How To Transform Your Boss Into A Coach And Get The Help You Need

Carylynn Larson is author and leadership coach who creates space for leaders, teams, and organizations to thrive. 

According to Gallup’s global Q12 survey, only 30% of employees strongly agree that someone at work encourages their development. To encourage employee growth, organizations are training their leaders on how to bring coaching into everyday conversations.

Yet what leaders do is only half of the equation. What employees do — how they respond and what they do, both with and as a result of the conversations that leaders have with them — is central to the coaching process.

Therefore, while it is fantastic for organizations to invest in leaders’ ability to coach, it only makes sense to simultaneously teach employees how to engage with coaching. Here is high-level guidance for those who find themselves on the receiving end of coaching.

How To Spot Coaching 

What are the signs that you’re being coached? Coaching is distinct from mentoring, advising and training in that the focus is on you, what you think and what you can do.

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Coaching is rooted in the idea that it’s more empowering for you to solve a problem in the way that best works for you, rather than to give you a solution that has worked for others in the past. As such, when coaching, a leader will resist the temptation to give you advice and instead listen deeply, share insights and ask questions that help you identify options that you are energized to pursue. For example, they may say:

• “Tell me more.”

• “It sounds like there are many options to think through.”

• “What does success look like?”

• “What about this is most challenging?”

• “What’s a good starting place for discussion?”

• “What part of this would be most helpful for me to help you think through?”

Although each leader will have their own unique coaching style and approach, these three coaching skills — deep listening, sharing without advising and asking powerful questions — are telltale signs that your leader is coaching you.

How To Engage With Coaching

How do you respond when you find yourself being coached? As empowering and effective as coaching can be, it’s common for individuals to ask their leader for a quick answer or advice without even thinking about it. For example, if your reaction to a tough question is along the lines of, “I don’t know, that’s why I asked,” you’re almost sure to nudge your leader to revert to problem-solving mode. Unfortunately for both of you, you’re often left to execute on your leaders’ ideas instead of your own.

To give coaching a try, give yourself the gift of a deep breath and just enough time to move past the initial, “I don’t know” response. Focus instead on what you do know and, perhaps more importantly, what’s within your realm of influence. For example, you can jumpstart your brain by saying (or thinking to yourself):

• “What I do know is…”

• “I’m assuming…”

• “The hardest part is…”

• “I wish…”

• “I wonder how I could…”

The human brain is remarkably fast — you may be stunned by just how quickly insights will emerge.

How To Prompt Just-In-Time Coaching

Why wait for your leader to initiate coaching when you’re the one who knows best when you want and need it? Every time you prompt coaching, you double your chances that your leader will take a coaching approach. To prompt coaching, be careful what you ask for. For example, if you ask what they think is best, you’re tempting your leader to tell you what to do rather than coach you to your own decision. To instead prompt your leader to coach, make sure to approach them as a thought partner and provocateur of learning. For example, you might say:

• “I’m feeling stuck and would love you to help me think through this.”

• “I’d like to talk through a few options I’m considering.”

• “Can you ask me some questions to see what I’m missing?”

If necessary, there are also many respectful ways to nudge your leader to coach when they fall back into telling or advising mode. Here are a few favorites:

• “I’m not asking for a solution; I’d prefer you ask me some great questions to challenge my thinking.”

• “I love your ideas, but this is a unique situation. Instead of brainstorming options with me, could you help me think through the root cause of the problem?”

• “I can see you taking that approach and being quite successful, but I can’t imagine that working well for me. Can you help me think through some strategies that are a little more ‘me’?”

In my experience, efforts to build a coaching culture within organizations are exponentially more successful when employees are included in the learning experience. When employees are taught how to spot coaching in action, engage effectively in coaching conversations and prompt their leader to coach when they need it most, coaching conversations are more natural, robust and effective.


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