Thursday, 30 October 2008

Coaching Staff - Part One

One of the key leadership activities in the workplace, especially for those with direct responsibility for people, is to coach their staff. But how do you do it and how do you find time to do it?

In this series I hope to answer both questions. To do so I will be putting a simple coaching cycle at the heart of the discussion. This breaks down as follows:

1. Instruction
2. Demonstration
3. Practice
4. Observation
5. Feedback

This cycle seems relatively straightforward but the reality is that there are challenges presented at each stage. So let us begin with the first stage of the coaching cycle – instruction.

When a staff member is new to a task or skill area, the first thing they need is to understand what they are meant to be doing, why they are doing it and how it should be done. This is the knowledge they need to gain but simple as it sounds, it has some potential pitfalls. The greatest risk is that the initial explanation might not be fully understood and even if it is, human nature will lead to memory gaps during the learning process. So how does the coach overcome and deal with these issues?

Before providing instruction on a task or skill area, the coach should provide the staff member with a clear context. Why do you need to learn this? How does it fit in with the other tasks you are asked to perform? How does it fit in with the work of other team members? How does it fit in with other teams and/or the wider organisation?

Without context, it is much harder to fully understand the task in hand.

Bite Sized Chunks
The best way to provide instruction is in bite sized chunks, particularly for more complex tasks or skill areas. These chunks should be logically organised into building blocks of knowledge so that each new explanation is a natural progression from the last one.

Common Language
It is imperative that the coach uses language that the staff member understands. You need to be especially careful about the use of jargon or internal language.

Keep it short and simple (or keep it simple, stupid if you prefer). Don’t over complicate an explanation. It should be clear, concise and unambiguous.

Message Delivery
Make the message come alive by using examples, analogies and visual aids.

Check Understanding
At each stage of the knowledge transfer process, the coach needs to check understanding. There are several ways to do this. In some situations it might be appropriate to run a test or a quiz. In others it might be more appropriate to ask the staff member to summarise their understanding. A more subtle way of checking understanding is to have a conversation about how to apply this knowledge that culminates in an action plan – the conversation itself enables the coach to be confident that the understanding is accurate.

Reference Material
Ideally, the staff member will have access to reference material that will serve as a reminder to the knowledge they gained. This can take the form of procedure/user manuals, process maps, notes, intranet/knowledge transfer documentation or even a relevant book.

On the surface, providing instruction on a task or skill area appears straightforward but in practice there are a number of potential pitfalls. The guidelines above will help you avoid or navigate your way through these.

In part two I will be looking at the next stage of the coaching cycle - how to provide staff with an effective demonstration.

Simon Cooper is Chief Executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, author of the exciting new book, Brilliant Leader and architect of the unique and powerful Brilliant Leadership workshops.

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