Collaborative Coaching: How To Get the Most from Your Employees
Gone are the days of the “command-and-control” leadership style. Who wants to work for someone who simply gives daily hospital orders and conducts annual evaluations from behind a closed door?!
Today’s veterinary professionals want leaders who will coach them by listening actively, asking purposeful questions, and providing the direction and support they need to reach their own and the practice’s goals.
Veterinary practices large and small are seeking to create sustainable workplace cultures that enable creativity, collaboration, and accountability. A growing number of practice leaders are finding that using coaching is an effective way to bring out the best in their people, to stimulate engagement and productivity, and to create high performance teams.
What is Coaching?
Coaching is not the same as training, teaching or giving advice. All of these are elements of the “expert” model that we might have been introduced to in our initial training. Teaching may have its place when a staff member lacks competence in the expert’s area of expertise, but when it comes to bringing out the best in already competent employees, a different approach is necessary.
Most of us have a strong need for self-determination, meaning that if we aren’t personally committed to our own behavior change, we typically won’t do it. A coaching approach respects our unique knowledge and experience and is built on the belief that real growth must come from within. It cannot be grafted onto us, as the instructional model suggests.
Coaching uses inquiry to help team members build on their strengths, develop flexibility and change-readiness, create awareness of shortcomings and build commitment to self-development and achievement. When coaching is most effective, it elicits solutions from the employee being coached. It empowers each person and helps him or her choose to be accountable. It motivates staff members to make changes and achieve goals, and builds self-reliance rather than dependence.
Coaching is a helping relationship based on the desire of the veterinary leader to assist the employee in performing at his or her personal best and the willingness of the coachee to stretch and grow. As a coach, you play the role of confidante, sounding board, champion and mirror.
Who wouldn’t want someone on their side with whom to discuss creative ideas, opportunities for improvement, doubts, processes that could be improved, and the performance implications of all of those?
The Coaching Process
Coaching is fundamentally about facilitating change that will lead to desired results. When you coach others, you help facilitate movement from their current state to a more desirable future state. This change inevitably involves the ongoing learning of new or more effective behaviors in the veterinary hospital. In the absence of learning, employees simply repeat old, potentially ineffective practices.
A veterinary professional leader helps others develop their strengths and capabilities. Helpful toward this endeavor is supporting their forward movement through the Action-Reflection-Learning model illustrated in Figure 1. A useful way of thinking about coaching is as an ongoing action-reflection-learning process. The collaboration between veterinary leader and veterinary professional and the impact of regular conversations over a period of time provides greater accountability and increases the chance that the staff member will experience positive change.
Figure 1: The Action-Reflection-Learning Model
Basic Coaching Skills
Let’s look at three key skill sets of effective coaches:
I. Active Listening
II. Powerful Questioning
III. Direct Communication
These three key sets are discussed in greater detail below.
I. Active Listening
Listening is a fundamental dialogue skill that can be improved with practice. It is an essential element of coaching that allows the person being coached to feel known, valued and understood.
A basic aspect of listening is attending—being there and nowhere else. In our culture of medical crisis and urgent multitasking, this can be a challenge. You must be aware of physical, emotional and environmental factors that can distract from these conversations.
Examples of attentive behaviors include:
• Facial expressions that match the content of the discussion
• Natural and direct eye contact without staring
• Respecting of personal space requirements
• Minimal encouraging/discouraging words or gestures that might inhibit
Active listening can have a powerful impact on this professional exchange. It can be a stimulus for building trust and collaboration.
II. Powerful Questioning
Powerful questioning is an essential communication skill that stimulates thought and insight. When the veterinary leader assumes the attitude of “ask, don’t tell,” it allows the staff member to dig deeper into areas of questions and challenges.
Employees are more inclined to take action on their own ideas, rather than ideas generated from others. The Coaching Commitment Continuum (Figure 2), adapted from a concept by Max Landsberg, demonstrates the role of questions in gaining commitment to action.
A powerful question is typically an open-ended one that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. Questions must come from the employee’s agenda and follow where the she or he wants to go in the conversation.
Asking powerful questions with the right intent requires you to let go of the need to fix and to be recognized for knowing the answers. To be effective at helping others grow and gain understanding, you need to get our ego out of the way.
III. Direct Communication
Coaching adds value for the person being coached by helping them develop new perspectives on their situations, and new choices for effective action to move them forward. By listening and using questions effectively to help the coachee think differently about their issue, you will help them “discover the answer for themselves.” However, there is also room for you as the leader to offer your own perspectives and make suggestions for options to move forward.
When you offer your observations to the employee, you act as a mirror to help enhance his or her awareness, which is the starting point for change. Reflecting back the content and feeling that we note in the responses without adding interpretation or meaning can help that veterinary professional to better understand their own perspectives and how those might be the same or different from others.
When using direct communication within the context of a coaching conversation, there is neither a struggle for approval nor an attempt to persuade. There is, instead, an interchange of ideas and sentiments, during which you pay attention to and disclose your inner thoughts while actively inviting the person with you to do the same.
Direct communications can be described as:
• Straightforward and honest
• Based on what the coach observes and notices
• Challenging without judgment, when appropriate
• Encouraging dialogue rather than offensive/defensive posturing or
At its essence, a coach listens, asks questions, and talks in a way that:
• Expands their choices for effective action
• Develops their team members’ self-trust so that they can design action