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Helping Clients Realize Sustainable Change Through Targeted Coaching

Forbes Article by Forbes Council Member, Joe Frodsham

Behavioral change and development are difficult. 

As humans, we seek homeostasis and often go out of our way not to change. We put up with difficult relationships, continue unhealthy habits and endure bad bosses because we are most comfortable with the known, no matter how mediocre it is. Being motivated and supported to make meaningful change is rare but necessary as a leader.

As coaches, we are facilitators of change. We are introduced to a leader’s development process to be the teacher, accountability partner and guide through a meaningful improvement process. At the beginning of a coaching engagement, it’s typical to identify three to five outcomes that are deemed critical for the participant. However, this is where we design for failure: Your coachee can’t change that many behaviors, at least not at all at the same time. 

Deep and sustained behavioral change requires a hyperfocus on one behavior at a time.

This simple yet powerful principle has transformed my coaching practice. In my initial years as a leadership coach, I would work with the coachee to define three to five development areas. Then we would attack all the areas with a series of learnings, actions and commitments.

However, consistently, I found the coachee to be overwhelmed and the actual change at the end of the coaching to be less than desired. I remember one of these coachees lamenting at the end of a six-month assignment that he felt he only made progress on one of the three coaching areas. He lamented, “It will take years for me to be the leader the organization needs now.” I had failed this leader, and I realized that I had to change how I coached.

My transformation to being a better coach (and I’m still learning) took place when I applied key principles of behavioral change to the approach and design of each coaching engagement. This started with the understanding that we can only change one meaningful behavior at a time. This approach evolved into a targeted coaching model that has more consistently yielded sustainable change.

Targeted coaching can be defined as driving sustainable change by applying principles of behavioral change to one area at a time. It includes the following activities and steps:

  • Identify the critical few core behaviors to address in the coaching. These are stand-alone behaviors (such as initiating difficult conversations) or tightly clustered behaviors around a new capability (such as the behaviors associated with greater executive presence).

  • Agree on which behavior will be targeted, and move through the four-step targeted coaching cycle. It is good practice to start with the behavior that the coachee is most motivated to address. This extra motivation helps ensure the coachee stays focused during their maiden voyage through the Targeted Coaching Cycle:

  1. Define the 'how' of the change. Each coach brings in a unique approach and tools. Let them know how you will work with them as a coach. I share my expectation that they be open, vulnerable and transparent, and I let them know that I will challenge them, listen intently, provide targeted information and ask for commitments.

  2. Discuss, educate and commit. This is the core of the coaching. This includes discussing the “why” of the change to drive deeper awareness, and the “how” of the change, providing frameworks that outline a clear process for the new behavior (for example, three elements of driving accountability). At the core of targeted coaching is committing to trying a new behavior. We all learn best by doing and getting immediate feedback.

  3. Create short feedback loops. Regular and timely feedback is absolutely critical to learning and reinforcing a new behavior. As a coach, touching base and calibrating with direct manager(s) and other key stakeholders is critical. In addition, the coachee should have a feedback partner provide regular feedback on the area of focus – a partner who works with them regularly and is in a position to be open and honest. These “feedback loops” are brought into the coaching conversations and support learning, discussion and recommitment. It is these feedback, calibration, education and commitment loops that create proficiency and embedment of the new behaviors. The key is staying focused on the targeted behavior until a level of sustained capability is achieved.

  4. Celebrate victory. When there are days, weeks or a couple of critical incidents in which there is a sustained level of mastery, it is important to recognize the achievement with a form of meaningful celebration. For one executive who was working on building credibility and influence with key peers, we celebrated feedback on his improvement with a lunch and a high-five. The celebration helped cement his confidence and identity as someone who can, and does, wield greater influence.

  5. Target the next behavior. Development is a continuous process. In the course of a coaching assignment, you may celebrate three to five victories and, in the process, teach the coachee how to initiate and manage a process of self-improvement and change.

When you work with a coachee using this the Targeted Coaching Cycle, the coachee will gain a sense of increased belief in the process with each successive behavior that you target. So, the first targeted behavior may take six to 10 weeks to declare victory, while often, the next targeted cycle is shorter. And, at the end of six months, you can successfully facilitate sustainable behavior change across three to five key behaviors by targeting one at a time.

In the course of coaching, you are likely to also deal with the issues of the day, helping the coachee work through immediate challenges and opportunities outside of the targeted areas of focus. This is to be expected, and I have found up to 50% of the coaching work/conversations can be focused on these real-time issues. However, you should also keep the targeted thread going and have a consistent focus on completing the Targeted Coaching Cycle. This is how you facilitate real change and bring tangible value.

As seen in Forbes.