An Open Letter on the Leadership Skill of Coaching

“Every now and then, someone asks me for advice on how to become a writer. If I am on my game, I don’t offer advice. Instead, I ask questions in hopes of evoking my conversation partner’s inner teacher, the most reliable source of guidance anyone has.” 
Parker Palmer, “On the brink of everything; Grace, Gravity, & Getting Old”

I really love this quote by Parker Palmer because his world of being a writer is my exact experience of being an executive coach.

Last week’s blog discussed the topic of coaching and helping others see what behaviors they need to change by thinking about what things they need to stop doing, start doing, and continue doing.

I received the following note from one of my readers who is a nursing leader at a rather large hospital system in the midwest:

Great timely article!!  You know how each year God seems to pound you with a “word” for growing? Well I would not say this is my spiritual word, (although it could be lol), but I  do believe this is my professional one.  COACHING….  Coaching women is so much more comfortable for me spiritually than coaching my young employees professionally.   

Because they have all have been doing their jobs much longer than I have their knowledge base about standards, compliance, and overall  ambulatory (verses hospital) experience far outweighs mine.  For the first time in my career I feel gun shy on this skill. 

Question:  Should coaching be incognito?  Meaning, do I say “this is coaching”?  When I read the three questions in today’s blog, I wonder… are these my reflection/ assessment of them or are these behaviors that they believe need to change?  


Here was my reply:

Dear Carolyn,

I always love your insight and your interaction with my writing. I want you to know you make me a better writer when you ask probing questions like this.

I actually think "coaching" has become a catch all phrase for interacting with people. So I do think it is important to know how you distinguish coaching from other types of conversations.  I actually had someone say to me one time that coaching is nothing more than what we used to do with friends when we had a deep conversation.  Frankly, I completely disagree with that sentiment!

Coaching is a specific set of skills that allow you to take someone from where they currently are (think behavior or performance) to a place THEY want to be.  It can be formal or informal, but the focus is THEY have to want it. 

The coachee has to see the need to change the behavior and then want help in getting there. 

When deciding whether or not I am going to coach someone, the first thing I must understand is their motivation for change. If they are motivated, then I can help. If they are not motivated, then I will decline the client gracefully. 

I know this is different in my world than yours. You are often asked to coach people who may not (at least at first) want or even see the need for the change.  I am of the opinion then that your task becomes helping them see the need for change.  Not motivating them, but inspiring them to see the change which could be of such great benefit to them. 

The more I am in the field of executive coaching the more convinced I become that if the person is not motivated, then the likelihood of getting any kind of sustainable change is negligible. You can get short-term behavioral compliance when offering extrinsic motivation like more money or time off, but this is transactional and possibly even a bit coercive. At best, it is authoritarian with an obvious power gradient.  As coaches what we want to be is inspirational and transformational for those we work with.

Now to a second element in your question I noticed: experience.  You have more than enough through your long career in nursing and leadership. They may have more functional experience based upon your current assignment, but you have more leadership experience.  

We must start to see leadership (of which coaching is a tool) as a discipline, just like nursing is a discipline.  Just because someone has more nursing experience does not make them a better leader. These are very different disciplines.

Have confidence in yourself that you can lead them and lean on your faith and your experience as a leader. 

This is why when people ask me if someone will be a good executive leader the first question I ask myself is “If I take them out of their functional area as a leader and drop them in another functional area, could they thrive?”

So, for example, could I take someone like you out of nursing and put you in another area in the hospital to lead? Say outpatient Emergency Room (ER). You may not have functional ER experience, but you have leadership. In a short time you can learn the management or functional side of ER.

I may not put you in as an ER nurse, or a nurse unit manager, but I would put you in as a leader. Knowing you like I do, I would have no hesitation in doing this tomorrow.

Finally, a third element you asked about are the 3 questions (Getting people to Start, Stop, Continue behaviors); are they reflections or discussions.  I think the answer is yes! 

As a coach you need to have in mind what behavior someone needs to stop doing. The interesting thing here is you can not ask a human to stop doing something without starting a new behavior.  Think getting people to stop smoking. We can not just ask them to stop, but we need to give them something else, something less harmful to do, like START chewing gum.

The one thing I have learned over my years in coaching is behaviors have to be substituted to get the change desired.

I think a good coach will have reflected on this and then thought through the STOP and START needed. This reflection is vital if you are going to serve the person you are coaching well. Then, after reflection, I think you enter into discussion with the person to gauge their level of motivation and desire for the change you are going to ask them to make.

My Goal

As a coach I want to be more like Parker Palmer.  

The main reason I wrote this post is that I realized after I had hit the send button on my email back to Carolyn that I did not ask her one question about the email she had sent.  I fell right into giving some light advice.  While I will admit that doing this really stroked my own ego and made me feel pretty good that someone in a leadership position like Carolyn would ask me a question about a topic I am passionate enough to write about.

But I quickly realized that I fell right into that old trap of giving advice instead of stimulating Carolyn’s “inner teacher.”

Carolyn, I do hope you will forgive me.

Parker, I will try and do better next time.