Agility starts with aspiration: here's how coaching can help
The start of a New Year is often a time to reflect on and recalibrate our goals in life and work.
I will explore how psychologically informed performance coaching can help people clarify their own aspirations and work towards their performance goals at work.
In this short piece I will refer very loosely to a client case which is entirely anonymous and fictional - albeit drawing on my own experience. It is a good enough example of the kind of case a coach can encounter in corporate settings and will illustrate some key points about coaching for performance. In this case, I will highlight how ‘cognitive behavioural coaching’ (‘CBC’) is likely to be a helpful approach.
Being trained also in ‘gestalt’ facilitation and coaching which feels very different to CBC, I should point out that it is possible to approach performance challenges using many different approaches. However, my own preference and my understanding of the research literature, suggests that CBC tends to be most suitable for situations that require very tangible and rapid performance outcomes, for example to increase a professional sales-person’s revenue contribution to a business within a matter of weeks or a few months.
I tend to use other methods, such as ‘gestalt’ coaching, which makes more use of here-and-now experience, when addressing complex leadership challenges, and deeper personal development or interpersonal relationship needs. Gestalt practice also tends to be very helpful when working with groups, and especially with leadership teams who are in some way 'stuck', or in need of better alignment. Here I explore a situation that many executives may find themselves in right now, in a time of severe economic headwinds.
Ravi is a seasoned technology sales leader, with fifteen years of corporate experience, who is currently struggling to meet his revenue targets, despite several previous years of consistent success. His firm has mandated performance coaching sessions for all its sales managers and senior staff, partly to increase their sales performance, as part of a global business growth strategy.
Research suggests that 'goal-focused' coaching can improve sales performance and business success. This – as the term ‘goal-focused’ indicates – is a form of coaching which sets out from the start to help people achieve very specific goals within what is likely to be a relatively short and contained coaching relationship. As I touched on earlier, coaching which is goal-focused is quite different from forms of psychological coaching which might, for example, use a gestalt approach (exploration of here-and-now experience often to address a personal ‘impasse’), or an ‘ontological’ approach (which focuses on a person’s way of being, their use of language, embodiment, and feelings).
Goal-focused coaching conversations do often require the client to address material of a personal nature which might be getting in the way of their achievement of goals, or even their commitment to certain goals. This is done in a way which directly surfaces and addresses a client’s patterns of thought, their emotional response to challenges, and resultant behaviours, that either help or hinder their performance.
So such conversations do not completely ignore feelings, or leave deeper issues under the carpet. In this kind of coaching a conversation is managed in a way that seeks to help the client become aware of how certain thoughts, assumptions, and feelings might be affecting their pursuit of performance goals. This form of coaching - while noticing and acknowledging a person's history - tends not to encourage people to focus too much on problems, or to attempt to analyze past events, in huge depth. Goal-focused methods tend to favour collaborative, pragmatic, forward looking dialogue.
Additionally, having a clear financial target and business agenda provide a suitable context for a strategically oriented coaching engagement, rather than an engagement which is more about personal growth . A business or strategic orientation in coaching implies that any coaching work is anchored in business need and strategic priorities.
In this case, Ravi’s own stance towards his business context and his personal needs must be surfaced, and integrated into the coaching. His understanding of what is important to him may not be the same as the organization’s expectations, so it is vital to establish adequate alignment. Performance coaching could potentially help Ravi move in a desired direction for him, which also meets the organization’s financial goals.
The additional challenge is that through coaching we may also need to support other, more qualitative positive personal and organizational outcomes, such Ravi’s wellbeing, and that of a team he leads. When coaching Ravi to improve his performance we should be mindful of the effects this may have on his team. Coaching him in a way that works not just for him, but which also pays attention to his impact on others, is also important.
The first thing to do is to ensure that there is a ‘multi-stakeholder contracting process’. This would include an initial stakeholder meeting and checkpoints, with Ravi (the coachee), his line manager and other key internal parties. In this forum, it would be vital to instill a sense of partnership and shared accountability for a high-performance work environment, emphasizing (possibly privately) to the corporate client the importance of organizational reinforcing mechanisms that may support Ravi’s performance. Ravi’s line-manager’s personal understanding of performance coaching and support for the coaching process is likely to be an important factor in its success.
This is where the coach would need to demonstrate their own courage to navigate what might be a complex coaching situation. Some corporate clients expect a one-off coaching process to be a simple, quick fix for performance challenges their leaders and team members face. Usually, the design of the operational performance environment, which might also affect aspects of the internal culture, also need to change in some way. In this sense, performance coaching and organizational development activities should be conducted in such a way that they reinforce each other.
Cognitive behavioural methods, such as the SPACE model (an approaching which considers Social Context, Physiology, Action, Cognition, and Emotion) which enable performance enhancing thinking and behaviour, are most likely to be appropriate for a situation like Ravi’s. These methods encourage adaptive and more functional ways of thinking and help coaching clients to put performance enhancing ideas into action through real-world experimentation.
This overtly goal-focused approach to coaching can also be supported by other coaching methods, which draw on other modalities – which may mean that the coaching process overall is ‘multi-modal’ or 'integrative'. With some clients it may seem appropriate to the coach to explore their own assumptions about the type of coaching that might be most helpful to them, and to share some background to the approach being contemplated, especially if they have prior experience of coaching.
There is little purpose to sticking dogmatically with one coaching framework or method if a client would benefit from a more flexible, multi-modal approach. It can be helpful to discuss a clients’ own experiences and assumptions, and if necessary, to demystify coaching for a client at the start of a new coaching relationship.
An initial phase of guided discovery with a coaching client like Ravi would help him to establish more clarity on the factors that are influencing his performance. The performance factors, and areas of focus for a series of coaching sessions might be as follows (these follow the SPACE model I touched on earlier and they are not necessarily to be covered separately, but rather serve as a framework to use flexibly to guide the sessions):
- Working relationships, especially with senior leadership, whose own behaviour may help or hinder Ravi’s efficacy and attainment of his goals. If Ravi offers this voluntarily and it is relevant to his needs, we may also help him to build more supportive relationships with intimate others, such as family members. These illustrate the importance of social context in work performance.
- We may explore lifestyle factors that promote physical health, medical conditions, sleep quality, regularity of exercise, effective nutrition, alcohol, medication, or indeed other drug use. Ravi should not be pressurized into offering information about his health and lifestyle habits. However, he may benefit from guided discovery of the importance of physiological factors in his performance. The aim would be to help Ravi maximize his energy. These illustrate the role of physiological and health factors in performance coaching outcomes.
- We may seek to help Ravi build more positive, creative, and proactive approaches to business development, seeking help from colleagues and ways to collaborate to win new clients. These are examples of the role of action in performance coaching.
- It is likely that we will explore Ravi’s assumptions about revenue generation as an intrinsic part of his role. This is an example of the fundamental role of cognition in performance.
- A coach might also aim to explore Ravi’s positive and negative feelings associated with the increased revenue expectation and with business development activity more generally. This is an example of the role of emotion in performance.
Guided exploration of Ravi’s own level of current and desired performance, may need also to take into account any perfectionistic tendencies he demonstrates, or shares. In this case it would be especially important to ensure an adequate balance of high standards, with realism and pragmatism. Management of his emotional reactions to perceived failures or set backs are likely to be relevant. An open dialogue would build Ravi’s own awareness of his situation, and responsibility for his own performance, while surfacing practical steps towards reaching his sales target.
Again, it is important to emphasize that a coach would need to do this while remaining sensitive and open to the other external forces and systemic influences on Ravi’s performance. Openness and honesty about how to manage these external factors to the best of his ability, without blaming himself for things beyond his control or influence, are likely also to be important.
Using cognitive-behavioural approaches to coaching, Ravi could identify and put in place his own measures of success. A successful coaching relationship which is built on trust, would also help Ravi to reduce thoughts that interfere with performance, and maximize thoughts which enhance performance, in sustained pursuit of both his and his company’s ambitions.
Overall, the coaching relationship should feel like an enabler to Ravi. An equitable and non-judgmental yet stretching relationship with a skilled, credible coach with some understanding and empathy for his situation, is likely to feel helpful to Ravi. A robust coaching alliance of this kind is less likely to feel to Ravi like just another corporate tactic designed to squeeze yet more productivity out of him, to ‘get more for less’, that happens to be dressed up as ‘coaching’.
My own consultancy and coaching clients are usually experienced in their fields and highly intelligent. They can read between the lines of a situation. What I always try to achieve is a deep sense of partnership with the client in service of their own situation and their aspirations, while also serving the purpose, and strategic interests of their organizations. Helping people to pursue their goals while remaining anchored also in the here-and-now, and not being too hard on themselves, are integral features of the process.
A psychologically informed and properly tailored approach to performance coaching requires a fine balance of several considerations. At more senior levels in business, a nuanced, personalized, targeted, and evidence-based approach is arguably more effective in contributing to an organization's overall strategic agility, than a generic or commoditized coaching solution.
Good luck with clarifying your own needs and aspirations, and with the pursuit of your goals this year!
 Dahling, J. J., Taylor, S. R., Chau, S. L., & Dwight, S. A. (2016). Does Coaching Matter? A Multilevel Model Linking Managerial Coaching Skill and Frequency to Sales Goal Attainment. Personnel Psychology, 69(4), 863–894. https://doi.org/10.1111/peps.12123  Grant, A. M. (2012). An integrated model of goal-focused coaching: An evidence-based framework for teaching and practice. International Coaching Psychology Review, 7(2), 146–165.  Heffernan, N. & Palmer, S. (2010). Do top executives prefer or occasionally need directive, instructional or strategic coaching? Coaching Psychology International, Vol. 3, Issue 2.  Jones, R. J., Woods, S. A., & Guillaume, Y. R. F. (2016). The effectiveness of workplace coaching: A meta-analysis of learning and performance outcomes from coaching. Journal of Occupational & Organizational Psychology, 89(2), 249–277. https://doi.org/10.1111/joop.12119  Turner, E. and Hawkins, P. (2016). Can You See What I See? Coaching at Work, Vol 11 (1) pp. 32-37.  Bing Ma, Guimei Ma, Xiaolang Liu, & Lassleben, H. (2020). Relationship between a high-performance work system and employee outcomes: A multilevel analysis. Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 48(1), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.2224/sbp.8580  Sidhu, G. K., & Nizam, I. (2020). Coaching and Employee Performance: The Mediating Effect of Rewards & Recognition in Malaysian Corporate Context. International Journal of Management, Accounting & Economics, 7(1), 41.
 Palmer, S. & Williams, H. (2013). The SPACE model in coaching practice: A case study. The Coaching Psychologist. 9 (1), 45-47.
 Edgerton, N. & Palmer, S. (2005). SPACE: A psychological model for use within cognitive behavioural coaching, therapy and stress management. The Coaching Psychologist. 1(2), 25–31.  Neenan, M. & Palmer, S. (2001). Cognitive Behavioural Coaching, Stress News. Vol. 13, No. 3
 Corrie, S. & Palmer, S. (2014). Coaching individuals with perfectionistic tendencies: When high standards help and hinder. The Danish Journal of Coaching Psychology, 3. 10.5278/ojs.cp.v3i1.666.