* I’m a leader – I don’t have time to coach!

June 19, 2013 Linda Aspey No Comments

When we think of leaders we don’t often think of them as coaches – their remit is naturally wider.

But if you want to keep your people and organisation at the peak of the game, ongoing learning is key. And one of the best ways to do this is through coaching.

Yet it can feel like there just isn’t time to coach. You need to get things moving now.  There just isn’t time to ask questions that get people to think, nor wait for them to come up with answers.  It’s quicker to tell people what what needs to be done, or how. For some, coaching is a luxury they  just can’t afford right now, invented by the HR folk with nothing better to do!  And sometimes it’s not to do with the need for speed, it’s more a case of changing old habits. Like the habit of always being the one to come up with answers when someone asks for help.

What’s your usual response when someone asks you “How do I do this?” or “This has happened; what shall we do?”

Do you find yourself immediately giving your thoughts and ideas in order to be helpful? Or worse, do you find yourself the one left with the problem that they should have managed? Either way, you’re probably missing an opportunity to have a coaching conversation.

Telling people what to do or how to do it just perpetuates a negative cycle – almost like that of learned helplessness.  If you’re a leader who’s not encouraging or challenging your team to think, they’ll believe that only you can solve problems, think up options and make decisions.

Is that what you really want?

If you want to free up your time so you aren’t constantly fire fighting and solving other people’s problems, coaching offers you a way to encourage people to do THEIR OWN thinking so you can do yours.

But coaching sessions take SO long! 

It  doesn’t mean you have to organise formal coaching sessions  – these are valuable but mostly it means changing the way you respond to people in everyday conversations. It means adopting new habits so that they break theirs too. It means you letting go of control and power and giving the right amount back to them. It means using coaching skills. And these need practising – like using a muscle to strengthen it.  So that a conversation becomes a coaching conversation. 

By that I mean it’s more about style than process, and not about context or length. It means asking questions that provoke thinking, anytime, anyplace. 

Here’s an example:

You meet someone from another team at the coffee machine and they tell you about a situation they’re facing. Because you’re interested and want to find out more, you ask,  “What do you think the real issue is here?” or “What options do you have?”. You are coaching. Conversely if you say “Have you tried XYZ?” or “Why don’t you ask Fred, he knows about this stuff?” – you’re not coaching.  You might think it’s helpful (and it might be at some point) – but if you can help them first to think – for themselves – about what they can do, that’s even more helpful. 

Some clues as to whether a conversation is a coaching conversation are:

  • Is the focus of the conversation mostly and intentionally on one individual or team?
  • Is the intention of the coach genuinely positive towards the other person or people?
  • Are they being encouraged and enabled to think for themselves?
  • Are the skills of listening, questioning, and reflection being used?
  • Is their awareness and sense of responsibility being raised?
  • Does the individual think about the conversation afterwards and benefit from that reflection?
  • Is there a commitment from the person to doing something more effectively or behaving in a beneficial way after the conversation?

When these are happening, it’s likely that coaching is happening. So if you hold these in mind and use the ideas when you’re out and about having conversations, you’ll be getting lots of practice in using coaching skills.

You need to look for opportunities to coach – it benefits people and it benefits you.

And you might be surprised at how willing people are to “be coached”.  Of course it could be a bit impertinent to think you can coach just any old person without asking their permission – in fact it could be quite intrusive unless it’s been agreed or is a normal part of the culture. But in most cases, where someone asks you for your opinion or where you manage them directly, it would be perfectly OK to pose a coaching question instead of giving them the answer.

Imagine you’re having a 1:1 weekly catch up with one of your team. They tell you about a project they’re working on and how it’s going – OK but there are a few delays and problems. If you were to say “Sounds like on the whole it’s going well and you’ve made great progress; what do you think is really holding things up now?” Or “What else might you be able to do to get it moving again?” You’d be coaching them. They’ve already started to benefit from the conversation because they are thinking and generating ideas.

Then when they tell you a bit more about it, you might find an opportunity to say, “You’ve talked about how challenging some of the stakeholders are to manage.  If you’d like to generate some new ideas and strategies for yourself, I’d be happy to get together for half an hour or so next week to do a bit of coaching on it”.

The more you get used to asking the more comfortable you and they will feel. And before long, you’ll find people come to ask you if they could have a conversation rather than “we’ve got a problem what shall we do?”  And in time it won’t feel as if you are coaching, it will just be a part of your style.


Your role as a leader and manager is to help people think well for themselves, not to do it all for them.  So I’d ask you – what could you do differently from today to help your people to do their own, clearest and most inspired thinking?


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