Have you ever ridden an “old school” one-speed bicycle? It gets you where you need to go, but when you encounter hills, it’s tough going when you can’t shift to a lower gear. Leaders need to navigate a ton of hills, and, while various management approaches work well over most terrain, a coaching approach can give you a new gear to use in certain situations.


Coaching is a structured process that creates a safe space for employees to reflect on their thought processes. It’s rooted in the principle that, in some situations, the best answers don’t reside with you but with the person you are coaching. It uses powerful, provocative questions in a logical sequence to draw out options and unlock new solutions. In doing so, leaders can take another angle to generate those “Ah-ha!” moments that lead to insights, new connections, creativity, and fresh actions.

Many situations in the finance function (1) need specific knowledge, expertise, and experience and (2) call for a directing, advising, or even a mentoring approach to address an issue or deal with a regulatory matter. But coaching offers another tool to use in situations where the solution or action is less clear.

With process improvement initiatives like Lean, the goal is to nurture a continuous improvement mind-set by empowering employees to make new connections, to seek opportunities, and to act. The sustainability of these initiatives relies heavily on managers developing people by helping them think through how to improve their work. Process improvement tools and structures are important but are incomplete without the involvement and support from a manager. A strong coaching process can help connect the dots for both a manager and employees.


Coaching is useful when something important is stumping the team. It often involves dealing with complex or ambiguous issues, thinking about how to make the next level of continuous improvement, or working most effectively with others to get things started. In addition, coaching strongly supports sustaining Lean improvements as it builds employees’ skills. A best practice is for you to talk with your employees about their development and focus on moving from the feedback stage to creating tangible actions to improve the work and support new skills or behaviors. Connecting feedback to actions is important to create not only stronger employees but continuing process improvement. It fits well when your direct reports are open-minded and willing to step out of their comfort zone, explore ideas, and take action to test and refine new approaches.


The biggest perceived obstacle to coaching is time. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, notes that a coaching leadership style is used least often because of the real time constraints leaders face today. But this can be shortsighted. Goleman points out that “After a first session, it takes little or no extra time. Leaders who ignore this style are passing up a powerful tool: its impact on climate and performance are markedly positive.”


Understanding that managers tend to have a lot of responsibility and daily demands, coaching is key for creating leverage and maintaining a continuous improvement environment. The GROW (Goal, Reality, Options, and Way Forward) model, developed by Sir John Whitmore, provides a simple and practical framework for a coaching conversation. It examines four sequential topics using open-ended, nonjudgmental questions and helps employees have learning insights and accountability.

It’s a structured conversation with a focus on creating insights, teaching, and forming ownership vs. directing and telling someone what to do. It can be used in any coaching situation. Here are some questions to ask using the GROW model:

Goal: Help employees clearly define the goal.

  • What do you want to achieve? Or what problem do you want to solve?
  • What results or benefits do you expect?
  • How do you know if they will be achieved?

Reality: Help employees understand reality and size the gap between where they are and where they want to be.

  • What is happening today?
  • What would you like to happen today?
  • What are the key obstacles to change?

Options: Help employees think through different strategies.

  • What has been tried so far?
  • What did you learn?
  • What other options do you see? Pros and cons?
  • What are you going to do?

Way Forward: Help employees set the plan.

  • How will you get feedback?
  • How often should we check on this?

How can leaders best use this technique in a process improvement initiative like Lean? We have found that there’s a simple connection by combining the GROW model with a core Lean method relating to actionable problem solving and process improvements. This concept, known as Plan, Do, Check, and Act (PDCA), is a four-step method best applied in continuous improvement initiatives. Those familiar with Lean may know this as the Deming Circle, created by W. Edwards Deming, or the Shewhart Cycle, created by Walter A. Shewhart, as part of the quality movement in the early 20th Century. Here’s an outline for using the PDCA method:


  • Do this after you decide on a change you want to make.
  • Outline a result you’re looking for (or a gap you are looking to close).

 * Be specific as to what you want to achieve and the facts to support this decision.

  •  Create actionable steps to achieve the result, including:

* Communication to those who need to know.

* Assessment of the risks associated with the change.

* Development of a simple measure of what you want to achieve.


  •  Carry out the action plan and collect measures.


  • Did you achieve the desired result?
  • What did the measures tell you?
  • Did anything else change that may cause another issue?


  • If you achieved the desired result, then put it into practice:

*Communicate it to others.

* Make it a standard for how to do the “work.”

  • If you didn’t achieve the desired result:

* Understand why it didn’t work.

* Create a new PDCA after addressing why.

There are many templates that can be used to implement the PDCA cycle. In Lean, such a tool is called an A3 for the size of the paper it fits on. You can easily find such tools on the Internet.

The key relationship between the GROW coaching model and the PDCA work improvement method is explained best by Figure 1.

Leadership figure 1

While the effects of coaching generally are measured qualitatively by linking coaching to work improvement using a PDCA structure, leaders can produce measurable business results and continue to build the skills of their employees. Invest in coaching time with your best employees through improving their work product. Over time, it can become one of your go-to moves when the hills are approaching.

Sidebar: The Do’s and Don’ts of Coaching


Use a framework, like the GROW model, to structure the conversation.

Ask more questions, and make a few statements.

Listen actively to employees.


Interrupt with your solutions. There will be time to share those later.

Judge or critique. Stay curious, and stick to asking questions.

Force the issue and jump to actions too soon. Work through

the sequence.


Daniel Goleman, “Don’t Write Off the Coaching Leadership Style,” LinkedIn, August 21, 2013, http://linkd.in/1yjOtjb.

Daisy Wademan Dowling and Amy Jen Su, The HBR Guide to Coaching Employees, Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston, Mass., 2014.

John Whitmore, Coaching for Performance: GROWing Human Potential and Purpose, 4th ed., Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London, England, 2009.

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