The Rise and Rise of Virtual Coaching

Tim Cox
October 30, 2019

MF’s MD Tim Cox and Digital Lead Hugh Reynolds look at the growth of virtual coaching and the practicalities involved in delivering virtual coaching that works.

Because it’s ‘the rise and rise’ we felt obligated to commission two authors for this piece!

Step forward Hugh, to offer insights on the virtual element. A specialist in e-learning he has extensive experience designing and running virtual learning projects.

- and Tim who’ll offer reflections from his experience as a member of the MF coaching team.

Tim’s up first…

The origins of virtual coaching

In 2003 virtual coaching was phone coaching.

“It’s nowhere near as effective.”

“It’s better than not doing it at all.”

“You can’t really get the rapport you need.”

Just three of the comments you’d hear 16 years ago when coaches discussed phone coaching. I was one them. Surely nothing could come close to replicating the value of face to face, in-person coaching?

The world has moved on apace. It is indeed a rare occasion when I’m coaching on the phone. However, much of my coaching and that of MF is virtual. Over 50% of sessions now take place via a virtual platform. Skype, Zoom, Blue Jeans and Microsoft Teams are all regular haunts for the coaching team.

Adapting to the ‘virtual world’ has been a steep learning curve and a really valuable one. Client organisations are able to provide access to high-quality coaching for more of their people, regardless of their location. It reduces travel costs and the associated environmental impact. It also enables a better work/life balance for coaches! I love working with a leader in New Zealand first thing and still have time for breakfast with my daughter before she heads off to school.  

A very real risk

A ‘virtual world’ of opportunity then? Well yes there is. There is also a very real risk. A risk we become less effective in this virtual environment. How many leaders perform brilliantly in one organisation, or environment, only to stumble in a new one. We cannot and should not expect coaching virtually to be, pardon the pun… virtually the same.

So, what do we need to be aware of?

Hugh is going to offer valuable insight into some of the practicalities later in this piece. Before that though I wanted to explore the potential impact of coaching virtually on trust.

Creating trust whilst coaching virtually

Reflecting back on my early experience of phone coaching my main concern was creating enough of a connection with the client. If we can build that we can build trust. As we know trust enables psychological safety and is an absolute fundamental of successful coaching. Remove it and you can have every other skill and a myriad of coaching tools at your disposal; the coaching will still be less effective.

This prompted me to re-explore ‘The Trust Equation’. Formulated by David Maister in his book ‘Trusted Advisor’ it provides a useful framework to consider this impact.

The Trust Equation

Credibility, reliability and intimacy are the three numerators. Enhance these and we enhance trust. The denominator is self-orientation. Reducing this increases trust. Below I offer headlines on each ingredient.

Credibility – simply put do I believe they know of what they speak?

Reliability – do they turn up on time? Do they deliver what they say they will?

Intimacy – do I feel this person will keep what I say confidential? Do I feel safe?

Self-orientation – are they doing this in service of me? Versus are they doing it in service of themselves?

I think there are a number of ‘watch outs’ for us here. For example:

A coach working in a platform they are unfamiliar with runs the risk of undermining their ‘credibility’. Face to face they would be confident. Virtually they are less confident. Maybe they are worried the internet connection will fail. Perhaps they’re wondering if the background behind them is the ‘right one’. Their reduced confidence has little to do with their confidence to coach. The impact in how they come across may be the same.

A coach would normally arrive in plenty of time. Time to set up, re-read notes and ensure they’re ‘present’ for the client. When we’re working virtually the temptation may be to leave less time between appointments. After all we just have to click a link right? I for one have certainly been caught out by an unwanted update on the laptop preventing me from joining at the right time! Hugely frustrating and as forgiving as my client was I’m not helping my ‘reliability’ score.

Coaching virtually may open up lots of flexibility in terms of where you coach. We still have to do what we can to control the environment though. Coaching from the hotel room before heading to the airport may be fantastic use of time. It may not feel appropriate to the client though and could affect ‘intimacy’. Particularly if the maid arrives to clean the room mid-coaching!

I’m going to bring Hugh in now… MF ran our July Learning Lab on the topic of Virtual Coaching. In preparing for the lab we reflected on our experience and took some time to research the topic. Hugh’s going to share some of the headlines. Over to you Hugh…

Virtual bandwagon or brave new world of coaching?

…Thanks Tim. One way to think about the rise in virtual coaching is to see it as part of a broader move to virtual…virtual everything and anything. Take the global online learning market, predicted to reach $325 billion by 2025 from just $107 billion in 2015 (Forbes 2018a).

Will such a steep incline result in coaching delivery jumping on the online bandwagon? We don’t think it’s that simple. A study by Carrington Crisp (2018) reports that 70% of corporates anticipate applying a more ‘blended learning’ approach to their executive development over the next three years - especially when coaching or mentoring are involved.

No single form of communication is going to dominate the coaching space. The strong message for coaches is they’ll need the ability to adapt: to deliver through different media – whilst preserving candour, trust and confidence in their coaching practices whatever platform is being used.

“As our culture changes, so will the delivery methods of coaches to clientele. […] Professionals will want coaching that is easily accessible and fits into their schedule. Be prepared to diversify in order to remain valuable and relevant.” (Forbes 2018b)

Does this sound like hard work – keeping up with the latest fads? We think it’s more than that; that coaching in virtual spaces presents both challenge and opportunity: it can literally reach conversations and generate goals other methods struggle to. Compared to phone conferencing, 88% of respondents see video as increasing the impact on discussion with a similar number saying it helps expedite decision making(Highfive 2019). 65% of respondents share content (e.g. screens, documents, whiteboards, apps) in more than half their video-calls (Wainhouse 2018).

And what about all those air, road and rail miles? On average, in England, a person will travel 510 miles a year whilst on business (down 27% from 2002) That figure excludes commuting (Department for Transport 2017). There are diverse reasons to take up virtual coaching, averting climate catastrophe surely not the least pressing.

What’s driving you, your network and coaching clients to do more online?

At MF, we’ve enjoyed the process of exploring video conferencing as a group learning, and bonding, opportunity. We’ve made it a rich tool for coaching and sharing ideas about coaching. One thing that has informed our practice is a realisation that the tool, its quirks and limitations need to be acknowledged and navigated with all participants. We don’t pretend we’re in a face-to-face coaching session, and we don’t try to replicate every nuance that would go on in a physical room. We do preserve the sense of a shared, protected, space in which open and firm coaching relationships can be forged and fertilised.

What’s the best platform?

It’s a crowded market out there and you could spend a long time investigating the intricacies of different platforms – the basic functions and services are all quite similar. Find out what your clients are already used to from their personal and business lives. Find a peer who’ll help you try out and play before using the platform in a paid-for session. Most providers will give you a 30-day free subscription – or a free account that gives you basic functionality, you shouldn’t need to invest heavily before settling on the tool you and your coaching need. And if your free account forces you to close and re-open a meeting after 40mins, why not use it as a feature of the session and agree a welcome comfort break?!

Though the cameras and headphones supplied with smart phones are more than adequate – be aware that the functions possible on a PC or MAC may not be available across all devices. Do you know what image you’re presenting when you join a video session? Are you looming too large in the screen perhaps, or saying everything over a crackle? Ask others for feedback, buy a modestly priced headset to use at the computer. A headset can really cut the background buzz – or ask Santa to upgrade your webcam this Christmas?

What’s your virtual coaching contracting conversation going to include?

In contracting conversations, agree some ground rules for online engagement, what you might call technical etiquette. Do people know how to mute their mic when sneezing? Do their children know not to come running-in screaming whilst they’re on the video call? Is office or birdsong background noise – or the sway of a hand-held device going to distract?

Arrive early to prepare the virtual room. Check the documents you want to share are easy to access? How are your mic and light levels? Have a Plan B - do you have their mobile number if the WiFi drops out? These technical checks can be incorporated into your standard coaching prep routine. They’re simple tips but they make for a much smoother session where you can relax into the difference of virtual coaching, stay mindful of the ‘frame’ in which you’re interacting – whilst not making a distraction to the focus of coaching.

Remember that however comfortable you are, the client may need time and friendly support too. Allow them to play with the features and get used to the feel and flow of the platform.

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