Coaching Through COVID

What is coaching?

For the last two years, NDR has encouraged our managers to promote a "coaching culture" with their employees. While there are various models for creating such an environment, giving frequent and meaningful feedback is at the heart of this culture.  Coaching management relies less on telling staff what and how to do specific tasks and more on how to develop our staff to their full potential. A coach is someone who actively listens to employees and asks thoughtful questions to help the staff develop their skills and obtain mastery over their areas of responsibility.

Several people sitting around a round table listening and talking
Discussing the finer points of Coaching for Greater Effectiveness at the Managers Retreat in August 2018

Most NDR managers have been through the "Coaching for Greater Effectiveness" training, where we learned about and practiced the four core behaviors essential to good manager-employee conversations: listening for understanding, asking powerful questions, challenging with support and feedback, and defining next steps. We also practiced the Situation-Behavior-Impact-Intent (SBII) communication model for giving employees feedback, especially under challenging circumstances. If you're new to the idea of coaching, this website is a valuable resource for learning how to incorporate the core behaviors and SBII into your management practices:

Coaching is even more relevant during COVID

Coaching encourages staff to solve their own problems and to come up with their own solutions. Not only does this management philosophy facilitate intrinsic motivation through the practice of autonomy and mastery, but it also provides a sense of control at a time when so much else feels out of our control. Developing our staff to become solution-oriented is even more important now that many of us are working remotely and we may need to act more quickly. Good coaching conversations end with clear next steps. This accountability is critical for driving work forward, especially as we are operating in new and atypical ways. By listening for understanding, we will be better able to address the changing needs and stresses our staff may be experiencing as the pandemic progresses. 

Characteristics of a good coach

  • Good coaches are not synonymous with good advice-givers.
  • Good coaches come into conversations without the assumption that they need to have all of the answers.
  • Good coaches help their employees "think forward" by asking questions like: Why won't the status quo work? What could make this situation better? What would success look like if you could wave a magic wand?
  • Good coaches use "exploratory feedback" to help their employees reflect on past actions and imagine ways the situation could have been different with no single answer in mind. 

Special considerations in the new normal

Although the rewards of doing so are greater than ever, creating an environment that is conducive to successful coaching conversations is likely more difficult in this new normal. 

  • Commit to your one-on-one meetings with your staff and avoid cancellations. Although faculty and staff managers alike have many competing priorities right now, demonstrating your commitment to your employee's growth and performance is vital. 
  • Active listening over Zoom can be more difficult. It helps to precede a coaching conversation with a mental break to get in the right frame of mind. Schedule meetings when you and your employee are most likely to be in a listening mood. 
  • Too much stress can interfere with good decision-making. Try to control your own stress and bring a calming and even-keeled presence to your conversations.
  • Remember to ask genuine questions if you want genuine answers. Instead of asking, "How are you?," try, "What is the biggest issue on your mind today?"

Watch at

  • Good Coaches Ask Questions – Jack Zenger ( 2015, Library ID: 94375) [video, 4 mins]
  • Feedback that Can Have the Greatest Impact – Jason Jeffay (Skillport 2016, Library ID: 115270) [video, 3 mins]

Tools and Resources

  • Try something new: One simple suggestion if you don't have much time to absorb all of the resources below, is to choose one powerful question to ask at each of your one-on-one meetings.
  • Stop Giving Answers... Ask Powerful Questions Instead – Andy Cleff
    This blog post has a myriad of creative questions coaches can use to get to the heart of what is motivating or hindering an employee; for example, "Tell me what you need to hear so that you can stop worrying." 
  • The Leader as Coach – Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular (Harvard Business Review 2019)
    This article offers the GROW model as a way to improve our coaching skills, arguing why coaching is more important than directing.
  • Coaching for Greater Effectiveness Quick Tips and Reminders CFGE Quick Tips Reminders, PDF 330k
    This quick reference guide gives bullet points about the SBII method that is great for having difficult conversations.
  • How to Use Situation-Behavior-Impact to Give Feedback (Center for Creative Leadership)
    This blog post describes the power of the SBII model to navigate clarifying conversations when people fail to meet your expectations.
  • Coaching in the Time of COVID-19 – Laura Finfer and Lois Tamir (Training Industry April 2020)
    This article offers advice on how managers can demonstrate empathy toward their employees and safeguard mission-critical priorities from stress-filled decision-making. 
  • How to Coach Employees from a Distance – Gregg Thompson (Remote Leadership Institute, accessed August 2020)
    This article offers some great tips for modeling optimism and accountability for your employees regardless of whether you are sharing office space or not; for example, ask questions that reveal underlying assumptions. 

If you have questions or ideas for additional resources in this playbook, please contact the Director of Finance and Administration