How to Have a Coaching Conversation

Coaching is the cornerstone of great leadership. Building a pipeline of leaders that can achieve results through people is the key to sustained growth as an organization, and these coaching conversations are the key to that future success.”

This sentiment from Sean Dineen, vice president of global learning and quality at customer management organization Convergys, reflects the importance many companies place on coaching as the tool to drive performance and employee engagement.

Moving the Performance Needle
An effective coaching conversation helps the person being coached, or the coachee, to unleash his or her potential because coaching is a performance management tool, as is feedback, disciplinary discussions, mentoring and training. However, the three are different in many ways.

Feedback should be given frequently so employees know if they are on the right track.
Constructive feedback helps them get back on course, while positive feedback provides recognition and affirmation that the employee is doing well.

Disciplinary discussions are necessary when constructive feedback goes unheeded and performance or behavior remains unacceptable. These conversations are used to turn around unacceptable performance and avoid corrective action.

Mentoring is used to develop career-related skills. Mentoring conversations pass wisdom and insight from mentor to mentee. And training provides an employee with the skills and knowledge he or she needs to succeed.

However, unlike feedback — which is ubiquitous and serendipitous; it happens whenever the situation calls for it — coaching is planned. Coaching can be done in a scheduled session where the coach and coachee can reflect on the past few weeks, for example, to review progress made on a specific job-related skill. Coaching also can be done in the moment as situations arise.

Unlike disciplinary conversations, talent managers can use coaching to turn good performance into great. Much like athletes use coaches to help them fine-tune athletic performance, corporate coaches help employees fine-tune their job performance.

Unlike mentoring, which focuses on broader career aspirations, coaching focuses on job-specific skills that will help the employee succeed today. And unlike training, coaching leverages the skills and knowledge an employee already has. Most employees know how to do their work. Coaching helps them focus on those critical skills that will take their performance to another level.

Coaching is most effective when used on employees who are willing to grow and develop. “Coaching is one of the fundamental skills a manager needs to build a great team and get great results,” said Linda Simon, senior vice president of leadership and organizational development at satellite television provider DirecTV.

The Coaching Conversation
There are two primary goals in coaching: To improve performance and to help employees gain the ability to self-assess.

Joseph Bosch, executive vice president and chief human resources officer at DirecTV, said continuous improvement and self-assessment are key elements of a successful coaching model.

Coaching, he said, must “foster a mindset that in this competitive world we must all get better and better every day.”

To encourage self-assessment, coaches should be asking questions and listening: How do employees think they’re doing? What do they think they are doing well? How can they improve?

These questions form the basis for a coaching conversation. Let’s say a talent manager is coaching John, one of the organization’s best customer service agents, who is looking to reduce his average handle time, or AHT. The two last met two weeks ago. A coaching conversation might go something like this:

Coach: John — thanks for meeting with me. It’s been a couple weeks since we last got together. And last time we discussed how you might be able to reduce your AHT. How has that been going?

John: I’m pretty excited. Overall, my times seem to be coming down. In fact, this week my times are 20 percent less than two weeks ago.

Coach (went well): That’s great, John. Obviously, you’ve been doing something to make that happen. What have you been doing to get those numbers down? What’s been going well?

John: Well, I tried sticking more to the script. I know when I’ve deviated, my AHT soared.

Coach (support and build): Great. I know the team put a lot of work into the script to keep conversations focused and allow for time to listen to the customer. I’m glad that it has been working for you.

Coach (went well): What else have you been doing to reduce your AHT?

John: Well, I’ve been paying more attention to the caller’s tone. If they seem in a hurry, I try to mirror their urgency and avoid chit-chat.

Coach (explore): Interesting. What clues do you hear? How can you detect the caller’s tone?

John: Really it’s a combination of pace and attitude. A lot of callers sound rushed and a bit frustrated. While I stay calm to help them calm down, I also avoid any “noise” like talking about the weather or where they’re calling from since not only does it add to my AHT, but it also annoys those callers.

Coach (support and build): Fantastic. It can be a challenge to pick up clues accurately and make those adjustments on the fly. Paying close attention to the caller’s tone helps.

Coach (do differently): Is there anything that you’d do differently to reduce AHT even more?

John: I need to brush up on using the system. I still fumble around a bit trying to locate the right information.

Coach (share insight): The system does require some practice to get to the information needed. I struggled when I was an agent, and found that sitting with someone who knew the system really helped.

John: That would be awesome.

Coach (do differently): Is there anything else you might have done differently to get your AHT even lower?

John: Well, I could use the system macros when entering information in the system. Instead of typing everything, if I used the macros, I could eliminate some typing — and some dead airtime.
Coach (support and build): That’s a great idea. Time saved typing will definitely help reduce AHT and will increase the value of your notes.

Coach (summarize and support): So, John, it sounds like you’ve made some great progress with AHT. You’ve been following the script more and listening for clues from the caller; keep doing that to reduce AHT. As you said, if you got to know the system better and used macros to enter system notes, you’d be able to reduce AHT even more. Focus on the system and macros over the next two weeks and let’s regroup on the 23rd to see how it’s going.

John: I will. Thanks.

Throughout the conversation, the coach listens to and analyzes the coachee’s response. The coach is listening for the accuracy of the coachee’s self-assessment. Does the response sound plausible? If the self-assessment is accurate, the coach supports and builds. If the self-assessment sounds inaccurate, the coach can explore, redirect, share insight, provide feedback or defer to later.

Why the Coaching Conversation Works
This coaching conversation model works for a variety of reasons: It’s a simple conversation and the structure is simple. The model essentially consists of three questions: I know you’ve been working on X; how has it been going? What have you done that has gone well? What might you have done differently that might have made your results even better?

Questions encourage self-assessment. Talent leaders want employees to continuously evaluate their performance and identify what’s working and what isn’t. Questions also allow the coach to determine if the employee knows what he or she should know. They also put the primary responsibility on the coachee. Coaches do not need to spend tons of time observing and preparing.

Coaching can be simple, but doing it effectively requires a leader who has created a trusting environment, who has the ability to analyze employee performance and who can use appropriate tools to improve performance.

Further, when done correctly coaching is more than performance improvement; it’s employee engagement. “As the economy improves but profitability constraints remain rigid, it’s a very challenging marketplace within which to attract and retain talented employees,” said Jeff Muoio, vice president and general manager of field operations at MasTec Advanced Technologies.

“Establishing a common language and procedures for coaching and continuous improvement creates an open, transparent culture that gives employees self-confidence and valuable reasons to stay and grow with our company.”

Terence R. Traut is the president of Entelechy Inc., a training and performance improvement company. He can be reached at