The project manager as team coach
a plan for success
Pamela Abdon, MBA, PMP
Chapter Vice President, PMI Southwest Missouri
Coaching is a widely recognized business management skill today, with business leaders focusing on coaching their direct reports to success. Coaching can be a valuable tool in the toolkit of a project manager, but the problem becomes how to coach peers or project team members when project managers often manage people over whom they have no formal authority. This paper provides key takeaways that allow the project manager to coach effectively without authority and increase the chance of successful team performance.
From this paper, a project manager will develop an understanding of what coaching is and how it compares to mentoring and training, and will review why coaching is important in the context of project teams. The questions of who to coach and when and where to engage in coaching provide the project manager coach with guidance on looking for opportunities to improve team outcomes through coaching. Finally, the project manager will review various methods of coaching and learn the phases of a coaching engagement, followed by guidelines on how to determine the success of the coaching engagement.
Success in today’s business community requires a high level of effort to achieve goals that align with strategic organizational objectives. Many business leaders focus on professional development to ensure their continued successful performance. Leadership coaching is one method of improving performance, and anyone at any professional level can participate in a coaching relationship. Individuals can find coaches, and managers can coach their employees.
As managers of project teams, project managers have a unique opportunity to increase the chance of successful project outcomes and increasing the performance of project team members at the same time. In this paper, we will look at the management activity of coaching and how a project manager can use coaching to improve project performance and project success. After defining coaching in terms of what it is and what it is not, the reasons for coaching will be presented. A discussion of whom and how to coach will provide the project manager with concrete action steps to implement the process of coaching in current projects. Finally, information will be shared on how a project manager coach knows when the coaching is successful.
What Is Coaching and What Is Not Coaching?
Coaching is the process of correcting behavior to increase the successful achievement of goals, whether the goals are professional or personal. Mosca, Fazzari, and Buzza (2010) defined coaching as a key management activity, where the manager focuses on developing, assessing, counseling, or mentoring employees to increase the ability of meeting strategic organizational objectives. This coaching activity is in addition to the traditional management activities of planning, organizing, leading, staffing, influencing, and controlling. Organizations give project managers responsibility to achieve strategic goals by applying management activities. PMI organizes A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) around these traditional management practices (Project Management Institute, 2007). Coaching is another tool that project managers can use to achieve the project objectives with the resources at their disposal.
Typical areas of coaching include development of interpersonal skills, strategic thinking, conflict management, management style, leadership, communication, and adaptability/versatility (Bono, Purvanova, Towler, & Peterson, 2009). However, opportunities exist for coaching whenever there is poor performance or team resources do not have the tools they need to complete project work successfully. In addition, project managers work closely with their project teams and may see opportunities for growth that a resource manager may not be aware of. For example, if a team member has difficulty working with another team member and his or her interactions become disruptive to the team, the project manager could step in and offer conflict management strategies or work with the individuals involved to help them perform better together. Recognizing specific opportunities where coaching may be beneficial to team performance is a key skill of a project manager and the project manager is responsible for improving that skill as part of their professional development plan.
Coaching is not synonymous with “mentoring.” Mentoring is the process of developing potential in a person, whether the potential be focused on professional or personal actions (Stone, 1999). Coaching strives to improve performance in a specific area. A coach facilitates learning opportunities to enhance an individual’s current skills or to acquire new skills. Mentoring focuses on developing the individual for either his or her present or future needs. And unlike mentoring, coaching is typically a short-term relationship. Coaching can be accomplished successfully in as short of time as a few get-togethers, but it obviously lasts for as long as it is needed. Mentoring is a long-term relationship between the mentor and the mentee, requiring time to learn about each other and to increase levels of trust and can last for several months to several years.
A coach is not necessarily an expert in all areas, but a coach should provide opportunities by asking the right questions designed to stimulate thought and prompt the team member to share their expertise within a project. A mentor is typically the expert and he or she shares their expertise and real-life experiences with the mentee. Key attributes of a coach include flexibility, empathy, facilitation skills, and support and the ability to provide instruction, encouragement, and empowerment to the individual or coached team (Berg & Karlsen, 2007; Stone, 1999).
Why Should You Coach?
Many reasons exist why you should coach as a project manager. Effective coaching can turn average team players into high-performing contributors to the project. Coaching also can be used to empower the project team to take responsibility for increased team performance. Additionally, team knowledge sharing and creation can be improved by effective coaching practices and shows an investment in the project and company success.
Project managers are not only responsible for tactical management of project components (activities, schedule, risk, etc.); they also have responsibility to manage the people working on the project. Managing the people is an important component and has been identified as a key knowledge area in the PMBOK® Guide (Project Management Institute, 2007). The project manager has the opportunity to develop interpersonal skills of team members and train them on new or changed processes through coaching. Coaching is about correcting behavior in a positive, constructive, and non-critical manner.
Coached team members are more likely to take on additional tasks from the project manager. This frees up the project manager to focus on more strategic and proactive activities such as risk management or team building. Team building activities are important in that they increase the likelihood of addressing interpersonal issues and conflict in a more positive manner. Team building also allows team coaching opportunities to happen in a non-confrontational manner that creates a smarter working team, resulting in increased team productivity.
Individual team members benefit from coaching in several ways. Underperforming team members can be developed to contribute more to the project and star performers can become team players that are more effective by sharing their knowledge with other team members. It is not only important for a project manager to correct poor performance through coaching, it is also important for the project manager to teach the leaders of the team to coach others, thus leveraging personal knowledge for the benefit of the team. Transferring knowledge from one team member to another decreases risks associated with losing key resources, as the knowledge shared minimizes the risk that knowledge will be lost when resources leave the project before the project is completed.
Finally, coaching empowers all team members to allow them to think independently and find ways to recognize and reward achievement within the team. Empowerment is a powerful tool in the hands of a project manager as it increases individual and team accountability and motivation to perform. In essence, coaching is about getting the best results from the team by providing them with the skills and knowledge to promote effective decision-making that results in improved project performance.
Whom Should You Coach?
Coaching is most effective when the person being coached wants to be coached. As long as an individual is willing to be coached, coaching will improve their performance. A coaching partnership can develop between a project manager and team members, between two project managers, or between a project manager and their supervisor. In a coaching relationship, there is one party who needs guidance in resolving an issue (“coachee”) and one party who can provide guidance on resolving that issue (“coach”). Some project team members recognize they lack certain skills and are motivated to improve through coaching. Other members may not be aware they are lacking specific skills. In this case, you as a coaching project manager need to help the team member identify the need and allow them to acquire the skills before you step into coach.
As an experienced project manager, you identify the skills and knowledge needed for team members to be successful in their project roles during the process to develop the project management plan. It is in the process of developing the project management plan where you identify needed competencies and resources to complete the project work (Project Management Institute, 2007). Once your team is formed, you can identify gaps between what you said you needed in the plan and the competencies and skills your assigned project resources possess. It is the existence of gaps that identify who should be provided training or coaching to minimize the risks to the project. Even after the project is started, you can identify opportunities for coaching. You coach those individuals who join the team after the project has started to bring them current with the other team members in terms of project knowledge. An effective coach will observe and formulate what is required to provide the direction for the team. If a current team member is not meeting project goals and an evaluation identifies a need for conflict management skills or a lack of knowledge about how a particular process is to be performed, you can set up a quick coaching arrangement with that individual to improve the skill or build the level of necessary knowledge.
Keep in mind that the person you identify as needing coaching may not be ready to be coached. Without a willing participant, the coaching experience can be unproductive. You also need to have reasonable expectations. Problems cannot generally be solved in just one coaching session or one talk. Finally, when an individual displays unproductive behavior across a wide range of activities or scenarios, it may be time to get the person’s functional or resource manager involved and not try to rely on coaching. This would be a case in which more formal counseling or training may be indicated.
When and Where Do You Coach?
Coaching can occur at any time, in any place, whenever a situation arises where there is an opportunity to respond “better” next time. The effective coach will always be on the lookout for opportunities to coach. As a project manager, consider coaching when you see a need to develop specific competencies in a team member, when you see poor performance, or a new process or procedure is introduced that requires specific training. Coaching can also result from performance appraisals. It may be agreed that the team member would benefit from coaching to correct problems, to assist with skills development, or to increase capability in a particular area.
When you decide to coach, the process can be formal or informal, with the individual or with the entire team. During formal coaching, there is structure within the coaching process in which goals are established and reports routinely occur. Informal coaching can occur daily as you discuss goals and current challenges. In each case, the coaching project manager needs to provide constructive and actionable feedback to the person being coached.
How Do You Coach for Success?
As many ways to coach exist as there are books on coaching. Jean Paul Cortes compiled a list of the more popular models, which includes GROW, SUCCESS, STEPPPA, WHAT, TGROW, OSKAR, and CLEAR, to name a few (Cortes, n.d.). This paper will not look at these specific models, but will look at the foundational ideas underlying most of the models: coach competence, trust-based relationship, goals orientation, and coachee receptivity. The competence of the coach should correspond to the area of incompetence of the individual who needs coaching. A coach does not have to be “the expert” in the particular area, but must be capable of performing and explaining the desired behavior. A competent coach enables the coachee to develop a sense of trust in the coaching relationship. Trust is a critical factor in increasing the potential for a successful coaching relationship. Without trust, there can be no relationship. If the individual being coached does not trust the coach, the individual may not follow through with the recommended behavior modifications. Alternatively, if the coach does not trust the coachee to carry out the recommendations, the coach may not invest the time and effort necessary to assist the individual being coached. Because coaching is a collaborative effort between two individuals, a foundation of trust is the first step in developing a coaching relationship. How is trust developed? Trust is developed by being open, honest, respectful, and considerate. Kathy Bloomgarden (2007) defined trust as a powerful weapon in the hands of effective business leaders. Bloomgarden (2007) identified four key characteristics of a trusted leader: listens actively, delivers results, acts ethically, and is transparent. A lack of trust weakens the coaching relationship.
In addition to fostering an environment of trust, the coach has a responsibility for setting the tone of the relationship. An effective project manager coach:
- Provides consistent backup and support to the team
- Asks questions more than tells answers
- Listens more frequently than talks
- Expresses confidence in team’s output
- Stimulates creativity and inspiration
- Encourages responsibility and accountability of team and individual team members
- Is flexible and vision-oriented
- Displays authentic humility
- Is process-oriented
- Is results-driven (Berg & Karlsen, 2007).
As the coaching participants begin to develop trust, they also begin to set expectations for the coaching experience. From this foundation of trust, the coach and coachee define and agree upon goals and objectives. The coach’s job is not to define the expected outcomes; rather defining the outcomes is a collaborative effort that results in clearly defined and mutually agreeable goals. Goals and objectives of a coaching relationship focus on five general areas: knowledge acquisition, skill building, personal/life balance, performance, and development/stretch (Berg & Karlsen, 2007). These five areas are ordered from least complex and less time-consuming to most complex and more time-consuming.
Berg and Karlsen (2007) defined knowledge coaching as content acquisition necessary to complete a task or project. Examples include training on project management software or management method. This type of coaching is the easiest and most generic type of coaching to establish and deliver. This is an effective coaching method when new members are brought to the team or new tools and processes are to be used by the project team.
Coaching focused on skills-building looks at ways to develop the personal gaps in soft skills that a team member may experience. Conflict management, leadership, interpersonal communication, etc. are some examples of this type of coaching. Coaching plans for skill building can range from formalized training to one-on-one discussions. Use this coaching approach when there are team conflicts or when team members do not appear to be engaged or involved in the team culture.
Personal/life balance coaching focuses on dealing with those non-work related issues that negatively affect employee performance. This is not counseling or psychotherapy; rather, personal coaching focuses on removing barriers to high performance in a forward-looking way. Activities and discussions that focus on attitudes, stress, and self-confidence are part of personal coaching. This type of coaching requires a high level of trust between the coach and person being coached, and is more complex than simple competency or skills building. This approach to coaching may work when a team member comes to you with life issues or expressions of stress or fear that hinders active engagement in project and teamwork.
Performance-based coaching focuses on providing support and training to a project team or individual team member so he or she can achieve specific project goals or complete specific project activities. This type of coaching may involve instructions on how to conduct stakeholder analysis interviews or facilitate JAD sessions with end users for a current project. The goal of performance-based coaching is to achieve specific results for a specific activity or project, unlike knowledge coaching that focuses on general knowledge development.
Development/stretch coaching is the most complex and time-consuming type of coaching and requires dedication by the coach and by the person being coached. Personal development is critical to give the person being coached the skills and confidence to take on more challenging and rewarding work.
Once you decide which type of coaching is necessary, you will be able to create a coaching situation that addresses the needs of the person being coached. The following phases should be followed to conduct effective coaching.
- Observe the individual. What is this person doing that makes you think coaching is needed? Where and how is this person affecting the project?
- Identify areas of lack. This “lack” can be a lack of knowledge, skills, or simple self-confidence.
- Validate your observation. Check with other managers or supervisors to get their feedback, either by observation or asking open-ended questions.
- Engage the individual. Once the need for coaching is confirmed, invite the individual to actively participate in the coaching process. Explain to them how the coaching process works so they have an understanding of your expectations.
- Collaborate on goals and expected outcomes. Share your formulated ideas to address the gaps and problems you identified as part of your observations. Keep in mind that you do not want the experience to feel like a “have to” but more of a “want to” situation. Actively discuss and collaborate on what help is needed and what actions should be taken to make the desired changes.
- Agree on action plan. In a coaching partnership, it is critical that both parties agree on the goals and expected outcomes. Make certain that your expectations are reasonable.
- Provide specific feedback. As an effective coach, you need to provide specific feedback during the implementation of the new learned skills, knowledge, and behaviors. The person being coached needs more than just an “attaboy;” there needs to be substantive feedback provided so the person being coached knows he or she is on the right track. Praise goes a long way. When the opportunity is provided, remember to give praise when it is needed because this is an important part of coaching.
- Follow up periodically. Check on the person being coached periodically to ensure that the learned skills, knowledge, and behaviors are being used and that progress is happening as expected. This is also the time to look for new coaching opportunities with the individual.
When engaging in a coaching relationship, coaches can be either directive or supportive (Project Management Institute, 2011). Choosing the right approach depends on the situation, issues, and needs of the person being coached. Directive coaching involves telling the coachee what needs to be done, whereas supportive coaching positions you as a facilitator of desired behaviors or skills. A coach who engages in directive coaching focuses on developing skills or providing answers or specific instructions to the coachee. If the skills needed are in your area of expertise, you can instruct the individual directly. If you are not an expert in that skill, you should have the individual work with a subject matter expert that can share knowledge, answers, or give instructions to the person you are coaching.
Supportive coaching, on the other hand, is focused on facilitating, collaborative problem-solving and building self-confidence in the person being coached. The coach assists the individual by leading the session, but allowing the individual to come up with the solution. During these facilitated coaching sessions, a coach builds the self-confidence of the person being coached by expressing confidence in their ability to find the solution. Supportive coaches also serve as a resource to others by making yourself available to provide information or provide guidance to assist individuals with coming up with solutions.
How Do You Know When Coaching is Successful?
Quantifying the effect of coaching on organizational performance may be difficult, as the effect is diluted by the size of the organization. However, you can determine the influence of coaching on specific project outcomes, as the coachee directly affects the success of the projects in which they participate. At its most basic level, coaching is successful when the coach and coachee observe the desired change in behavior, knowledge, or skills immediately and continuously. If the coachee is more effective at resolving team conflict or shows improved engagement in team activities, the coaching can be deemed successful. If the quality of work performed or produced is higher than before, then the coaching intervention was a success. Success criteria follow from the goals and objectives agreed upon between the parties while planning the coaching activity.
The dependence between success determination and the goals and objectives is why it is very important to develop measurable, realistic and achievable goals and objectives. A common method is to develop SMART goals, or specific (S), meaningful (M), achievable (A), reasonable (R), and time bound (T) goals (Rubin, 2007). For project management teams, these outcomes can be focused on tangible items such as quality of produced deliverables, level of customer satisfaction, or achievement of cost and schedule targets. Additionally, the outcomes can be intangible items such as level of team cohesion or collaboration.
Whatever the outcome measured, it must be meaningful to both the project manager coach and the project team member being coached as well as meaningful to the project. In an article on coaching value published in Training and Coaching Today, the author provides a set of questions to ask when evaluating the return on a coaching investment. These questions allow the project manager coach to consider if the coaching has improved work performance, demonstrates observable improvements in behavior, or improves upon business outcomes (The proof is in the reckoning, 2007). While outcomes of coaching may not be measurable in terms of dollars or hours, success is measurable in terms of productivity, behavior improvements, and achievement of soft organizational goals. This means that the project manager who coaches with project success in mind must remember this and make sure to evaluate the objectives of the coaching engagement against whatever criteria the project manager determines to be successful in terms of the project.
Coaching is an invaluable tool to a project manager. A good project manager will use coaching to develop the project team. By identifying where coaching is needed and by providing the appropriate coaching opportunities, coaching project managers increase the chance of successful project outcomes and increases the performance of project team members at the same time. The project manager needs to be mindful that coaching will not be effective for an individual who does not want to be coached. Nonetheless, the project manager will be able to take pride in watching those they have successfully coached thrive with their newfound skills. Those newly cultivated skills will help promote a successful project.
Coaching is a win-win experience. Project managers who also coach are not only developing their team members, but they are also enhancing their own coaching skills. It is extremely important for a project manager to be able to recognize when coaching is needed and one needs to take advantage of those opportunities. By developing SMART objectives and following the eight-step process identified in this paper, the coaching project manager will increase the success of the team and the success of the project.
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© 2011, Juanita Woods, MBA, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dallas, Texas, USA