Action Coaching: Putting Executive Coaching to Work in Real Time

user Mark Teitell and Darren Gold
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Many companies use executive coaches to advise their management teams…but to take that guidance to the next level, coaching in action can be even more effective than coaching in isolation. So what is action coaching? Consider this example.

Every few years, the world becomes the stage for elite soccer (or dare I say “futbol”) players. This year, the Women’s World Cup in France saw 24 teams come together to battle it out on the pitch. Little girls the world over started dribbling and dreaming about playing at that level, in the end hoping to be the “next Rose Lavelle,” who herself once hoped to be the “next Mia Hamm.” Players scored, fouled, rejoiced, cried, suffered and overcame injuries. Fans cheered. Teams won and lost. If you are from the U.S. (and are a soccer fan), you would be hard-pressed to not love the outcome with the U.S. women securing their second consecutive, and fourth overall, World Cup title. With four Olympic gold medals as well, they have proven to be one of the most dominant, and influential, teams of all time. Needless to say, the players’ skills are tantamount, but the coaching they receive while in the act of playing as a team is also essential.

There is an important business lesson to be drawn from this analogy, so bear with us for a moment as we put it in context. Imagine this team of world class soccer players getting individual classroom instruction on the fundamentals of soccer and practicing alone on separate fields. Let’s say that they each have select coaches – the cream of the crop, who keep them in shape, work with them on foot skills, and make sure they maintain the right nutrition plan. They are at their peak physical condition. But what would happen if they never had the benefit of playing in a game together until the first round of the playoffs? Would they know how to play to each other’s strengths? Would their coaches know who to consistently rely on for penalty kicks under the pressure of those 90 minutes? How would the x’s and o’s from the clipboard translate to the game? Could they possibly win?

The fact is that while skill-building is essential, you could never compete at this level with without also playing as a team in actual games. Look at any professional sports team – when they are being coached, it is “in action” – in the context of a game time situation. They run drills and practice taking shots (again and again), and they scrimmage to simulate matches…but the real learning happens when they are faced with an opponent. Those are the moments that define the winners. For a management team, this is what action coaching is all about. Many companies use executive coaches. Arguably, it is one of the best ways to upskill leaders as they grow into new positions or inherit new teams. But action coaching is distinctively different and borrows from action learning, a problem-solving technique introduced in the 1940s that requires inquiry, action, and reflection.

Although we’ve known for decades that the best learning takes place in an applied fashion, this concept still isn’t regularly put into practice in the workplace. And if you think about it, it defies logic. Just as you would never expect an elite sports team to play in a match without first practicing together, why would we expect management teams not to apply the practices they are learning from their coaches to real situations?

The problem with modern executive coaching in the business context is that you get the x’s and o’s in the back room, but are not getting the coaching you need in real-time. Traditional coaching is often seen as an isolated learning and development initiative, delivered at an individual level to one person within a team, and primarily for remediation. It is also frequently provided by coaches that have little practical experience. Perhaps most importantly, since traditional coaching is generally delivered in one-to-one situations, it tends to lack integration with important business objectives.

That is not to say that traditional executive coaching shouldn’t be a priority. It is undoubtedly one of the most effective ways to help leaders advance to the next level in their leadership journey. Action coaching simply takes it to the next level by using executive coaching in conjunction with real-time team decision-making and problem-solving. What makes action coaching different is that it brings senior leadership teams together and applies the learnings from individual coaching sessions to real problems, situations, and/or initiatives that they are working on together.

Let’s say that your company is undergoing a major acquisition. The management teams need to make sure that the new entity will create shareholder value but are also concerned about cultural changes and how to make the transition positive for employees. Any situation in which the stakes are high and team collaboration is essential to produce better results is a prime candidate for action coaching. Quite simply, action coaching is what has made the U.S. women’s soccer team a dominant force in sports. By taking their individual training, applying it in scrimmages and real games, studying their successes and failures, and putting those learnings into their game with the next opponent(s) , they have created a winning formula.

Imagine something you are working on over the next few months that requires extensive teamwork.

Action coaching could provide you and your team with the game-time situation you need to get the results you want.

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