“By the way, Sam, you’ll be joining me at next month’s exec meeting,” said Carrie. “I want you to present our recommendation for The Big Project.”
Sam wonders if the VP can see his shaking hands and sweating brow.
Carrie trusts Sam. He does know the material. He also wants to look good in front of leadership. But he’d rather write them a report or create slides for someone else to present. Speaking publicly is not his comfort zone.
Bosses and business needs have a knack for taking us to uncomfortable places.
Sam needs to improve his skill and build his confidence in a specific area of communication: presenting. His company offers a training program, but the next session starts six weeks after the exec meeting. He could read books and watch YouTube videos, but those won’t give him any feedback. He could join a public speaking club, but he’d get just a few minutes of “training,” and wouldn’t be able to practice his confidential material with an outside audience.
Fortunately, Sam has another option, and he takes it. Sam hires a communication coach.
Working with a communication coach gives you a 1:1 student-teacher ratio in the real-life classroom that is your job.
A communication coach (or mentor or advisor or whatever label puts you at ease) is the right choice when you want to learn and grow through guided practice. You set the learning targets, the schedule, and the budget—and you do the work. Your coach shares insights, perspective, and comments. By soaking up and applying that wisdom, you learn to do the thing yourself.
What’s your coach-able thing?
Coaching can address virtually any professional (or personal) skill. In the realm of communication, you might work with a coach to:
- Write email messages that get to the point
- Slow down and make eye contact when speaking
- Learn communication strategy, beyond one message to full campaigns
- Organize a compelling sales pitch
- Develop a disciplined approach to blogging
- Establish a presence on social media
- Plan, write, and self-publish a book
For five good reasons to hire a communication coach, open the infographic at right.
Your coach could be in the next cubicle or halfway around the world.
Co-workers can be coaches. Internal mentoring, where one employee guides another, costs your organization nothing more than the time of those involved. Just remember: your colleague has a day job. To keep the relationship positive for both of you, use your first discussion to set expectations:
- What specific goal(s) do you hope to achieve?
- When and where will you meet, and for how many minutes at a time?
- What are good and bad times to connect between scheduled sessions? (You may want to invest time beyond regular business hours, but your coach may not.)
- How quickly will you respond to each other?
- When will you end—or at least evaluate—the relationship?
You can also hire a coach from outside your organization. This may sound like a luxury, but paid, third-party coaches are a cost-effective alternative to many learning programs—with the added benefit that you get exactly the training you need. If you manage the relationship efficiently, even a modest budget can cover weeks or even months of coaching.
You might work with a coach face to face. But for the ultimate in efficient learning, think about a long-distance relationship. A phone call or videoconference can be the perfect platform for squeezing productive learning into your already busy work life—provided you and your coach commit to focusing entirely on the conversation. No multi-tasking. No interruptions. No distractions.
What you get from coaching depends on what you give.
In a coaching relationship, the coach is the teacher, and you are the student. But you are also the principal. The better you manage your training program, the more value you will receive.
I say this not to shirk responsibility (I do provide communication coaching services, after all), but because I’ve seen the results when clients pursue coaching proactively, seriously, and strategically. I asked two such clients—Chris and Julie*—to describe their approach. Based on their input, here are six guidelines for managing your own, successful coaching program.
* Client names changed to honor a confidentiality agreement.
1. Keep track of objectives and progress.
“During our first discussion, my coach shared a list of questions that helped me identify my goals,” said Chris. “I listed those objectives in OneNote and often revisit that list to make sure I’m on track.” Chris also makes notes during every coaching session, creating her own textbook of pointers, ideas, and assignments.
2. Plan the conversation.
Both Chris and Julie agree that the student—not the coach—should set and manage the agenda for coaching conversations. “The week of a coaching session, I create a list of topics or issues that are on my mind, and those become our meeting agenda,” says Julie. “By building our discussions around what’s currently challenging me, I can take immediate action.”
3. Focus on a short list of improvements.
Initially, Chris set out to improve both oral and written communication. But just a couple weeks into coaching, she narrowed the focus to speaking skills. “We found that less is more,” she says. “At the end of each coaching discussion, we pick just two or three tasks I can do or techniques I can practice. This is really helping me reach my goals.”
4. Manage time wisely.
Chris’s coaching sessions typically last just 15 to 30 minutes—all business, no chit-chat. She updates her coach about progress, asks for feedback, gathers a few pointers, and asks for an assignment or two. Julie prefers one-hour sessions, but always reserves the last five minutes to compare calendars, so she can lock down the next appointment and avoid the hassle of trying to schedule by email.
5. Enjoy it—all the way around.
“If you aren’t excited about spending time with your mentor, you should find another one,” says Julie. “And remember that you can add value, too. Most people think it’s one-way, but I’ve found opportunities to help my coach—an idea, some feedback, a book to read. Giving something back to my coach really builds my confidence!”
6. Be open to more.
When Julie’s employer assigned her a writing coach, Julie entered the arrangement with basic expectations. “I expected to learn to write more simply and with greater impact,” she says. She wound up getting much more. “We really clicked, and before long my writing coach became my mentor. Because of our rapport, I feel comfortable asking for guidance on all kinds of challenges, interactions, and projects—professional and personal.”
Photo credit: Joshua Earle via Unsplash