody to help them think things through, encourage them, and inspire their own creativity.

Support People to Make Their Own Choices

Many years ago, when I was in a technical leadership position, there was an engineer who used to ask my opinion on just about everything. And for a few years I provided him with valuable technical advice. But one day he came into my office and asked my opinion on what approach to use for a problem. Rather than share my thoughts, I asked him what he was already considering, and he gave me three answers. I said to him, "Here is what your options sounded like to me: 'should I do the option I think is terrible, the one I think will speed up the product and might be patentable, or this other solution that I’m not sure will even work?'" At that point, he realized that he was fully capable of solving most, if not all, of his challenges on his own, and that his way was often better than whatever I would have recommended. He came to ask my opinion much less after that and has since gone on to become VP of engineering at multiple companies.

Asking a question like "What solutions are you currently considering?" acknowledges that people always have ideas in mind; they just need to say them out loud. It also points out that you see yourself as a partner, not as the person who always has the best answer. And finally, it gets right to the point of what’s keeping them from moving forward with any solutions they are already considering.

Letting the Other Person Lead the Conversation

There are three key components of coaching: letting the other person lead the conversation, putting the focus on the other person, and letting them make all choices. The story above illustrated the idea of letting the other person lead the interaction. Letting the other person lead the interaction is a matter of asking questions that invite them to pursue their own thought process, for instance, asking an open-ended question based on their own words that you don’t know the answer to, such as these:

"What solutions are you currently considering for this problem?"
"What do you suppose is the main issue?"
"Where are you getting stuck in your thought process?"
"What might you apply here from a similar situation you’ve run into in the past?"

Putting the Focus on the Other Person

Putting the focus on the other person means that we are encouraging them to do all of the work of coming up with a solution. We refrain from asking information gathering questions and instead ask questions that will help them solve the problem on their own. After all, anything that they have an answer to ... they already know! We want to help them make new connections in order to come up with new ideas that they didn’t have when they started talking to us. We also refrain from sharing our thoughts and opinions until they ask us for them directly or it is clear that they could benefit from some information that we have that they don’t.

To aid in this, consider saying something early on in your conversation like, "I’m going to put my coaching hat on. I’m happy to share my expertise with you, but prefer to explore a bit first. If we get to the point where you really want to know my thoughts or I think of something that may be helpful to share, I can switch to my ‘expert’ hat."

Letting the Other Person Make All the Decisions

The purpose of letting the other person make all the decisions – in conversation and in next steps – is a way of giving all responsibility and accountability to that person, and another way to emphasize that we are a partner. Leaving all decisions up to the other person is both simple and hard. Whenever you notice that there is a choice to be made, call it out and give it to the other person. For instance, let’s say that while you are listening to a person, you start thinking that it would be useful to list out pros and cons. Rather than asking them to list out pros and cons, which would be deciding which decision-making technique they should use, give the choice to them. Consider asking a question like, "How do you usually make a decision like that?" They might say, "Listing pros and cons" or "Doing a SWOT analysis" or any number of other possibilities. It is much more powerful if the choice is theirs.

Another example is conversational choices. Perhaps they’ll say, "I’m not sure what platform to use; I need more information from the customer, and I have some pressure from another project." Perhaps the platform discussion is more interesting to you. You could ask, "What is your concern regarding which platform to use?" However, there were three possible conversational choices: the platform, the customer, and another project. By asking about the platform, you would be choosing the direction of the conversation. Instead, consider asking, "You mentioned a platform issue, getting more info from the customer, and another project. What would you like to focus on in our discussion?"

Leading by Following

When we are in a leadership role, it may be hard to reconcile coaching with the idea of "leading." How can we lead if we are following? While we may be following another person’s lead when we are coaching, we are leading through an invitation toward learning and growth. When we are coaching, we are leading others to higher levels of self-awareness, capability, and growth. In a leadership position, it is important to remember that you are just one person. The more you can help others learn, grow, and capitalize on their areas of strength, the more value you will bring to whatever area you are leading.

Most of coaching is actually not specific to coaching; it leverages a set of everyday skills practiced to reach a high degree. These include skills like being fully present, focusing on the other person, and absorbing information, rather than thinking when the other person is speaking. Coaching also involves a high degree of self-awareness, social awareness, and self-management. Everyone practices these skills to some degree in their day-to-day lives, but people trained in coaching are able to practice all of these at an unusually high degree of proficiency. For example, consider how long you are able to refrain from sharing an opinion, advice or expertise, or influencing another person in a conversation with somebody who you believe could be performing at a higher level of skill. Trained coaches are able to do it for up to an hour at a time without those they are interacting with feel like they are being cheated.

I call the set of skills I just mentioned "supportive behaviors." Another area of coaching that overlaps with day-to-day interactions is what to avoid: criticism, judgement, evaluation, discouragement, and interruptions. I call these "diminishing behaviors." And for everything we’ve discussed so far, it isn’t just in the words we use, but also our tone, facial expression, and body language. To be more coach-like, set the intention of putting extra effort into using the supportive behaviors and avoiding the diminishing behaviors, and you should find that it improves your interactions with others in general.

Questions that Encourage, Inspire, and Stimulate

Part of managing and acting as a domain expert is asking questions. Coaching also involves asking questions, but coaches use questions to help others discover solutions and opportunities for growth on their own, rather than helping us as the expert provide recommendations or direction. There are six main areas in which a person may be stuck that coaching can help with:

  • Determining exactly what the issue is that they are trying to solve
  • Figuring out what their end goal is
  • Discovering possible paths to their goal
  • Overcoming obstacles along those paths
  • Reconnecting with their existing capabilities
  • Realizing where they will need to learn and grow to achieve their goal

Here is an example question for each area:

"How would you summarize where you are stuck?"
"What would you like to happen?"
"What paths do you see to reach your goal?"
"What’s keeping you from reaching your goal?"
"What skills have you used in similar situations in the past?"
"Who would you need to be in order to move forward here?"

Notice how all of these questions focus on the other person and encourage them to move forward on their own.

Here’s an example of how you can help people find a solution that they are capable of forming and implementing on their own. I was working with a person who was frustrated with their team’s inability to visualize their situation. They were using a lot of Kanban terms and seemed to have a clear picture in their head about what to do, but also seemed to be reluctant to express it. I mentioned this to them and asked them, "What’s keeping you from using your ideas?" and they responded, "I would feel like a fraud to suggest any of these things because I’ve never done them before." So, I asked a variation of the questions above: "What sort of person would suggest these ideas anyway?" Their face lit up and they said, "An entrepreneur! And people are actually saying 'maybe we need to try something we haven’t tried before.'" The person went on to make those suggestions, the team agreed to move forward with them, and after a few iterations, the team had some new ways of understanding their situation and changing their way of working. All it took was somebody to help them see themselves in a different light.

Inviting Self-Accountability

And finally, another major overlap and simultaneously major difference is in the area of accountability. Very often, part of managing people is holding them accountable. Coaching also looks to make people accountable, but to themselves rather than others. The end goal is the same, accountability, but self-accountability can be much more powerful. When people are self-accountable, it is because they have decided on an approach that they see the value in and are motivated to do without any external influence. Self-accountability will also reduce the amount of time you spend keeping track of and checking up on others.

Here are some typical coaching questions to help people be self-accountable:

"What might get in the way of accomplishing that?"
"What do you need to do to keep yourself on track for that?"
"What do you need to support you towards that goal?"
"How do you feel about your plan?"

The answers to these questions are not actually for you, but to help those you are coaching to self-assess. These questions help them think about whether they are really going to implement their plan within a definite time frame or not. The coaching skill is in determining the question that is most likely to help others help themselves.

Partnering Rather Than Guiding

It can be hard to resist the urge to guide others toward a specific solution. You may see a solution that is "better" than what they come up with. However, consider this: what if they didn’t go to you with their challenge? What if you were on vacation that day? They would have had to figure something out. Most likely their solution with your coaching is better than if they hadn’t received your coaching, so unless you think the solution is a complete disaster, consider letting them proceed with their solution.
It is also important to remember that we are all different. We have different skills, experiences, strengths and weaknesses. Whatever solution a person works to implement, they are going to do it using their skills, experiences, strengths and weaknesses. Also, the solution that you see as "better" may only be better if you do it, and not as good as their solution which when implemented by them is actually better than your solution implemented by them.

The goal of coaching is to help others reach their full potential. Because we are all different, that means that when they are working at their best, they are likely seeing opportunities and coming up with solutions differently than we would. If we encourage them to form a solution in the same way that we would, we are actually limiting their value.

When we are coaching, we are putting our expertise and expert mindset aside. We listen without consciously processing what we are hearing. We are absorbing what they are saying in the same way that we might watch a movie. When they have finished whatever they are saying, then we start thinking about what they said, not in order to figure out a solution, but rather to think of something that might help them formulate their own solution. If, as part of that process it occurs to us that there may be value in sharing some of our expertise, then of course share it.

Providing Expertise with a Coaching Mindset

Even when you are providing guidance or sharing your expertise, you can still do it with a coaching mindset. To offer expertise from a coaching mindset, provide your expertise without attachment, in the form of an example. Offering it without attachment means that if they don’t show interest, you drop it. You act as though they just discovered the information from some source other than you. Rather than asking if they find the information useful, ask a general question such as, "So, what are you leaning towards doing now?" They may mention something else, they may mention your suggestion, or they may mention a combination of something that came from them and your suggestion.

Patience, Practice, and Persistence

Many of the skills we use in working with others produce a quick fix. When another person comes to us and we provide "the solution", it feels great. The person thanks us and we feel helpful. But there are also a couple of downsides. First, just because we found a solution that we are capable and comfortable carrying out, it doesn’t mean that they are. And when it "doesn’t work," we get the blame. We can also become a crutch for them, preventing them from growing as fast as they can to their full potential.
It can take a lot of practice to incorporate coaching into your role. It can also take more time to produce results using coaching, but those results are often extraordinary. In working with one engineer who never spoke up, pushed back, or made suggestions, something amazing happened after a year of coaching through encouraging, listening, partnering, and inspiring.

One day, she blew up when implementing a large feature and pointed out that the work could be broken up into smaller pieces of functionality which each had value, and some likely less than others. It took me a little while to recover from her outburst, but as the product owner I was thrilled with what she had figured out. By breaking up the functionality as she described, two thirds of what we had planned to implement was no longer necessary. From that moment on she spoke her mind on everything and produced easily twice as much value for the organization as before.

Coaching – Another Tool for Your Toolbox

No matter what role you have in your organization – a people leader, technical leader, or some other role, you can leverage coaching as part of that role. Think of coaching as another tool in your toolbox alongside teaching, guiding, mentoring, sharing expertise, setting expectations, and evaluating. Recognizing coaching as a distinctly different tool enables you to decide in the moment which tool to use depending on the situation. It also allows you to intentionally work on increasing your coaching proficiency. As you move forward in your role, consider where coaching may benefit the people you work with.

About the Author

Damon Poole is co-author of Professional Coaching for Agilists (Addison-Wesley). In addition to coaching, he offers courses on Agile Coaching and Professional Coaching. He has coached and trained thousands of people at companies such as EMC, Capital One, Oanda, Ford, and Fidelity. As a coach of coaches at Eliassen, Poole led the Agile Delivery team which grew to hundreds of Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches in the field. He is an International Coaching Federation Associate Certified Coach, International Coach Academy Certified Professional Coach, and ICAgile Certified Professional in Agile Coaching. Poole frequently presents at local and international Agile meetups and conferences such as the Agile Alliance Conference, Play4Agile, and Agile and Beyond. He has also co-created a series of popular Agile games such as User Story Games, Agile Coaching Games, Heroes of Agility, and a small collection of online games. This element of learning through play is a consistent element in his work.

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