Career Strategies for Librarians
Developing Workplace Coaching Skills
by Jennifer Osborn

Coaching skills are leadership skills of the present and the future. Traditionally, managers were chosen
for their technical skills and for their ability to “get the job done.” “People skills” were low on the list of
managerial competencies. Today, however, it is more common for a leader to be an effective
communicator, a motivator, a coach and a mentor. Leaders are expected to be able to bring out the best
talents and skills of their staff.

Coaching skills can be defined as “the art of facilitating the performance, learning and development of
another person.” Early in your library career – if you have a good manager – you can expect to be
coached. Does your supervisor give you regular, constructive feedback about your performance at work?
Do you have discussions with him or her about your progress and your continuing education  –about the
projects and committees that you might work on, and about the seminars, conferences and workshops
that you could attend? Does your manager help you with your career planning when you have your
annual review? If the answer to these three questions is “yes,” then your organization is “facilitating your
performance, learning and development.” If you are having these sessions with a manager/supervisor
with good coaching skills, then you are doubly lucky. (If you don’t have a coaching arrangement that you’
re happy with, it may be possible to find someone else in your organization who will mentor you).

What are the qualities and competencies of a successful coach? The literature on workplace coaching
tends to cite five personal qualities that are essential for effective coaching: the capacity to be self-aware,
to motivate others, to build relationships, to be flexible and to have excellent communication skills.
These qualities combined with skill development in four areas – active listening, questioning skills,
giving feedback and “solution-focused coaching” – provide the foundations for good coaching. Whether
you are choosing a workplace coach for yourself or trying to develop coaching skills so that you can help
others, these are the areas to work on.

Active Listening

The skills of active listening are developed from empathy and experience. A good listener will be able to
diminish his own internal dialogue and slow down the (very human) weaknesses of jumping to
conclusions or rushing in with suggestions to “solve” the coachee’s problems. She will listen rather than
speak and use congruent body language that shows that she is genuinely listening; this will help her
staff member to feel heard, understood and valued. A good listener is more interested in hearing the
coachee’s perspective than in putting forward his own ideas.

Questioning Skills

Asking skillful and appropriate questions is a core skill for the workplace coach. The philosophy behind
coaching is that it is designed to facilitate the coachee’s development – to help them to help themselves.
This is not done by providing answers; it is done by providing the questions that elicit the answers from
the staff member herself. For example, a question such as “If we are to finish this project on time, what
tasks do you need to concentrate on?” will draw out a response. A directive supervisory style – “Right, do
this first; then make sure you finish that report” – might be effective in the short-term, but will do nothing
to develop the employee’s competence and confidence.

There are different kinds of questions that a coach can ask, depending on the situation. For example,
questions to elicit feelings might be appropriate when there is low morale in the workplace or a conflict
between co-workers (“How is this affecting you? How do you feel about this?”). At other times, a coach
might use action questions (“What do you need to do next?”) or option questions (“What alternative ways
do you think you could approach this task?”). Motivating questions can help an employee to think more
deeply about different options (“How will you benefit from developing this skill?” or “How would you like to
relate to your staff?”). The coach’s skill lies in asking the questions that will enable the coachee to work
his own way through to the answer.

Giving Feedback

For feedback to be effective, it needs to be specific, timely and relevant. A good coach will have the knack
of catching a team member doing something right. “Sue, I noticed how well you dealt with that person at
the Information Desk this afternoon. You listened to his complaint and you were patient in helping him to
resolve it. You showed excellent customer service skills.” This feedback is timely (“this afternoon”),
specific (encouraging particular aspects of behavior, active listening, and problem-solving) and relevant
(given that excellent customer service is an appropriate organizational goal.)

Giving feedback in a more formal situation, such as an annual performance review, also needs to be
specific and relevant. A good coach will feed back to the team member her unique skills and qualities. I
will always be grateful that, early in my career in academic libraries, I was lucky enough to have a
manager who was a wonderful coach. She knew my limitations (I didn’t have the eye for detail and the
patience that makes a good journals cataloger) and she praised my strengths (my teaching and training
skills); with her encouragement, I became a trainer in the Cataloging Department and then moved on to
reference work, extending my training and presentation skills. This is a great example of the potential
outcomes of workplace coaching: facilitating not only the short-term performance but the long-term
learning and development of the person being coached. Both the individual staff member and the
organization as a whole benefit from the development of a coaching culture.

Solution-focused Coaching

The “solution-focused” approach to coaching has its roots in the therapeutic approach devised by Berg
and de Shazer at BFTC Milwaukee. It is really a fundamental shift in the way of thinking about a problem
(close to what many cognitive psychologists refer to as “reframing”), where the coachee is encouraged
to focus on the available options and practical solutions to the problem in the immediate future rather
than dwelling on “what’s gone wrong” in the past. Once active listening has helped the person to offload
her grievances and to feel heard, the focus of the coaching moves on to the future, to what can be done
to resolve or at least alleviate the problem. The coach’s questions move things forwards: “What do you
want to change?”, “How will you know that this situation is improving?”, “What are your strengths?”, “How
can you use these to help you cope now?”

One of the most common tools in solution-focused coaching is the GROW model, a simple but effective
model that allows the coachee to work through his problem in a focused way:

Goal: what do I want?

Reality: what is happening now?

Options: what options are there?

Will: which option will I choose? What will I do next?

Say, for example, that a team leader comes to you to complain that a project will not be finished on time
because the other team members are not reaching their individual deadlines. In a coaching discussion,
the goal would be set as specifically as possible: “we want X project to be completed by Y date.” The
coach would then listen as the team leader explained his view of why things weren’t progressing quickly
enough (current situation or reality) and then ask the questions that will prompt him to focus on the
solution. What options does he have: what resources are available; what specific parts of the project
need attention; how can he motivate the other team members? And then what will he do next; how will he
know that the situation is improving? The team leader can then report back later on the progress of his
initiatives and plan.

The Future of Coaching

At the University of Adelaide Library, I have implemented a plan where all of our supervisors are being
trained in coaching skills. Coaching is now a core competency for these staff members, along with the
training skills and team leadership skills that we expect them to be able to demonstrate. Having
experienced good coaching, and having learned to coach and mentor other people, I am a passionate
believer in the importance of “facilitating the performance, learning and development of another person”
and in the benefits of developing a workplace coaching culture. As I said at the beginning of this article, I
believe that coaching is a leadership skill of the future, one of the keys to developing and maintaining the
best skills and abilities of library staff.  


I have used the excellent material available for “The Staff Coach” workshop that is run by Helen Alm at
the University of Adelaide’s Professional and Continuing Education unit. For further reading see the
following titles:

Metz, R. Coaching in the Library : a Management Strategy for Achieving Excellence. Chicago : American
Library Association, 2001.

Zeus, P. & Skiffington, S. The Complete Guide to Coaching at Work. Sydney: McGraw-Hill, 2000.

About the Author:

Jennifer Osborn (B.A. (Hons.), Grad. Dip. Lib. St.) is the Staff Development Coordinator and a Reference
Librarian at the University of Adelaide Library. She has worked in professional positions in academic
libraries for over 15 years. She is involved in coaching and mentoring programs through the University of
Adelaide’s Women’s Professional Development Network and Rostrum SA.

Article published May 2006

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