A Coach Approach to Develop Your People

If your academic role includes overseeing students, postdocs, colleagues, or staff, chances are that you were thrown into the supervisory role without much training. Would you like your people to accomplish more and lean on you less? Coaching techniques offer a solution.

In an earlier blog post, Advice is Nice, But First Listen, I wrote about listening as a foundational practice of coaching. However, faculty members who are excellent listeners often fall back into advice giving because they don’t know what to do next. There are some simple questions that will help your people to arrive at their own best solutions. In The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, & Change the Way You Lead Forever, Michael Bengay Stanier offers a basic formula – here are the highlights:

Start the conversation with the opening “What’s on Your Mind?” This allows the person to set the agenda based on their greatest need.

Once they’ve laid out the topic, ask “What about this is most challenging for you?”

The tag line “for you” is essential here – different aspects of the same topic will be salient for different people. If a mentee explains that he wants to end a co-authoring relationship that is not serving him well, it may be that he is uncomfortable with interpersonal conflict. A different mentee who raises the same topic may want help to assess the ethics of continuing a line of research without the person who had helped to set the foundation for the project. The conversation will proceed differently depending on what the person identifies as their particular challenge.

Next, ask the AWE Question: And What Else?

“And what else about this is challenging for you?”
“Is anything else about this a challenge for you?”

We don’t always hit upon the most important aspect of the topic the first time we are asked. Following up with a couple of rounds of the AWE questions increases the likelihood of getting to the crux of the matter. Next ask:

What part of the topic would you like to focus on first?

Once the focus is identified, many faculty members will be tempted to give advice. “Ah ha,” they think, “now that I’ve really listened and clearly understand the dilemma, it’s time to share my wisdom…” Resist! Chances are that your supervisee or mentee will have their own solutions that will fit them better than anything you might be able to suggest. Also, the more you set yourself up in the role of giver-of-advice, the more you encourage your direct reports to come to you every time they encounter problems. Sticking to a coach approach supports your people to become more confident thinkers and problem solvers who then function more and more independently, freeing you up to do the work that no one else can do.

Instead of giving advice, ask:

“What Possibilities Do You See?” Once they lay out the options they can think of, don’t stop. Continue with the AWE question – And What Else?

What other options might there be?
What else?

We’ve finally come to the part of the conversation where you can let loose with your own brilliant ideas and advice, but with this caveat: let the person know that you also have some thoughts, and ask if they’d like to hear your ideas in order to expand on their list of options. The person will invariably reply affirmatively, but by framing your ideas as merely additional options, you’ve left ownership of the solution with them.

Here’s a cheat sheet with all five questions:

  1. “What’s on Your Mind?
  2. “What about this is most challenging for you?”
  3. “And what else?” What else about this is challenging for you? What else?
  4.  “What would you like to focus on first?”
  5. “What Possibilities Do You See?” What other options might there be, What else?

If you want the people you supervise and mentor to become more independent thinkers and problem solvers, try a coach approach!