coaching1The most overused yet inappropriately applied term in an organization is “coaching.” There are organizational coaching models, executive coaching programs, external executive coaches, company-defined coaching steps, coaching interventions and in-house coaches too. Group coaching? Sure. Speed coaching? Why not. Virtual coaching? But of course. We see requests aplenty from keynote speakers who are so-called coaches. Not to fear, you can become a coach yourself by enrolling in an executive education program at a university that offers executive coaching certificates as well. And now, coaches are getting coaches for themselves too. Wow, I think I need a couch . . . er, coach. To be clear, it is an expectation of mine that if you want to become a connected leader, to demonstrate you are going beyond the call of leadership duty you must agree that coaching your team and others in the organization is mission critical. But what is coaching in the Flat Army paradigm? Let’s first dish up what it’s not. Coaching is not a formulaic process when demonstrating the connected leader attributes. It is not the act of hiring an external executive or otherwise coach to assist you with your team. It isn’t an intervention and should never be used as a means to solve some form of employee crisis or singular performance issue. Any of these acts runs up against our view of coaching. In a study of approximately 285,000 employees and leaders across U.K. firms, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development finds that 30 percent of leaders, with reference to whenever they meet for a one-on-one meeting with their direct reports, suggest they are—in their minds—coaching their people first and foremost. Sixty-four percent of leaders feel they are actively coaching only part of the time in one-on-one meetings. Not too shabby when you think about it: a total of 94 percent of leaders believe they are coaching their team members in one-on-one meetings. Now, the flip side. Employees report that in their minds coaching only occurs 6 percent of the time at those meetings where leaders feel they are actually coaching. Where employees experience partial coaching, a measly 34 percent indicate they believe some coaching takes place. My hypothesis is that the definition of coaching is misconstrued by both sides of the equation. Leaders think they are doing it and employees think they aren’t receiving it. Ian Chisholm, Bradley Chisholm and Mark Bell penned the article “Coach vs. Mentor: Designing the Finest Meaning of Words” and it’s within this piece that a paragraph caught my attention:
Coaching is the intentional positioning of others to perform at incrementally higher standards, to learn more from their experience as it emerges, and to be increasingly engaged in their endeavours. It is an approach to leadership that invites more leaders from all levels in our organizations, communities and families.
I like to think that the phrase “intentional positioning” can be reflected by the terms “counsel,” “feedback” and “advice.” That makes sense to me. And I love how they determine the stakeholder audience as including “organizations, communities and families.” Leadership isn’t a nine-to-five job; it’s communal, holistic and accretive. Coaching—in the context of Flat Army and thus going beyond a connected leader—is an ongoing informal conversation with the employee who focuses on providing the following:
  • counsel on current objectives and actions to categorically improve the result
  • feedback concerning their progress or improvements on Flat Army habits
  • advice on personal or career advancement or opportunities
In summary, to demonstrate the attribute of coaching is to assist your team member—and to help them improve—with issues going on at work, on the personal development front and with respect to career development.
That’s it! It’s an ongoing and informal discussion with your team members, albeit individually, to help them get better. Seems simple, doesn’t it? The problem is, too many human resources professionals, consulting shops and accrediting institutions have whipped organizations into frenzies just by the mention of coaching. We must demystify the term in order to bring some sanity back into the definition of leadership and to the definition of coaching. How to be coaching:
  • Binary is not an option: Relate to your people through a spectrum of colors, not simply black and white.
  • It’s not a contract with your team member; it’s a relationship: Nurture it at all times and pervasively.
  • Every minute matters: For any situation, treat it as an opportunity to counsel, advise or provide feedback that aims to improve.
  • The ignorant and reckless command before listening: Instead, lend an ear and help bring the story to the surface before advising on anything.
  • Your brain is not a contingency backup: Create a system in which you’re recording conversations, thoughts and ideas for each of your team members. Review these regularly.
  • Don’t be purposeless: There should be purpose in each coaching situation, always intending to improve the employee’s overall capabilities on actions, habits or personal quests.
coaching3Between 1993 and 2003, David Galloway was the vice president of customer care at Crystal Decisions—the original makers of Crystal Reports software—a company I used to work at until it was acquired by Business Objects in 2003. He continued on in his role until 2006. When I joined the company in 2002, I joined the services arm, not even in Dave’s bailiwick. But he took me under his wing, and through a series of coaching conversations over an eighteen-month period, Dave helped me in my adjustment to the new company, navigating my actions and objectives, and helped me become a better leader at the company. He was an incredible listener and an idea factory, and had at all times a genuine interest in my well-being and my success. He was (and still is) the example connected leaders should be striving for. Any time we talked, it was a coaching conversation. It’s always been there in the back of my mind as I strive to be a better leader: “Am I being like Dave?” Coaching should be an expectation of all connected leaders. That is, if the guidelines and definition above are adhered to. If all else fails, just be like Dave. <Adapted from Chapter 6 of my book Flat Army: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization>


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  • Dan is a conference organizer’s ideal speaker. Not only did he inspire and energize our group, but he also masterfully adapted his content so it resonated with the audience and our conference theme. As a bonus, Dan is able to nimbly navigate to adjust to a reduced time slot when other speakers went over time without sacrificing the impact of his session.

    Director and General Counsel
  • Dan accomplished what we set out to do, which was not only to be inspirational, but also to leave everyone with tools and food for thought / self-reflection to improve their personal and professional lives.

    Hermann Handa, FCT
  • Dan challenged us to have clarity of purpose, both as individuals and as an organization. He related inspiring stories drawing on his experience in business, technology and academia. As he said, ‘There is no ownership without belonging.’

    Christian Pantel, D2L
  • Dan Pontefract suggests leaders must be transformational and transactional, collaborative and considerate, daring and decisive, inclusive and insistent, playful and formal, harmonious, and humble, encouraging and results-driven. In a word, Flat.

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    “How to strengthen engagement, empowerment, and execution, then leverage them for a decisive competitive advantage”

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