Partner to Enhance Growth Between Sessions
• How assignments enhance coaching
• What makes a good coaching assignment
• Ideas for finding and creating assignments
When my children were in elementary school, nightly negotiations were necessary as they tried to postpone doing their homework. “Why do we have to do homework?” they lamented. “Why do you think you do?” I asked. And after their first response, which usually had the word “torture” in it somewhere, they gave more informed answers, like “to practice what we learned that day,” “to get us ready for a test,” or “to show we know how to do it on our own.”
Coaching “homework” is critical for the same reasons. When coachees complete assignments between sessions, they demonstrate—to themselves as well as to their coaches—that they’re moving forward and can do so unaided. Assignments further the ideal that coachees become independent rather than developing a dependence on the coach to get things done.
Additionally, assignments (simply anything that will keep a coachee’s growth and development active and engaged between coaching sessions) help keep those sessions in the forefront of the coachee’s thoughts and behaviors instead of in the background of the coachee’s “real life.”
Finally, the “eureka!” moments of coaching generally don’t happen during sessions: They happen when the coachee is applying concepts from coaching to a real-life situation. They happen when they take some action and see the positive impact it has. So there’s no need to get disappointed or question your coaching skills if they’re not. It takes a while for an idea or learning to get fully processed. This more often happens when your coachee is doing, working, or performing at their job.
The Purpose of Coaching Assignments
The parallels between coaching homework and school homework end at their benefits, however. The way you completed assignments in school is very different from how you’ll work with your coachee to enhance her growth between sessions. Tool 6-1 outlines these differences.
|School Assignments||Coaching Assignments|
|Are created by the teacher.||Are co-created by the coach and coachee.|
|Are given to an entire class.||Are customized to—and accepted by—the coachee, with consideration for his goals, his situation, the time available to him, and a host of other factors.|
|Are routinely given every school night.||Are given as needed; never given just for the sake of having homework but only to further the learning from a coaching session or progress toward a goal.|
|Are graded.||There are no right answers to coaching assignments and no right (or wrong) way of completing them.|
|Are “torture” (ask a student!).||Are compelling; assignments are endeavors the coachee is motivated and excited to try.|
|Are “doing” only—school assignments are mostly observable or tangible.||Coaching assignments can include nonobservable activities. For example, an assignment might ask the coachee to try behaving in a certain way with others and to notice the results of that behavior. Some coaching assignments are very subtle as the coachee simply tries out new beliefs or perspectives for herself.|
Let’s expand more on each of the points highlighted in Tool 6-1:
Partnering to create assignments—The primary responsibility for achieving results through coaching is the coachee’s. It follows, then, that the responsibility for coming up with the tasks and projects that will help him achieve them rests with him as well.
At the same time, it’s often appropriate for the coach to suggest an assignment that she believes would help enhance the coachee’s learning between sessions. In such situations, she should make sure that she’s only suggesting, not mandating, the activity. Suggesting requires the use of language like:
• “You might try …”
• “I ask that you…. How does that sound?”
• “Would it be comfortable for you to …?”
• “How do you feel about …? Is this realistic? Do you like it?”
You must create a climate in which it’s OK for coachees to say “no” to an assignment you suggest. If you have a more autocratic style and impose your ideas on your coachee, or are the coachee’s boss, he may agree to do things he really doesn’t want to do, and often he won’t do them. Not following through is going to hamper the results that coaching can provide, and it does harm to the coachee’s morale as no one likes not following through on things they have said that they will do. It may make him feel like something of a failure.
CTI ensures assignments are co-created by using an accept, reject, or modify model in which the coach proposes an assignment, and the coachee can take it on, refuse it, or suggest a refinement. You could also teach them a technique that is based on a really terrific tool I learned from MindGym in which your coachee responds to an idea he doesn’t like with two categories of detail: three things he likes about that idea and three things he’d change. So, you can tell your coachee, he might respond as follows to an assignment he didn’t like—for instance, meeting with his boss: “What I like about that idea is it lets me advocate for myself, it is direct, and it gets me talking to my boss. What I’d change about that idea is I would like to practice on a colleague this week before I schedule the meeting with my boss, I’d like to practice with you at our next session before I raise it, and I’d like to do some research on X.” Helping coachees have productive ways to say no to things is a valuable lesson.
Later in this step, you’ll find ideas for coming up with assignments together as well as for starting a “storehouse” of assignment ideas on which you and your coachee can build.
Customizing the assignment and getting coachee acceptance—Assignments can be work-related projects, thought-provoking questions, a new mantra, or anything else that helps the coachee continue to progress toward her goals. They will vary greatly in their complexity, length, and format. Factors that help determine what your coachee’s assignments might look like include the coachee’s style and interests, the focus topic, the time and resources available, and the desired outcomes.
How much work a coachee can take on between sessions is not for you to judge. Your coachees are adults who should learn to take on only what they can manage with their regular workload, outside concerns, and state of mind. It’s your job only to create the relationship that is secure and open enough for them to tell you when they have reached their limits.
Related to the issue of how much the coachee decides to take on is the issue of whether to cut her some slack when she’s facing a tough situation outside of work. It’s not up to you to stop offering assignments when the coachee has several personal issues going on. It remains her responsibility to consider how much she can take on at any given time. When she doesn’t complete an assignment because of outside issues (at least those that were expected or already under way when she committed to the assignment), it’s important to point out that she had the opportunity to turn down an assignment because of stressors in her life before she took it on. Doing so would have been preferable to not honoring her commitment. This may seem harsh, but it’s a lesson better learned in a safe, supportive coaching situation than in a more demanding work situation where the stakes are higher.
Part of your initial relationship planning meetings should include talking about “homework”—how much of it there will be, who will devise and complete all assignments, and what the coachee wants done when she doesn’t complete the homework. Having all of those issues settled early in the process avoids conflict and misunderstandings at later sessions.
Giving assignments as needed—Not every session needs to have an assignment, and you don’t want to create one just because you feel it’s expected, but remember that there’s no forward movement between coaching sessions if there is no activity for which the coachee is responsible.
Doing and being—I’d bet that most assignments you’ve been given in your life have been oriented around getting something done. Many coaching assignments are about “doing” something as well: completing a long overdue report, applying for a job, meeting with a problem employee, and so forth. But coaching assignments don’t necessarily have that action-oriented, tangible target. Sometimes your coachee simply needs to think about an issue or a question, do some noticing or writing in her journal, mentally prepare for a tough meeting, or practice smiling more. These assignments are less transparent and often more powerful and change producing than are the “doing” ones. “Being” assignments ask coachees to try acting or reacting in a certain way and noticing the impact. Maybe it’s acting extroverted at a networking event, making one empathetic response per day, or considering each decision he makes that week from the perspective of a different audience.
Reinforcing that there’s no right or wrong ways to complete an assignment—Assignments created in this collaborative fashion may not look like any assignments you’ve given before—and that’s OK. Additionally, when your coachee comes back to you the following session, he may not have completed his assignment in the way you imagined he would. Or, after starting the assignment as designed, he may have found it didn’t work for him and changed it. You may not have been allowed to do this in elementary school, but in coaching it’s welcome. It means he considered the assignment and made it work for him. Now the assignment is more to his level, his interest, and his personal growth.
Although there’s no right or wrong way to complete an assignment, I caution both coach and coachee to be careful about choosing the right assignment as your starting point. The wrong assignment can have harmful results. For example, let’s say I instruct a coachee who’s working on her budget to come to the next session with a draft of it for review. If she really isn’t ready to produce a draft, that assignment could set her up for failure or sour her on future coaching assignments. In that scenario, I’d have been hoping for an outcome of movement, producing something, whereas the coachee’s hoped-for outcome was finding the confidence just to get started. That disconnect is why assignments are best created in partnership so that the coachee’s goal is served at every step. In that scenario, a better assignment would have been something like finding two people who’ve created budgets successfully and asking them what their first steps were. When the coachee brought that information to the next session, we could have talked about how she has accomplished those same or similar steps for other types of projects. These are two very different assignments producing two very different types of outcomes.
Making sure assignments are compelling—It’s interesting that many people who sign up for coaching are eager to receive assignments. They tell me it makes them feel they’re taking action in situations that have been hindering them. They’re anxious to have control over such situations and they feel that assignments empower them to work on their issues.
As you suggest a coaching assignment, be aware of your coachee’s spoken and unspoken responses. Usually you can see or hear in his response when an assignment really lights up his imagination and he’s eager to try it. The same is true when the idea falls flat and doesn’t really appeal to him. Point it out to build momentum: “Wow! You sound excited about this idea. More energetic than you did at the start of this conversation.”
Realize that there is a difference between being hesitant to take on an assignment and being unwilling or uninspired by it. When an idea you had does seem to die, ask your coachee what about that idea turns him off. If he says something like “That just doesn’t seem like something I’d want to do,” your suggestion isn’t an idea worth pursuing. But if his answer is more like “I’d love to do that, but I don’t know how I could” or “I’d like to, but it scares me,” it might be worthwhile to tweak the idea a bit and challenge him to take it on. Some people call these the juicy assignments: the ones that challenge coachees to do something they want to do, the ones they can’t wait to sink their teeth into, even if they have some apprehension about doing so. If their response is, “I’ve already tried that,” follow up with questions including, “How long ago? Is the context the same today? Could it be done again with a different outcome?”
Even assignments that coachees “have” to do can be made juicier. As Tara and Evan Marcus propose in their book It’s Okay to Play!, you can turn almost any task into a game. “When individuals find a game that is a fit for them, it lights them up and they are set free. Their energy is directed and purposeful. For example, when facing a daunting task, one game we suggest is the Superhero game. In this game, you give yourself the superpowers needed to help you get the job done. Imagine taking on the day as Organized Woman or Unstoppable Selling Man! Pretending to be super for the day sets a whole new level of intention and challenge.”
And why do that? People are supposed to be at work; they get paid to do it, so why should their assignments be exhilarating? When I spoke to the author, she added, “Life is short, why not make it engaging? If we can take on challenges that help us professionally and that we value, they will more effectively help us become unstuck and move forward. Why not take on something that makes us smile and helps us sail through our day?”
You, the coach, should not have any assignments between sessions. Your role is to show up and do your best during these interactions; all preparation and assignments are the coachee’s responsibility. Not only is it a recipe for coach burnout to take responsibility for making calls on the coachee’s behalf, reviewing his resume, or thinking about what he needs to do, it is a way of building dependence on the coach that is counter-productive. As much as you are inclined to help, remember the work of coaching needs to come from the individual being coached.
Say your coachee wants to run her first marathon and you’ve never even jogged around the block. How do you help her come up with an assignment that will help her achieve that goal? Where do you and your coachee get ideas for assignments or steps she should take when you might have no knowledge of the subject?
The first and most important place to look is within the coachee herself. She often will know what she needs to do in a given situation, and she simply has to be prompted to describe it and commit to doing it. So ask her, “What do people getting ready for marathons do?” or “What do you think your first step is? What comes after that?” or “Where can you go this week to get ideas for what steps to take?”
Often your coachee will name her assignment in the course of talking about his situation and move right on. You need to slow her down at these moments to get commitment to the assignment that’s she’s already articulated. Here’s how that might sound:
Coachee: I’ve always wanted to apply for that fellowship. In fact, I really should just go ahead and do it. Fellowships are important and so is writing articles. I have a friend who wrote an article and got three job offers afterward. I’ve heard that the good journals are always looking for …
Coach: Whoa! You’ve just mentioned two possible assignments for yourself. Are these things you want to commit to doing?
Coachee: What assignments? What do you mean?
Coach: I heard you say you wanted to apply for a fellowship and write an article.
Coachee: I did? I guess I did. But I can’t do both those things. And I don’t even know what fellowships are out there.
Coach: OK. Can you figure out which ones are out there before we talk again? Is that something you want to do?
Coachee: I guess so. I guess I could at least start.
Coach: Could you come back with three possible fellowships next time?
Coach: What about the article? What kind of information about writing an article could you start looking for this week?
Coachee: Well, I would need to find a topic … and know which publications are out there … and what they’re looking for.
Listen for the “shoulds” in your coachee’s conversation. When you hear one, turn it into an assignment. If he says, “I should get a first draft done by next week,” say, “OK, will you?” If he says, “I’d like to start a website business on the side, but I don’t know where to get the funding,” say, “Can you find out by next week?” Another way to elicit assignments from the coachee is to ask questions like these:
• “What assignment do you want to work on?”
• “For what other action do you want me to hold you accountable between now and the next time we talk?”
• “What can you do at your next meeting that would demonstrate this behavior?”
• “How might you gather more information about that?”
• “Is there something you can use this week to remind you to do that?”
When he doesn’t propose an assignment idea, you can say, “I feel like you should be doing something this week to move you closer to your goal. What is it?”
Even then, your coachee might still be unable to think of a suitable assignment to move him toward his goal. Where else can you and he go for assignment ideas? Tool 6-2 lists some sources for inspiration, and provides an example of the assignments they might generate for a coachee working on time management skills.
|Source||What Can You Find Here?||Example|
|Books||Whether you’re looking at a business book, a self-help title, or a coaching manual, you’ll find exercises that are suitable for, or can be tweaked for your coachee to use.||The first book that caught my eye when I was on the prowl for time management assignments was Jeffrey Mayer’s bright yellow Time Management for Dummies (1999). Its first section included a test of one’s time management savvy that was a great starting point for my coachee’s self-exploration.|
|Magazines||Articles and suggestions for self-improvement abound in a variety of magazines from nutritional and exercise ideas to relationship and parenting advice. These can often shed light on workplace issues.||When exploring how to integrate time management practices into her life, my coaching client was drawn to magazine covers with titles like, “No-Cook Dinners” (Good Housekeeping), “Take a Break” (Real Simple), and “How to Make Your Life Sync Up With Your Soul” (O). Articles are full of workable suggestions.|
|Internet||A Google search for “Coaching Exercises” + “A topic” will connect you to hundreds of ideas for assignments; sites like Pinterest are libraries of examples.||There are almost 2 million results for time management exercises, activities, and strategies from a Google search, presented as articles and videos. (Granted, it would take a time management expert to sort through all of these efficiently!)|
|Workplace||Coachees can ask peers or supervisors for ideas of what they need to do, look in old training manuals or binders, or even consider the assignments they already have to complete for work.||One time-management assignment my coachee completed was as easy as turning on her computer and opening her Outlook calendar. We had her do an analysis of how many meetings she had scheduled per week compared with how many were unplanned, how many were “one-time” meetings compared to routine meetings, and how many started on time. This analysis uncovered a few unproductive trends.|
|Other kinds of coaching, (e.g., sports or relationship coaches)||Get inspired by the drills and practices that a sports coach uses or the discussions a marital counselor might conduct.||Because I was on the lookout for coaching exercises having to do with time management, I was intrigued by something I saw in a televised football game: how the coaches used their time-outs. I asked my client how she could use time-outs in the workplace. She came up with the obvious: She would take one time-out each working day and use it as the athletes do—to plan strategy, to rest, or just to get a drink of water.|
|Daily life||Once you start looking for ideas of things your coachee can do to enhance their growth through assignments, you start finding ideas everywhere—in the supermarket, on a plane, stuck in traffic, or at the dinner table.||I asked the client to observe people in the grocery store to identify time management strategies that she could adapt. She noticed how people used lists organized by where things were located in the store. It got her thinking about making to-do lists that grouped like tasks together (e.g. calls to make, emails to write).|
Once you realize that coaching exercises are all around you, setting up an idea storehouse where you can capture them is a great idea. You’ll have these exercises ready when you and your coachee feel stuck. My storehouse is a binder divided by topic area, with a page for each exercise. Yours can be notes on your phone or in a database. However you format it, it’s a great way to remember the good exercises you’ve come across. Even the act of writing them down or copying them for your storehouse helps move these activity ideas into your long-term memory so you can pull one out when you need it.
Remember, you aren’t the sole person responsible for brainstorming assignments for your coachee. You can share these potential sources with your coachee so that he can find his own coaching assignments. Don’t feel that you have to come up with all of the assignments, just as you don’t have to come up with all the answers. First and foremost, the coachee decides what needs to be done. Rather than scouring the shelves or the websites yourself for exercises appropriate to your coachee’s issues, send the coachee to those sources between sessions so he can create his own assignments. Going with exercises that someone else (including your coachee) has suggested or published is not a sign of your weakness as a coach; it’s a model of using your existing resources to great advantage.
Here are some exercises from my storehouse that are connected to certain desired outcomes I’ve encountered repeatedly in my coaching.
Assignments for Remembering
These are the assignments whose outcomes are to help coachees stay connected to a great new perspective or to a breakthrough she’s had during a coaching session. For instance, your coachee might have realized during the session that giving regular feedback to her direct reports is a gift to them, not a punishment or a chore. Perhaps you both really want her to remember that realization during the coming week. Here’s how that conversation might go:
Coach: That sounds like a new way to look at this situation.
Coachee: Yeah. I always thought employees pretty much dreaded these performance review meetings.
Coach: So, during the coming week, how do you want to remember that what you’re giving them—a clear vision of how they’re performing—actually is a rare opportunity?
Coachee: I guess I could just start out the meetings by giving them this perspective and helping them understand where I’m coming from with my feedback. That I just want to hold a mirror up for them to show them how they come across.
Coach: And how will you remember to do that?
Coachee: Oh, I just had an idea. This may sound corny, but what if I put a little mirror in my desk drawer this week so that when I open it to pull out their files for the meeting, I’ll be reminded?
Remembering assignments often involve some sort of visual reminder, like a sticky note on the computer, a job aid, a poster on the wall, or an automatic reminder in the coachee’s calendar. Help your coachee figure out what visual reminders he can place in his environment to recall what he’s trying to accomplish and who he’s trying to be. One of my former bosses had on her desk a collection of turtle figurines from all over the world. They reminded her to slow down. There also were some unanticipated benefits to the collection: We respected her for admitting to her tendency to move too quickly and for being vulnerable in front of us. Over the years, the whole team added to the collection with turtles we found on business trips and vacations. That became a sort of unifying activity.
Using sticky notes as a visual reminder of assignments can be effective and I’ve suggested coachees use them time and again. Time management guru David Allen suggests that writing to-do items on sticky notes can free you from having them circling around in your head. The handwritten element of sticky notes adds to their value as our brains tend to process things better when written by hand compared to typing. But, remind your coachee to be careful not to overuse sticky notes as reminders or they will contribute to both physical and mental clutter. Too many notes makes a list of action items appear overwhelming. They no longer pop out and grab one’s attention; they get lost in a pile. Remind coachees to use them sparingly and to regularly dispose of notes that they no longer need.
Assignments for Thinking About a Topic
These are assignments in which your coachee simply needs to spend more time considering an idea or a question between sessions. Here’s how the assignment conversation might go:
Coachee: I don’t think I should have to check in with my employees to see if they’re doing what they said they were doing. I’m not that kind of a supervisor. That’s handholding, and my employees are adults!
Coach: You raise a big question there, you know? When you say you’re not the hand-holding kind of supervisor, it raises the question, “What kind of supervisor are you?”
Coachee: Well, I’m conscientious, I’m organized, I push my employees but they respect me. I …
Coach: Let me interrupt with a Dr. Phil–type question: How’s that working for you?
Coachee: Well, you know, it’s not going too well.
Coach: So, what kind of supervisor do you want to be?
Coachee: I don’t know—effective, motivating … I’m not sure …
Coach: Is what kind of supervisor you want to be something you want to think about some more this week?
Coachee: Yeah. I can see how it would be important to know that.
Coach: So how will you keep thinking about this?
Coachee: Well, I keep a journal. I can write about it every night.
Coach: Great. And will you send me a few bullets highlighting some key thoughts—not the entries themselves, unless you want to—before we talk again?
When asking your coachee to consider something, you might just ask her to set aside 10 minutes a day to sit with the question and think about it. It takes some time to come up with really meaty answers to meaty questions. Some of my clients carry with them for a week a written version of the question or idea they want to mull over so that whenever they have a spare moment or come across it in the course of their ordinary activities, they can think about it.
Assignments for Noticing
These are assignments in which your coachee heightens her awareness of something between sessions: “Monitor your reaction when you’re in meetings with that person,” “Notice how fast your heart is beating when that type of situation arises,” or “Count how many interruptions you have in one work day.” Again, you can ask the coachee to journal about what he notices, send you an email, or just keep a chart with tally marks for every time he noticed what he meant to notice. Noticing often involves objective observing— for example, counting the number of meetings on his calendar or the number of nights he made it home in time for dinner or tracking time spent on particular projects.
Many of my clients tell me that the biggest thing they’ve gotten out of coaching is that they’re noticing more. They notice when they’re unhappy so they can take action to improve their circumstances. They’re noticing and celebrating when they’ve reached a milestone or experienced a success. Noticing is a simple but extremely powerful tool, and I urge coaches and coachees alike to find ways and times to slow down or sit still and notice what’s happening for them.
By the way, your body is a great place to start noticing what’s happening for you at any given moment. We hold our stress and our heartaches in our bodies. Our heart rates tell us when we’re rushed or pressured. We feel in our gut when we’re doing something that conflicts with our values or ethics. Our illnesses tell us when we’re not getting enough sleep or working too hard. We often remain out of touch with what our bodies are telling us until it’s too late and we’re really suffering. Checking in with your coachee on whether he’s having some bodily (physical) reaction to a certain situation is a terrific way for both of you to learn what’s really happening.
Assignments for Enlisting Resources
This is the assignment to embark on when your coachee needs some expertise that neither you nor he possesses, as in this situation:
Coach: You say you’d like to increase your market share. When have you had an opportunity to do this in the past?
Coachee: I really haven’t. I was hoping you’d have some ideas for me about how to do it.
Coach: That isn’t really my specialty either. But my specialty is helping you figure out who has that expertise so you can get the information you need.
Coachee: Great. Where do I go?
Coach: Well, where were you thinking of going?
Coachee: My boss suggested I talk to the Chamber of Commerce. They might have some ideas about the local marketplace, and I think they also offer workshops on this topic from time to time.
Coach: What do you think of your boss’s idea?
Coachee: To tell you the truth, I’ve found the Chamber workshops to be a little simplistic.
Coach: Whose sophisticated ideas do you really admire?
Coachee: Hmmm. My friend works for the community college system, and she helped them capture more of the market so students would take classes through the college rather than through private vendors.
Coach: Great. She’s someone you can talk to about this.
Coachee: I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to her in a long time and …
Coach: OK. If not her, what about asking the Chamber of Commerce who in the area has seen his or her business really grow and then contacting that person to find out how he or she made that happen?
Coachee: I hadn’t thought about that. I guess they’d know some of the local success stories.
Coach: So is that who you need to talk to this week—local business owners who’ve been successful? Will you call three of them this week and ask them for 10–15 minutes of their time to learn about what worked for them? Incidentally, people love to share their successes and to be called on for their expertise. Is this something you can do?
Coachee: Sure. That feels a lot better than asking them what I should do, like asking for free advice. I just contact them and ask them to share their stories with me.
This coach started by discussing resources that already had been considered. Then she asked her coachee to pin down what type of people he wanted to speak with, and she gave him a new way to approach those resources. In the end, a tangible assignment was agreed on. Keep that conversation in mind for when you and your coachee need the input of some subject matter experts.
Assignments for Just Doing It
Coaching is a safe and comfortable relationship that should encourage people to go out and try new or risky things. A coachee should know that his coach has complete confidence in him, and that if he isn’t successful, his coach will be there to help him sort out the pieces. If your coachee feels that way about your coaching relationship, it might be time simply to give him a challenge and push him out there to do it. When his job requires him to do something that’s a stretch, when he’s talked about doing something for a long time but been slow to get started, or when there’s something he really wants to do that he keeps talking himself out of, it’s time to give him a “sink-or-swim” assignment.
The Center for Leadership’s most famous book, Eighty-Eight Assignments for Development in Place (CCL Press, 1989), and its successor, Developmental Assignments: Creating Learning Experiences Without Changing Jobs (CCL Press, 2006), posit that challenge and growth can be added to anyone’s job within an organization. They cite five kinds of opportunities that are developmental:
• putting people into challenging jobs
• having them work with people other than those they’re used to (mostly bosses)
• enduring a hardship
• taking courses (particularly ones in which they can interact with others at their level or in their industry)
• creating off-the-job experiences that would give them the skills they’re seeking back at work.
A coach can help her coachee locate an assignment like these that would give the coachee the growth opportunities he’s seeking. Of course, she’ll have to help him as he fumbles and experiments his way through it. Chris Emery, director of marketing at Insight Imaging, says, “I shift people into a blend of responsibilities that may fit or digress from their traditional roles. I let them work on some things that are in their self-described ‘comfort zone,’ and then I ask them to participate in activities and projects that provide them with a personal ‘gut check.’ If you never test someone, you will never know how high she can jump, or where she will land.”
There are some things I ask clients to just go out and do, and there are other things I ask them to experiment with. Experimenting is an especially useful practice when it comes to adopting new ways of being or interacting. When coachees face giving up something they like or that’s comfortable for them or integrating something new and difficult into their lives, it’s often more manageable if they think about doing it as a short-term experiment rather than adapting it for all time. I see people fail more often when they’re told to change the way they behave indefinitely than when they’re told to do it for one week—and then maybe one more week, and then maybe one week after that. I phrase most of my assignments as experiments now because sometimes it makes failure more tolerable and less damaging. With an experiment, we simply can design a new one and try again. It’s less of an absolute way of approaching a situation. Examples of short-term activities that a coachee surely can manage for a week include stopping by everyone’s desk to say “hello” in the morning, using only positive language, working from home, providing recognition to one person a day, or blocking off time on his calendar for nonwork activities that he should not reschedule.
It should be pointed out that there is some noticing that goes with experimenting (How did it work? How did you feel? What about it do you want to repeat?), but the most important thing is that you just create a space in which your coachee is willing to try something new for a short period of time.
Whatever assignments are created, you will need to lock in accountability. You need to make sure you do whatever you can to ensure the assignment will be completed. This starts by simply making sure you both know what the coachee is agreeing to and by when. Make sure the measurement is clear. “So, you will spend six minutes at the end of each day writing your tasks for the next morning. Is that right?” Summarize, or better yet, get your coachee to summarize—for example: “To recap, you want to listen more attentively and not interrupt. When will you be able to do that this week?” or “Tell me again what the new plan is? Let’s make sure we both understand.”
Make sure what the coachee is agreeing to can be done in the near future. If the coachee says, “I won’t get a chance to try that until my team member is back in two weeks, and then I’m off for a week,” you can respond, “Let’s think a moment. If you don’t want to wait three to four weeks to try this out, is there anything else you can do in the meantime or any one part you can start before you go?” The more time that elapses between your session and the assignment, the less likely it is the coachee will get to it.
You not only want to be clear about what the coachee will be doing, but you want to leave the session knowing the answers to these two questions: How will you know? How will I know? That is, if the coachee has agreed to think about the pros and cons of starting in an MBA program, how will he know that he’s done that thinking, and how will you, as the coach, know that he did it? If he agreed to make three phone calls on a particular topic, he’ll obviously know that he did it, but it may require that he shoot you a quick email to let you know that it’s done.
When the coachee needs to shoot you a quick email, I call it the “30-second email” and I ask for them frequently. To make this work, though, your requests really need to take less than 30 seconds. For example:
• Have your coachee rate her skills in a particular area on a scale from one to 10. Tell her every time she uses that skill in the next week to shoot you an email with a new rating. She can even put the rating in the subject line and leave the body blank. That’s a quick report.
• Ask him to send you a 30-second email with his estimates of talk time after each meeting he leads this week.
• Give your coachee a daily target for some skill, such as asking five powerful questions per day. Have her send you an email each evening with a number in the subject line.
• Give the coachee a simple format to follow, such as “After your next meeting, send me an email that has a thumbs up or a thumbs down and one sentence on why you gave yourself that rating.”
• Ask the coachee for a word to describe how he wants to be with his colleagues in his next meeting, maybe “engaged,” “lively,” “informative,” or “focused.” Then shoot him an email later in the week with the subject line, “Lively?” asking for a simple yes or no response.
This next tip for promoting coachee follow-up is a little bit counter-intuitive—give her permission to fail. Some coachees will be nervous about following up with you if they think their efforts must results in success. So, instead of saying, “I look forward to hearing how well that goes for you,” you might say, “I look forward to hearing how that works for you, or if we need to change course and try something else.”
Tying an assignment back to the coachees’ values is another way to increase the likelihood of him completing it. This might sound like, “Are you willing to commit to giving tough feedback in order to promote your value of authenticity?” or “How will doing this help you to be a good community member, which is one of the things that I know is important to you?”
The Next Step
By completing assignments on their own between coaching sessions, coachees learn what they’re capable of doing and reinforce what they’ve learned. Coaching assignments differ from other types of assignments because they are co-created, accepted, ungraded, and compelling. Devising exercises for coaching takes creativity and resourcefulness, as well as a willingness to let go and see how things work. Without assignments, coachees will make limited movement toward their goals.
There are other obstacles that limit a coachee’s progression. The next step addresses some of the more common challenges that arise in a coaching relationship and provides some strategies for handling them.
Applying the Learning
“Great ability develops and reveals itself increasingly with every new assignment.”
—Baltasar Gracian, 17th century Spanish writer
• Pick up a self-help book or magazine this week. Find two coaching exercises in it, and use them to start your idea storehouse.
• Find out what outcomes your coachee wants this week. What assignments might elicit those outcomes? With your coachee, devise one or two juicy assignments to complete by his next session.
• Ask for a 30-second email follow-up from a team member, family member, or coachee.