The “Situational Leadership” framework by Ken Blanchard, is by far my favorite framework for managing and coaching people, regardless of whether it’s formal or peer coaching, work or personal. You might have heard of it before. There are classes, books and of course a WikiPedia page.
Coaching applies to all of us. As managers, we coach direct reports as part of their career development. As leaders, we coach peers to help them be more effective, overcome temporary hurdles, and to make the team better by sharing best practices. As individuals, we receive coaching and want it to be as effective as possible.
The Situational Leadership framework applies to both sides of the equation – it’s a framework for leaders to give coaching but it’s also a framework for individuals to ask for more targeted support.
The basic idea of the framework is that we all go through four stages of proficiency for any given skill set. It is critical to call out that this is not about our seniority overall, it is specific to the task at hand. For example, I might be extremely experienced and self-sufficient in writing specifications but I have never done a strategy document before. I would be D4 for specifications but D1 for strategy (see below for more explanation).
For every new task or area of competency, we go through that lifecycle of learning, from beginner to master. If we are faced with a new area, we of course retain mastery in the areas we already command, but we start as a rookie in the new area. Life-long learning at its best!
Situational Leadership asserts, that we need different kinds of direction, coaching and support, depending on what stage we’re in for that specific area and task. Coaching is not one-size-fits-all but specific to the person and the situation.
As we make our way through new challenges, we go through four phases. See the below chart for an illustration. The lower chart is the coaching style, the upper chart is the stage an individual is in for that specific task (I keep underlining ‘that specific task’ because you screw up coaching completely if you assess at the scope of the person, not the task).
For the following discussion, I will make up my own attributes for the stages just for fun and emphasis; you can see the ‘official’ ones in the chart. The flow in the chart is from right to left, don’t ask me why that would make any sense. You see the inverse-U shaped flow. You can see it as a hill that you have to overcome as your motivation goes down in D2 and D3.
Stage 1: Clueless, a little scared but really motivated
“This is awesome. But please tell me what I should do, I’m lost.”
As an individual, I just got a big new area assigned. It’s awesome and I’m excited. However, to be honest I’m also deeply scared because I don’t really know where to start. I feel like there is a great chance to fail, and left on my own devices, I will need to put in many hours to figure out how to approach this.
As someone who coaches, motivation is not the issue (your coachee can’t yet anticipate the potential challenges ahead). There is plenty of motivation, but there also is plenty of worry as to the pure mechanics of solving the problem. In this stage, leaders need to give clear guidance on how the problem should be solved and what the specific steps and quality gates should look like. In short provide the cook book for solving the problem and explain what success should look like.
“Here is what you need to do. Let’s meet weekly and talk about progress.”
Stage 2: Got some ideas, facing early challenges
“Alright, I see what you want me to do. This is harder than I thought.”
As an individual, I have made first progress on the task. I have a plan, but things are harder than I anticipated. This starts to suck just a little bit. How can I make this easier?
This is the valley of frustration. As a leader, you need to give both moral support, but also clear guidance on how specific hurdles and blockers can be overcome. The coachee is still learning their ropes and needs guidance that they can transform into their own solutions and frameworks.
“How are things going? What’s challenging? Here is what I would do in that situation.”
Stage 3: Got a handle on it (mostly), not quite smooth sailing yet
“I think I have a plan, but let me double check with you. Things are getting a little easier.”
As an individual, your confidence is increasing. You are facing problems that you have seen before, and you start having frameworks to solve them. It feels like things are becoming just a little easier lately.
The coachee is coming out of their valley of frustration. Slowly. You still need to help and support them to see the light at the end of the tunnel. They will have their own plan and solutions, which will be spot on many times, but not always. Your job becomes much more a reviewing and tweaking role. You become a sounding board.
“Show me what you got, what’s your plan? Interesting challenge, how do you plan to solve it?”
Stage 4: I know what to do, all is under control
“I got it. Get out of my way, you’re slowing me down.”
As an individual, you know what you need to do. You have successfully faced similar situations before. You feel confident and since you have the frameworks in place, things now go much easier and with less effort.
As a coach, your main job is to get out of the way and only stay informed what’s going on. Give space and freedom, but be there when needed. Things are flowing for your coachee and they are highly effective at the specific task. The thing you should spend time on now is to understand what the next growth area, learning opportunity and challenge for that coachee can be and to work with them to figure out how to align new growth areas with their long-term plans. The biggest risk at this stage is for the coachee is to eventually get bored.
“Anything I should know about the project? Let’s talk about what new opportunities we can prepare for you.”
These are the things I believe a crucial to keep in mind. It’s not an official list:
- Always make it specific to the task – The experience model is specific to a task, not the person as a whole! Don’t put the whole person into a specific bucket. If a person gets a new area they never faced before, they will likely drop back to stage 1.
- Identifying the right stage matters – You need to find the right level. Giving too little and too high level coaching (directionless) is just as bad as giving too much coaching (micromanagement).
- People move through the stages – Watch! As you coach, people will move through levels. That’s the whole point. Don’t put someone in a box and leave them there. Adjust your style as the experience evolves.
- If you’re not sure, ask – If you’re not sure how much coaching someone needs, check back. Ask them “How confident are you that you know what you need to do? Do you need any help?”
- Get feedback – Check in explicitly as to whether you are giving the right level of feedback. “Does that help? Is there anything else that I can help with? Do you know what to do next or do you want me to step in more?”
When you give coaching
We all have our own leadership style. Few people naturally coach at all levels, but most of us have a preferred style that comes more natural to us. Some of us tend to be more directive and always present solutions, while others tend to be more hands-off and ask for (or assume) plans. If we don’t make a conscious decision, we will fall into that style and it will not always be the right style for the person and situation (there’s a 3:1 chance it will be the wrong style).
Understand what your coachee needs for the specific task. Consciously try to identify the stage and then check back with the coachee if you’re not sure. Make a mental check after the coaching session if you gave the right type of feedback and correct quickly if you didn’t.
It’s not about what you like to do, it’s about what they need!
When you receive coaching
You can either hope that your manager, coach or mentor knows what you need, or you can tell them. I would do the latter. See where they go, but if you feel you’re still unclear what to do or you feel over-managed, tell them! “Can you give me a little more guidance, I really don’t know where to start on this?” or in the other case “I think I have a plan. Let me work on it and we’ll review it together in two days.”
Don’t leave it to the coach, be specific. If your coach makes the right assessment, awesome. If not, clarify and help them. Likewise, if you feel you have moved on to the next stage, let your coach know that you would like the type of feedback to change.
Needing more direction for a new challenge is not a bad thing at all. Not articulating it and then falling behind is.
Situational Leadership requires a little more work. However, the impact is astounding.
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