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How to be the coach your people need during tough times

by Graham Winter and Martin Bean

On a hot Dubai afternoon a few years ago, Ashley Ross, Head Coach of the International Cricket Council Academy, led 30 coaches onto the beautifully manicured oval. It was the opening of the Global Coaches Program. Instead of the anticipated speech, he divided them into groups of three and gave each group a medicine ball and a few plastic cups.

‘Please place a cup on the oval 50 metres away from the medicine ball,’ he instructed them, before asking each group to nominate one person as coach, one as a player, and the other to use their phone to video the coaching to follow.

‘Players, your objective is to crush the cup by landing the medicine ball on top of the cup in the fewest possible throws. You can’t walk with the ball, you must do it safely, and you have a coach to help you. Everything the coach does including instructions, feedback and tone will be videoed.’ That was it. No other instructions.

Suddenly, coaches sprang into action. Some picked up a medicine ball and demonstrated throwing techniques; others asked players about their plans; still others stood back and wondered what this was all about.

Twenty minutes later, there were many crushed cups, lots of laughter and some remarkable videos of diverse coaching styles.

Fast forward a week to the end of the program and everyone was watching a crush-the-cup video and critiquing their coaching approach.

Amongst much embarrassment, one universal theme emerged, best described by an experienced Sri Lankan coach: ‘I think we’ve switched from thinking that a coach has to have all the answers to seeing our purpose is to unlock the potential in the player.’

Three shifts in approach

Three differences in mindset and behaviours distinguish the traditional role of coach from a new approach, and they offer a guide for leaders in how to strengthen coaching skills and impact:

  • Role to Relationship. The new coach is more approachable, transparent, and responsive to people’s needs and concerns. Their communication is two way and decisions are shared. Ashley Ross observes, “It’s about the people being coached, having real trust that the coach is there for them and that they do care.”
  • Clever to Curious. The coach is no longer the instructor with all the answers; instead, they ask lots of questions to encourage a growth mindset and to help capture valuable insights.
  • Technical to Adaptable signals the shift from teacher of technical know-how to facilitator of learning and adaptability. The coach provokes, challenges and guides to unlock and unblock potential.

Guiding principals to ‘be the coach

Underpinning the shift towards relationship, curiosity and adaptability are three fundamental coaching principles seen in the habits of effective coaches:

Put people first

SEEK was rated as Australia’s Best Place to Work in 2021, so it’s no surprise when CFO Kate Koch shares:

‘My core job is to be available to support my team and ensure that they have the resources they need to succeed. I have learned to be more ruthless in delegating tasks to which I personally can add little value and changing my mindset about these interactions. By empowering and supporting my team, they are more motivated to get things done and we get a better outcome.’

People first seems an obvious strategy, because employees who feel valued, heard and supported are more likely to be committed and engaged. So why do many leaders and organisations put people second or last?

Sometimes it’s lack of awareness or skills; the pressure to deliver on targets often drives leaders to prioritise tasks over people; a belief this approach will not lead to better outcomes.

The people-first choice is exactly that, a choice. It doesn’t so much require a new tool as an awareness of your current leadership style and willingness to experiment with new behaviours.

Make vulnerability a strength

Vulnerability for a leader is the readiness to openly and authentically share personal experiences and emotions with others. This goes right to the heart of shedding protective and defensive behaviour.

Vulnerability helps to build authentic and genuine connections and relationships and creates a safe and supportive environment. That’s fertile ground for the openness and risk taking needed to tackle tough problems and learn together.

Advantage leaders demonstrate seven distinct signs of vulnerability, each underpinned by emotional openness:

  • Admit uncertainty
  • Be open to feedback
  • Ask for help
  • Show emotions
  • Share stories
  • Admit mistakes
  • Take risks

Reimagine performance conversations

While organisations invest extraordinary amounts of time and money on performance management systems, the reality is that the tools and associated methods are built on principles and assumptions from the industrial age and are certainly not attuned with people first or make vulnerability a strength.

The feedback cycle times are too slow, the process reinforces hierarchical status, and the support tools tend to overly prioritise individual performance while missing other important aspects such as wellbeing and teamwork.

‘Performance partnering’ doesn’t alter the organisation’s performance management process, but instead focuses on equipping leaders with practical tools to transform those conversations:

  • Redefine performance. Talk about the real contributors to sustainable high performance.
  • Make it a partnership. Replace the traditional boss to subordinate thinking.
  • Loop and learn together. Apply a relevant and disciplined tempo to suit the context.

Performance partnering is a powerful tool for establishing and sustaining a coaching relationship with your team members. By defining performance, building trust through partnerships and creating a loop-and-learn structure, you can better support, guide and challenge your team members.

About the Authors

Graham Winter and Martin Bean are the authors of Toolkit for Turbulence: the mindset and methods that leaders need to turn adversity to advantage. Graham is a psychologist who has led three Australian Olympic campaigns as Chief Psychologist and Martin is an experienced CEO who has led two universities through transformation.

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