Previously, I have written about coaching skills for project managers, and in that article I said I would return to the topic of coaching of project managers.
I am a strong advocate of coaching as a way of developing and improving skills in general, and project management in particular. It seems to me, and I’ve seen plenty of successful examples to support my view, that project managers like to work on developing their skills, and coaching provides an excellent mechanism to make it happen. In this context I’m talking about a formal peer-coaching relationship, where the project manager works with an assigned coach – who is normally a more experienced project manager – over a period of some months, in order to achieve a predefined objective.
Before I get into more detail, let me add a caveat that I am not a qualified coach; I am that most dangerous of compromises: an enthusiastic amateur. I have been a coach (many times over) and a coachee, trained coaches, and designed and operated coaching schemes. Wherever possible I have done so with the support, advice and assistance of coaching specialists, some of whom I have named in the “credits” at the end of the article.
What is coaching for?
Coaching should always have a purpose. In the realm of project management, this could be:
- so that a project manager can get to the next level of performance in the profession, perhaps as part of an accreditation scheme
- to support a career transition, for example someone moving into project management for the first time
- to address and overcome a specific (perceived) weakness, for example communications skills
- as an extra level of support to a particularly critical project
I didn’t just pluck these examples out of the air; they are all real situations where coaching has helped. The last on the list – project support – is slightly different to the others in that the focus is the project rather than the project manager. If the PM were to be changed, then the coach would stay with the project, and work with the new PM (in contrast to the other situations, where the coach would normally move with the PM).
The model of coaching that I advocate is non-directive, which literally means that the coach does not tell the coachee what to do. Instead they help the PM to find their own solutions, through a structured process of exploring options and deciding the best course of action. In the case of an experienced PM coaching a less experienced PM, it is natural that the coach will want to introduce some of their own experience and knowledge, but this must always be offered as an option to explore rather than an instruction to follow.
Establishing a Coaching Scheme
Let’s say you are responsible for a corporate group (or department) of project managers. What do you need to do to establish a coaching scheme?
- Define the purpose of the scheme. What are you trying to achieve? It might be one or more of: improving PM skills, improving project delivery, improving morale, improving staff retention, developing staff to the next level of competence.
- Design the parameters of the scheme. Who are the target coachees (and how many)? What is the likely duration per coachee? How much time is required per coach (in hours per week)?
- Establish the guidelines for the scheme: “ground rules” for coaches (including confidentiality), point-of-support for coaches if they run into difficulty, outline coaching contract (which is the agreement between a coach and coachee).
- Recruit coaches. If you operate a Community Service scheme, this is an obvious place to start. Also, if there are other departments that also employ project managers, consider extending the scheme in a cross-functional way.
- Train coaches. How much is enough? A “home brew” half-day internal session is about the minimum to explain the basic theory and get some practice, and I’ve trained many PM coaches this way. Far better, if you’ve got the time and budget, is to employ a professional coaching trainer – and suitable courses can be anything from a day or two up to extended courses with a professional qualification over several months.
- Implement – monitor – and observe the benefits.
Here are some of the experts who helped shape my approach to coaching:
- Sir John Whitmore, of Performance Consultants
- Frank Bresser, of Frank Bresser Consulting
- Suzanne Sutton-Izzard, of Crocus Coaching & Development
- Shirley Thompson, of Desk Coach – who has a particular academic interest in coaching schemes for project managers