Operational coaching

Christian HOHMANNCoaching was first a privilege for top ranking executives, then proposed to high potentials. Operational coaching, in the way I understand it, is diffusing to lower ranks, toward shop floor and operations, where team leaders or shop / office managers need help.

What is coaching?

Generally speaking, coaching in management is a way to back-up somebody to help him/her to develop his/her abilities, improve effectiveness, help adapting to a new situation, develop and/or improve his/her decision process and coping with problems.

Coaching is not about technical skills, it focuses on soft skills and attitude.

Knowledge (technical skills) and in some extend soft skills are taught during training sessions or apprenticeship. The “how-to” is learnt with accumulation of experience, in situation.

What is operational coaching?

Operational coaching is mostly proposed to middle management, to operations’ managers (Production, Logistics, support staff, etc.) and focuses on their specific problems and needs.

Operational coaching aims developing autonomy when facing situations requiring fast practical responses, swift decisions and handling as well as consistent managerial behavior.

Operational coaching is not teaching to reproduce models nor checking application of standards. It is about developing the ability to face new and unexpected situations.

If procedures and work guides are necessary to ensure tasks are performed according to standards, every new and/or unexpected situation may puzzle and freeze operations’ staff. What to do? How to react? What decision is best? No document, regardless of its intrinsic quality ever answered a question, not to mention urgent question!

The required help may be about the choosing a method or tool to address a peculiar problem, what managerial posture to adopt when facing a certain situation, analyzing context and root cause, reaching the target against the odds, etc.

Operational coaching is recommended after a mere theoretical training or even after hands-on training, when new knowledge and methodologies alone are not enough to cope with all kinds of situations and real problems (vs. simplified ones in trainings) in every day’s life.

Role of a coach

A coach is a skilled and seasoned person with significant experience, who knows how to handle situations like the coachee’s face or are likely to face. He’ll fetch every peculiar situation as an opportunity of learning and guides his/her coachee accordingly.

A consultant-coach is such a professional with track record in operational management, who lived similar situations and continues to gather experience through his/her activity. The consultant-coach is able to transpose his/her experience and pass it over to his/her coachee. The (consultant-)coach is not only a person who “knows”, but also someone with keen ability to analyze, debrief in structured and positive way, as well as propose a learning path. I am personally fond of the Socratic Method, in which asking questions lead the coachee to formulate him/herself his/her analysis and solutions.

A coach is no interim manager, he/she does not replace the coachee. The coach does together with the coachee, not in his/her place. It can happen that in certain situations the coach shows how-to and then pass it over to the coachee. It could be for a meeting moderation when the coachee has no experience, or for demonstration of a problem solving method, for instance.

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What are the benefits of operational coaching?

Operational coaching, besides helping with methodologies, analysis skills and advices, brings along a different point of view about real situations as they appear. The coach usually is more in background and has a broader view then the coachee. He has a comparatively huge experience in which he/she finds examples, solutions or at least hints to solve the problem.

This huge experience accumulated in numerous different fields of activities enriches the thinking, practice, up to ways of doing things of the coachees. Thus coaching completes academic trainings, usually more focused and short, with far lesser opportunities to exchange in this rich and customized way.

In case of emergency or crisis, the risk to forget something or to handle the situation in an awkward manner is multiplied. The slightly remote position of the coach allows him to warn and remind people he/she coaches.

This friendly backup is welcomed by new promoted managers or leaders, with very few experience of their own and potentially emotionally unbalanced in situations of acute crisis.

Operational coaching facilitates adaptation to changes and the inevitable issues, develops soft skills.

A manager is always alone in front of his/her subordinates. Those are actors waiting for guidance and decision and in the same time judges of their consistency and quality!

In those things, operational coaching is helping too, by the preparation of the coachee, the backup provided by the coach and the debriefing afterwards. It all reduces the apprehension and stress of the manager, who gradually will grow more confident.

Compared to autonomous self-development of manager’s soft skills, operational coaching prevents complacency or anxiety.

This happens frequently with newly appointed managers, who have technical or scientific backgrounds and who learn through trial-and-error. Some of them may have found some theory, yet turning it into practice is in any case a matter of experimenting. This can be a long and uncertain process, not always successful and sometimes hell for subordinates.

A coach brings along benchmarks, acts as a mirror and corrects all excesses and awkwardness of the coachee, explaining the necessity of these corrections. The coach is an accelerator, even he/she lets the coachee experience by him/herself a situation until a certain point, he/she will not let the coachee struggle in a dead end or false way. This keeps all benefits of self-learning without the risks.

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Necessary conditions for operational coaching

For operational coaching to make sense, the coach has to share a significant part of the professional life of the coachee. He/she must be in-situ alongside the coachee. The coach must have opportunity to observe him/her in real-time and in context.

Timely visits with a coach listening to a summary – with biases – of events and their management in between the visits will never have similar impact and benefits.

This approach is suitable for a personal introspective search and reflection about improvement. The underlying spycho side is not my field and should not be mixed up with operational coaching.

Operational coaching is something important in so far it requires relatively constant attendance of a skilled consultant, hence the amount of related fees.

The cost of coaching may be absorbed by several managers to coach. Experience shows that three to four managers can be simultaneously coached by the same coach (if on a single location), through a smart and pragmatic splitting of the coach’s load, accordingly to needs and events.

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Coaching as usual suspect

Coaching individual in the operational coaching way is too often seen by senior management as a mean for consultants to invoice easy fees, without tangible benefits for the company.

This reluctance is understandable as most of senior managers do not understand the nature of this type of coaching, furthermore are ignorant about the reality – read difficulties – of operations. There is no real tangible deliverable at the end, upon which set an objective and measure a progress.

Yet indicators exist and are proposed: managerial behavior analysis, time allocation analysis versus nature of tasks before coaching, management competencies assessment before and after coaching, 360° evaluation, polls, etc.

It is astonishing to see that nobody usually cares about regular training benefits, yet companies pay the training and side costs.

operational coaching is a kind of practical and customized extension post training as well as a kind of teaching of its own.

What are the risks not to coach?

A good cooking book is not enough to make a chef. A training is not enough to make a practitioner.

Facing new methods, new organizations or new processes, seasoned and experienced people are often more pragmatic, their solutions are more complete and robust. Newly trained or appointed people do not have such granted by experience. A coach compensates these weaknesses and speeds up their maturity before letting the coachees alone once able to cope all by themselves.

Denying this is letting people wander alone on rocky learning path and taking chances about bad decisions and/or errors, sometimes with irreversible and terrible consequences.

Fearing fall back

The most frequent critic after the consultants’ departure is the fallback to previous situation, forgetting that the sustainability is not linked to consultants nor procedures, but the carryover to company’s personnel themselves.

The easy way is too often to set new standards and paste some posters. Sweet illusion! Give an order or set up an action plan is no guaranty of its carrying out, nor it will be done right nor completely.

Old breeds as coaches are, have developed reflexes and good practices about passing instructions and getting things done, without bargaining every time, especially if something is not negotiable.

For newly appointed, newly trained or managers needing some help, working together with the coach, and turning this experience into their daily practice insures action will succeed. Now and in future.

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