The best coaching helps people think for themselves

Coaching: Lightbulb moments can happen simply by asking the right questions

May 8, 2017

Ask most managers in business whether they coach and you will no doubt get the answer “Oh yeah, I coach. Have been for years”. So when trying to instil a coaching culture into an organisation, it can feel like pushing against a closed door. Why would any company need to spend money on developing their managers to do something they are adamant they are doing anyway?

In this article, the latest in their series on sales psychology, Lance Mortimer and Bryan McCrae, explore how good coaching can get the best out of your sales team.

Myth Alert – It is not about giving advice.
It is not until you ask some questions that you find, in the main, that coaching is something that is thought to be getting done, but often is not. This is not the fault of the organisation, or the management chain for that matter. It is an effect of media misidentification.

Generally, this is propagated in sport where figureheads in teams or elite athletes are often quoted as employing a ‘coach’. Take a look online and you will come across sites such as Sports Coach UK and US Sports Coaching whose approach is to give guidance and motivational encouragement phrases to its consumers. It is therefore no surprise that if we, as business people, are fed a definition that is so interchangeable between coaching and managing, it is inevitable there is going to be some confusion.

Lance Mortimer

Chartered psychologist Lance Mortimer

From our experience, we have found that a lot of so-called coaching in the workplace turns out to be what I term as ‘curious management’. The manager is happy to lend an ear and listen to the other person, maybe even empathise with them, but at the end, offers them the solution or direction on what to do, or even does the job for them.

To understand the benefits of coaching, it is important to see how it pulls apart from other functions that managers and leaders have.

If an organisation is trying to instil a coaching culture, they are in fact tossing the manager an additional hat to wear. That brings to three, the number of hats that modern day managers have to wear, although not all at the same time.

The three hats of the modern manager
In today’s world of business, it not just important for managers to embrace coaching, it is imperative. To be able to embrace this challenge, managers firstly need to recognise that they now fill three roles.
1. Manager
This role is set to make sure that the process is followed and that the work gets done. It is fairly functional by nature and ensures that the team they manage is productive and producing the output required. Generally, this function is rather instruction led and directive.
2. Mentor
Chances are that as a manager you will have had some experience of being a front line individual contributor. During that time, you may well have had many experiences, good and bad, that you have learnt from and can therefore pass on that wisdom to others. As a mentor, you have knowledge that is useful to share, guide and give advice to more novice members of the team.
3. Coach
This is a role that demands the manager takes on a completely different approach to the above two. Managing and Mentoring are focused on telling or giving the individual ideas about how to act and behave. Coaching is the opposite and seeks to pull information from the individual, encouraging them to find their own best approach. Coaching should work on the belief that the answer is in the individual somewhere, it just needs to be helped out.

Let’s underline that point further. How many times have you been having a conversation with someone and they say something (not an instruction) that makes you see things from a different perspective? That moment when you say to yourself ‘I hadn’t thought of it like that before’. That is a form of coaching. What has happened there is that through conversation and good questioning, you have thought about your issue in a different way, which then enables you to consider different outcomes and actions.

There are many different types of coaching, but one of the most powerful to use as a manager is a person-centred, behavioural approach. This means that as a coach, it is your job to draw information from the person you are coaching. The only thing that is important in the session is the coachee, their thoughts and understanding what is going on in their world.

Bryan McCrae

Award-winning sales psychologist Bryan McCrae

We can often find that managers who are learning to coach find it hard not to interject with the ‘right’ answer. Indeed it is often heard that many managers say to their coaching supervisors that it would be a lot quicker if they can just tell the coachee the answer that is obvious. The simple response to this is ‘obvious to whom’? It may be the right answer to you as a coach, but does that mean it is the right answer to the coachee?

In effect, what we are talking about here is the inexperienced coach wanting to take their coaching hat off and put the mentoring hat on, just to get to the quickest possible conclusion.

Coaching myth – I haven’t got time to do all of this
This is often a statement that is put forward by managers, who are under pressure to have their team perform. When people come to them with a problem and need an answer, it is often quickest just to point the individual in the right direction and see them do what you have told them. There is an old proverb: “Give a man a fish and you will feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you will feed him for life.”

In effect, by giving your team members the answers to queries, they are being given a fish. However, there is little development going on here to allow the individual to explore the best way to do things and become more autonomous. It is somewhat ironic to identify the manager that is so busy spending time with their team, telling them what and how to do things, only to have them identify they are too busy to coach. This vicious cycle needs to be broken and more effort should be given to teaching them how to fish. That way, over time, better results become the norm and happen naturally, through coaching the team to perform on its own, rather than telling them what to do.

I remember when I took over an existing sales team as their manager, I had one experienced person who would, on a daily basis, come to ask me what action he should take on various sales challenges. Rather than offer advice, I would simply ask him questions about the situation, what he saw as the options, the pros and cons and how the options compared. He would then suggest the best option and I would say ‘sounds good’.

After a few days he came to ask me another question but stopped mid- sentence, smiled and said: “You are just going to ask me some questions to help me figure it out myself aren’t you?” I smiled back and said: “Yes, unless you feel you need more help.” In effect I had helped him learn to coach himself.

Coaching myth – it is okay for some, but my role is different
Coaching has been shown to be effective across the board. Different research projects will have varying degrees of return they expect for coaching, but time and time again, it yields great results.

To illustrate its adaptability, a piece of published research performed by one of the authors (Lance Mortimer), looked at a traditional, instructor-led industry (driving tuition). Here the instructor has been trained to tell the novice driver what to do and how to drive. During the research, a cohort of driving instructors were developed to be able to coach and then encouraged to coach their novice drivers during lessons, rather than direct them what to do.

The results from the programme were startling. Not only did the instructors have an increased pass rate, but those that passed had fewer accidents after passing their test than those that had learnt through an instructional model.

In another award-winning project by co-author Bryan McCrae, an e-learning based coaching program was shown to significantly increase resilience, confidence, activity levels and sales performance. What coaching has achieved here is independence of thought and faster mastery of a skill. So why can this not be introduced into your organisation?

Coaching myth – a couple of days in the classroom will teach you what you need to know
This is a scary prospect. Of course, choosing the right development programme is vital, and the authors urge you to make sure you pick a programme that has experience and success of creating coaching cultures that stick. This means that coaching is an ongoing process. You don’t just sit in a classroom for a couple of days, learn the GROW model and accept that is it.

Coaching is a skill that needs to be used and encouraged each day. The theory is straight forward, but mastery only comes from practice and feedback. For highly confident successful sales people who become sales managers in particular, it can be very challenging for them to resist offering advice and to coach instead. It needs to become part of the organisation’s DNA. That requires a support infrastructure to be built and nurtured from day-one onwards.

A good programme will have the means to help you get this up and running. The International Coaching Federation (ICF) have recently published an excellent document on how to set up a coaching culture in your organisation.

One word of warning here, if you are not fully committed to putting this in place, do not start. The results you will get are likely to be patchy and buy-in will be the same. Ultimately, it will peter out and be filed under ‘another management fad’ label. However, done correctly, coaching can be transformational for the organisation.

As mentioned earlier, when coaching is executed correctly, it can help the coachee to have light-bulb moments of enlightened thought. They can see things that previously they had not been able to see. It is therefore our challenge to sales people here to think about how you can use coaching techniques to help your customers have their own light-bulb moments. It is hard to argue against the use of coaching for sales people. The evidence is clear. When sales people help customers understand their problems in more detail, there is a significant increase in buying intentions towards the seller.

Our question therefore is simple. Why would you not coach?

Lance Mortimer is a chartered business psychologist and senior talent management consultant at Level 3 Communications

Bryan McCrae is an award-winning sales psychologist and managing director at

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