Advanced Coaching with Emma Weber

Written by Robin Hoyle

Key points summary

Training programmes that include coaching support for the learners are a highly effective way of ensuring new skills are transferred into the workplace and become habitual for the individual.

Subject matter experts don’t always make the best coaches. Experts often offer advice on what to change rather than helping the individual think about their personal experiences. This often-overlooked aspect of coaching can be thought of as helping the coachee to reflect.

Delivering coaching sessions over the telephone or through video conferencing with cameras turned off has been shown to improve coaching effectiveness by creating psychological safety for the participants. It is important to create transparency during these sessions by explaining why they suggest that the session is delivered in this way.

Individuals often need opportunities to practice in a low-risk situation, observe the outcome and make a conscious decision to continue to use the behaviour with more confidence.

Emma Weber shares her experience of developing a technological solution to deliver coaching support. Recent learner feedback from the tool suggests that learners demonstrate a high degree of psychological safety which allows them to reflect and integrate new skills seamlessly.

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Conversation transcript

Hello, and welcome to the Workplace Learning Matters series from Huthwaite International

In this episode, your host, Robin Hoyle, talks to author and CEO of Lever Transfer of Learning, Emma Weber, about advanced coaching methods that support the transfer of learning into measurable productivity improvements, ensuring that learning is sustainable through the development of effective learner habits This is the audio recording from that conversation.

Robin Hoyle: Emma Weber, thank you very much for joining me. Now, it's been a little while since you wrote ‘Turning Learning into Action’, but I know that there was a lot of work which you did well before you put pen to paper and created the book around the techniques that you use. So, what was it that first made you realise or helped you to the realisation that there was a bit of a gap in the way that we follow-up what happens to people after they've been through some kind of training programme.

Emma Weber: So, it was one of those things, Robin, where multiple paths converged I'd had kind of the corporate career, had that experience of going on training and learning and not being able to follow through myself - there was some kind of residual frustration there from myself as a learner. Then I saw a study that was done in or around pairing coaching with training programmes and then I saw an organisation in Canada, no less, that was pairing coaching and training programmes. I was so committed to getting coaching available to the largest number of people possible that I just thought, well, let's actually really focus on this and think how could we make a coaching methodology that really transfers learning super effectively, super quickly. So, all these things kind of converged. I started exploring with clients and the methodology was born, so to speak.

Robin Hoyle: In terms of that pairing of coaching, what was it about that instant follow-up and how did that affect the way people were able to use what they had been sent to learn, I suppose, back in their workplace?

Emma Weber: I think the key thing is getting people to actually make a decision first as part of the learning, and then really acknowledging we're in a different phase now. This is no longer about learning, it's about application and really getting the learner or the participant to switch their mindset as well. Because learning, I mean, I'm sure everyone listening here thinks learning is such a joy, I know I certainly do. But the learning into application can be quite tricky, and it's about making that okay, it's about normalising it and really supporting people through that phase, rather than making it very easy for us just to learn more content and think we're absolute heroes.

Robin Hoyle: Do you think then that the manager, in terms of helping that shift of mindset, the manager is involved? Because I know that lots of times when I've been involved in training programmes, on either side of the PowerPoint, people are very often coming back into the workplace to find that they are inundated with all the things that could and should have been picked up while they were attending or engaged in a programme. And suddenly, before, you know, another week's gone by and you haven't touched any of the stuff that you looked at. Is that about just the environment they go back in? Is it just about the participant mindset or is there a kind of whole organisation approach that starts with the team leader or manager?

Emma Weber: It depends if we're talking about utopia Robin or we're talking about the real world, which are we going for today? It would be wonderful if we had a whole kind of cultural shift around this - this is what learning is - this is why transfer and behavioural change in application is important. We're no longer going to be focusing on content, we're really going to be measuring and creating behavioural change. The more we could get that as a holistic approach and get everyone on board, the better. But sometimes for an organisation, it's a journey to get to that point and it may be that we have to start with one or two initiatives, that we have to start small, start to show the process, show the outcomes, get people's confidence in what's possible, have the data to show. Then you can start to get people to shift their thinking around learning and where the value can really be added.

I think if we say, well, you know what, it's really the manager's role, or it's so important to get the managers on board, we can sometimes then sort of get tripped up and slowed down and have that as more of a barrier than a leverage to success, Because at the end of the day, it's the individuals that are actually going to create the behavioural change. And so if we can really influence that individual to work with their manager, whether there's an influencing piece needed, to actually start to create that change, there's many different levers we can pull. So ideally top down, but we can find different ways to work with that. So, if it's the responsibility of the participant to affect that behaviour change in reality, then who supports that coaching process?

Can it be anybody or does it need to be a subject matter expert? Or is it somebody who's been involved in the design and delivery of the learning intervention who's best placed to support that process when people get back into the workplace?

I think anyone can actually have the skills to help the person slow down, reflect and hold themselves accountable to putting their action plan into place. The tricky thing is it's a little bit more complicated than it sounds. Depending on the type of training we're looking at and the processes, the closer the person is to the subject matter whether that's the facilitator that's been on the journey, or the subject matter expert, ironically it's kind of it's harder to do because what actually happens is you want to tell the person the outcome, you want to give the person advice. And what we know about behavioural change is the more that individual takes ownership, the more it's their idea, the more they're actually going to change. They're the person that knows their environment, they know the true barriers, they know the opportunities way more than a facilitator or a subject matter expert. When it comes to behavioural change, it's not often the content that is the difficult part to navigate, it's your own personal context and therefore the solutions are very often not in the content or the answers therein. Actually, we talk about helping the individual have a conversation with themselves.

Robin Hoyle: Oh, that's interesting. The words that you mentioned earlier that I was instantly hooked on were reflection and accountability. One of the things that I've been working on recently is just simplifying the whole business of reflection. I use a thing called the Rolfe model - just ask the question, what did you do? So, what are the implications of that, what did you learn from it and what next? In other words, what are you going to do differently - choose one thing and do that and then come back and do it again?

To some extent I define a learning culture as the point at which nobody needs to ask those three questions, so that individuals are actually doing exactly what you just said, which is having that conversation with themselves, and that's sometimes easy to do. But then the ‘what next?’ falls away, because of that lack of accountability and that idea of - I've got all this other stuff that I'm being measured against which I need to focus on. And to do try the new skills first - is that something that can be learned - to really hold yourself to account or do we always need another person to kind of just nudge that along and get us into good habits?

Emma Weber - I think it's about building a muscle and sometimes, when it's particularly tricky, it may be helpful to have an outside person help you. But often, once you've had that support, you can get yourself in the situation of, “well, I wonder what question Emma would ask me here?” - so then you live with the coach on your shoulder, helping you kind of slow down, reflect.

It's a discipline, holding ourselves accountable. And when we talk about accountability, to some people, accountability is a bit of a dirty word. It's kind of an old-fashioned wagging of the finger. You will be held accountable for this. And it's actually a much more empowering type of self-accountability in that everyone wants to improve. People want to be doing a better job and getting better outcomes in a more efficient way and in a way where they have better relationships. So, if you have learning that is aligning with the organisational outcomes that you're trying to achieve, then that will line up with that person improving in some way.

Inherently people want to improve, so it's kind of aligning everything to help people create these ways that they will hold themselves accountable. And of course we can do that with another person, with technology, with how you discipline yourself - in a whole host of different ways.

Robin Hoyle: One of the things that you mention in the book is that sometimes those conversations which are about developing that muscle, that kind of accountability reflex almost, which enables people to just think well, how I would do this if somebody else was watching. You mentioned in the book that kind of coaching process sometimes happens best on the telephone. I can remember reading that and thinking - that's kind of contrary to everything that I've ever thought about that process before - because it's all about connection and being present and all of those things. So, first of all, why the phone? And secondly, given that we're now all on the end of Zoom calls and Teams calls has that changed in the intervening period?

Emma Weber: Yes, and I know that it can be controversial. The whole thing for me though is the video creates connection between two people. What we're trying to do when we help someone slow down and reflect and start to move forward with this kind of self-accountability I, we're trying to help them have a conversation with themselves. And so it's more about creating that connection with themselves - encourage, their internal dialogue. What's actually kind of powering their behaviours. The models sort of say it's your thoughts, feelings, values, beliefs, fears and needs that are underneath your behaviours.

So, the more the person goes internal to get to the bottom of those things that are going on and what's actually happening for them, the more efficient it is.

So, if you have a high level of psychological safety and you help that person have that conversation with themselves, you're going to have a process that is far more sustained than them connecting with an external person or a coach. With a coach, yes, they have a great relationship, but the relationship I want that person to have is with themselves - a really strong relationship - because then they will always have that and they can always take that with them, and they won't always be reliant on thinking it's someone else asking the questions that's helping them work it out. It's really about building that muscle. And if we do it in an audio way, particularly using headphones, then you're kind of getting into your own head.

Robin Hoyle: You mentioned within the context of that, the idea of psychological safety and I've noticed a few things, it’s happening slightly less now, but I think in the early days when everything was moving virtual and I was working with groups, we found some people who just, for example, would not switch on a camera. And I don't wish to draw any kind of broad conclusions from this. This is very anecdotal of my experience but very often women wouldn't switch on the camera. There was a thing about their physical presence at home, working from their kitchen or whatever, they felt uncomfortable with letting people in.

So, there's almost a sense that their psychological safety was caused by not being visible in that scenario. And I wonder how else we create psychological safety if we are coming out the back of the pandemic and people are going to be working more face-to-face and in building alongside their colleagues, how do we continue that sense of psychological safety? Are there other kind of tips and techniques and tricks that individuals can do to create their own psychological safety? And to what extent does that need the support of the organisation?

Emma Weber: it's interesting and I think psychological safety is really important in a whole host of situations. But when we're talking about that connection with someone, I think we really have to think about what is this meeting, is it on Zoom, is it a training, what is it about and what's the best way to give that person the psychological safety in that context that they need. Because the psychological safety in a one-on-one coaching conversation that's designed to help support that individual is going to be much easier or higher to create than perhaps the psychological safety of a whole group of people getting together on a Zoom meeting. Alternatively, if we're talking about when a manager is coaching an individual and helping them have this internal conversation with themselves, there's going to be some conversations that a manager will need to have with a camera on because they are trying to build the connection with that person. They are trying to build a relationship as part of that team and there's going to be other conversations where they're really wanting to help that individual build the relationship with themselves.

So, I don't think it's possible to say there's one way to build psychological safety particularly when it comes to video cameras and conversations, but I think you have to think, well, what is the context this of this conversation. What is happening and what are we trying to achieve with this?

And one of the things we talk about in our model is having high structure at the beginning, high flexibility through the core, which means low structure at the end. Partly it's signposting - why do we suggest that people have their videos off? And what we will often do is flick the video on at the beginning if the learner has their video on so they know that there's nothing secretive or uncomfortable about you, but then explain why we suggest people switch their videos off. So, that kind of transparency and reversed attitude to why we want people to have their videos on if they're in a learning environment, I think creates the psychological safety. The safety piece for me is also about that what happens next in terms of those plans and the implementation of that action that people are taking. And I guess that's really about the degree of risk, And the degree of risk is always around the degree to which failure is a learning opportunity or learning experience or actually a source of shame or a source of anxiety and actually, in the worst cases, career limiting. How do you help people overcome those concerns about trying things and having a go in the real world when the chances are there may be consequences?

Often it's actually discussing those things before they happen and really unearthing, well, what are the fears behind this? And is that fear realistic? Is it an assumption, can we test that assumption?

So, there's all sorts of ways that you can unpack that before it actually happens for that individual, which, again, is another really key reason to support people through this process, rather than just kind of leave it up to them.

The other really interesting thing that I think happens, particularly as we see learning journeys now spread over a period of time, is that people can get practising the skill they are learning confused with actually transferring that into a part of their day-to-day behaviour. People think that because someone is practising it, perhaps in a live environment, that means it's going to actually be transferred over a longer term. Now, for it to be transferred, people need to have a win and often make a conscious decision that that's a behaviour that they're going to carry on with.

There's a distinction within learning between practising the skill and actually transferring it and adopting it as a behaviour. And when we think back to the failure piece, it may be that there needs to be some easier places for people to practise where it's not such high risk, so if they're not yet at that stage where they can be competent enough to know that it's not career limiting, then they're not at the point yet where they've practised that skill and got it to a natural level.

I think one of the key skills of the coach or the supporter of the individual, in some ways is to provide a little bit of sage advice, which in some cases is, well, hang on, don't try and do everything all at once.

Robin Hoyle: I teach a lot of salespeople That's kind of the environment that we work in quite a lot of the time. Salespeople can be super confident and sometimes a little bit cocky and they tend to go and run at things. There are people who will say, 'well, I'm going to try and use these skills on this really, really important account which will make or break our financial year if we win the business', And you're going to go, 'Okay, let's just roll back a little bit from that' Because you don't want to limit people's enthusiasm, but at the same time, you don't want to them to experience something horrendous and never come back to that what they've learned ever again! How do you help people kind of just temper their enthusiasm?

Emma Weber: Put it in the context of building a muscle, and I'm not much of a weight lifter, so I sometimes get confused with my weights and what's physically possible, But as an example, if you were going to be practising to lift a 100 kilogram weight, you wouldn't suddenly want to lift that weight without actually practising on maybe a 20 kilogram, a 50 kilogram or 70 kilogram. So, what you can actually help people get clear in their mind is, if we had a scale you might even find out, you know, well, what weight can you comfortably lift at first? And how would I know when I'm ready to progress to the 70 kilogram and really getting them to think it through?

Robin Hoyle: One of the things that you've been doing recently, which I know you've already mentioned, is the idea of technology supporting and helping people through that process. Not necessarily with long-term access to a person, but the potential to use technology in some way to support some of that development of the accountability and reflection skills that you talked about earlier. Talk to me a little bit about how that works, because we work in an environment where coaching is very often associated with consultants with turtleneck sweaters and beanbags So, the idea that somehow we're going to give this to a machine to do feels slightly other. How do you see that developing and working?

Emma Weber: the first point to say is we sort of developed this tool with a view to trying to prove that it would never work. It seemed such a ridiculous concept, In fact, even the first prototype, I remember sitting with the client that used the first version of Coach M, we'd already had a kind of sales meeting. We were just sat having coffee after the formal part of the meeting was over, and I said, have a look at this thing that we've been playing around with and showed them our chatbot. Essentially the technology we use is a chatbot technology. I showed them the conversation that the chatbot had had with the Learner, which was actually just us mocking it up at that stage, And the client said, 'I want it'! And my response was 'Really!?' 'Do you think people are going to chat with this thing?' And the client was, 'Yes, we want it'

And I think probably for at least the first six, if not twelve months, clients were having to almost prize the tool from my hands because I really did not believe that people would use it. Then I think it was our third client that kind of unfolded it in quite rapid periods of time. And I was going through some of the feedback about the tool and one person said, 'I shared more with Coach M', which is the name of our coach, our chatbot tool, 'I shared more with Coach M than I would have done with a person'. And I'm thinking, how or why is that possible? And it's just how it's all unfolded Robin!

And back to that conversation around psychological safety Coach M cannot judge people because he doesn't have the capacity. It really is about helping people slow down, reflect and have a conversation with themselves. So, as we have developed and been building out this tool, it's really quite interesting to see how closely it aligns with our core values and beliefs in an unhinging kind of way. But that was five years ago now that we started doing the initial pieces and it really has developed over time, we’ve now integrated human teams with the tool so people can just say, ‘Get Coach’ and you can have a human coaching session and book it by the tool. So, it's really that Coach M is kind of supporting the human team.

One of the things I would love to see is coaching available to people at every level within an organisation, so that it's not just executives that have that access. And pairing coaching with learning makes that possible and creates outcomes for the learners. Having it in a much more scalable way also plays into that. The technology is out there and it's crazy.

And interestingly, I was reading something just this week where somebody was saying that one of the key things that's attracting people coming into their first or second jobs is actually things like access to that kind of technology. Internal chat bots and things like that. I think it's because they do need that continuous support. And they don't want to feel like a perpetual newbie by constantly knocking on somebody's door in a corner office. They're going, 'Oh, can I just ask you if I'm allowed to do this, please?' They've got another mechanism to enable them to work those things out. It's really interesting.

We've got lots of people who are going through extended learning journeys now, which is terrific, but we sometimes find that there is that disconnect at the front.

Robin Hoyle: And you said very early on in our conversation that part of that process starts before people undertake the learning intervention. So, if you were to give somebody who's going through a learning journey to develop behavioural skills in the workplace, what advice would you give them at the start of that journey that would set them up towards success, if not guaranteed?

Emma Weber: Again, kind of building on this piece around psychological safety. It's about really getting people clear on the outcome being the behavioural skills and that it is a learning journey, so it's not just about one set of information and not just about knowledge. And I would encourage people to really commit to reflection and action planning so they can support themselves on following through. People want to perform well in their roles and through a learning journey we want to support them in that. So actually giving them the kind of the overview, giving them the ability to action plan, to have tools to help with reflection help with accountability - that's what I'd be wanting to do up front.

Robin Hoyle: Wise words. Thank you very much for talking to us today.

Emma Weber: Pleasure, thanks for the conversation.

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