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Barbara Pate Glacel, Ph.D.
A version of this article will appear in the book The Global Coach: Practical Wisdom from Leadership Experts, edited by Katherine Holt, due to be published in 2015 by the PeakInsight Global Coach Network.
Download article as pdf file here.
This morning, I had a coaching call with a woman in Nairobi, Kenya. We were using Skype for the session, and the hour seemed to demonstrate all that is good and all that can be problematic with virtual coaching. The good news — we could see each other and make more of a connection than by just talking on the telephone or exchanging emails. We were able to talk with our hands, laugh together, and see what was happening when there was needed silence. The bad news — the power in Nairobi went out in the middle of the call, and we spent considerable time and effort trying to reconnect. When we did get back in touch, the bandwidth was unstable, and the camera kept going on and off, which proved slightly distracting.
When the camera was on, I had two other distractions. When she was looking down or typing, I wondered if she were writing emails rather than taking notes on our conversation. When I happened to look at my own picture on the corner of the screen, I began wondering how I looked — was I slouching? How did my hair look? Was the background professional looking? With all these distractions, it was an effort to focus just on her and what she was saying. There were no definitive solutions to these problems. We just worked through them and acknowledged them.
Coaching global leaders demands virtual coaching. But how does that work? Executive coaching at its best is a relationship-based exchange. Relationships are ideally formed over time by getting to know one another and developing a positive chemistry through which the coach and the coachee like one another, enjoy being together, and develop the kind of trust that allows open dialogue and genuine sharing. Master coaches with years of experience know well that these deep relationships come gradually by spending time together. So how does that happen in a virtual environment?
When I started to write this chapter, I contacted a cadre of coaches I respect. Each has been coaching for many years and has developed great experience in the art and skills of executive coaching. Imagine my surprise when some of the real masters with a wealth of coaching experience wrote back to me, asking, "What is virtual coaching?"
Others sent wonderful ideas and tips that I am happy to include in this chapter. Still others made reference to articles in the professional literature. Eagerly, I checked out the literature to find that most of the articles talked more about virtual teams and virtual leading rather than about the virtual coach. The few that mentioned virtual coaching had limited examples. This chapter is intended to share my own experience over the past decade of doing extensive virtual coaching around the world and to build on the lessons learned in order to begin the documentation of best practices for global virtual coaches.
Previously, I thought that virtual coaching would not work. In fact, I wrote an article at one point that talked about the difficulties of virtual work, with a pessimistic tone about its likely success. Several events, however, that occurred by happenstance, have proven me wrong. At one point in my career when I had a large coaching practice in the United States for both individuals and teams, I relocated to Europe to better accommodate my husband's career. While I clocked many frequent flier miles, serving my clients on both sides of the ocean, I began doing a lot of telephone coaching with individual leaders in between my face-to-face visits. Then I fell and shattered my ankle. I was out of commission for travel for two months. I had to figure out a way to coach individuals and teams by telephone. That was a challenge. The fact that I knew the individuals and their teams helped me work with them, and we were able to build virtual relationships because we had a face-to-face foundation.
A few years later, I was asked to coach IT professionals I would never meet. We couldn't build on a face-to-face relationship. My time was divided between Belgium and Washington, DC. They were in Tel Aviv, Israel, and southern California. In addition, several of them led teams that were spread out around the world. So we each learned by trial and error how to best communicate. I would try something in the one-to-one coaching that the IT managers could then apply with their virtual teams. As we experimented with different means of communication and relationship building, we discussed this, and we improved the way we worked together. I learned to coach them through virtual meetings on how to lead and coach their own teams through virtual means. As we learned together how to do this online and from a distance, I was proven wrong again— virtual coaching does work.
The master coaches who had asked, "What is virtual coaching?" were like me, relying on the intimacy of the face-to-face relationships we had used throughout our coaching careers. They had not yet been thrown into the world in which virtual coaching is a necessity. Several global factors contribute to this need for virtual coaching. First, the economy is more global. Organizations have sites worldwide, and leaders travel among those sites. Team members are scattered around the globe, and managers travel to them— or not. The coach cannot be at all these locations when coaching is required. But the coach can be available in a virtual format to help when situations arise.
In trying to book a telephone coaching session with a business leader, I had to deal with the fact that over a three-week period, he would be in Turkey, Washington, DC, and Kuala Lumpur. During the same time period, I would be in Washington, DC (but not when he was), France, and Belgium. The time differences alone were an obstacle. In addition, travel is more expensive and takes valuable time. Problems need to be solved just-in-time, not when the next airplane arrives from halfway around the world. World events can also make travel difficult or unreliable. Health issues like the SARS epidemic, terror attacks like September 11, weather, and even volcano eruptions can shut down the airspace. The issue of environmental sustainability has also persuaded some leaders to travel less and rely more on virtual methods of communication.
Despite these realities, some still see virtual coaching as second class to the face-to-face format. Traditional coach training programs and certification criteria have not included virtual coaching skills per se in their curriculum. Though some of these programs conduct their own virtual sessions, I have not found a specific focus on the unique differences between face-to-face and virtual coaching. Often telephone coaching is sold as a package of monthly sessions in which the coach can cover specific topics in a limited and behavioral way. This serves a purpose, but is not the in-depth executive coaching that develops leaders and encourages individuals and teams to consider their impact on others by learning about themselves. It is this in-depth coaching that many believe requires face-to-face interaction during which the master coach can work in the moment, not from a formulaic approach. While many of us are practicing virtual coaching, we are utilizing experimentation along with our training.
As the world is changing, so must the coach. Successful in-depth virtual coaching requires an enhanced set of coaching skills, a willingness to go beyond the basic skill-based formulaic coaching, and a dedication and focus that allow relationship building over time. To keep up with executive demands in a global economy, the global coach must be able to use the available technology to communicate, even at odd hours of the day. When I work with coachees in Singapore or Hong Kong, and I am in Washington, DC, we have a twelve-hour time difference. I must be willing to talk during non-business hours to keep up the relationship and serve my client.
We must check out our technology in advance and each party must be comfortable with whatever means we choose. But, more importantly, we must trust each other to have open dialogue, clear expectations of one another, and a commitment to make the virtual environment work.
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So what is virtual coaching anyway?
Virtual coaching is coaching by means of technology, anything that is not face to face. It may be synchronous by means of telephone, video conferencing, instant messaging, or chat. It can use a sophisticated platform for audio/video real-time connection, or it can be as simple as a personal computer-based program with a camera or simply a telephone. It can also be asynchronous by means of email or electronic bulletin boards where individuals and groups post their thoughts for later reading and comments by others. While there may be a trend toward shorter and simpler communication in general, such as Twitter, I hesitate to categorize those transactions as coaching. To me, coaching is an in-depth examination of an individual's behavior, decisions, impact, and choices. It is not expressing a statement in 140 characters or less.
The virtual global coach must demonstrate the same coaching competencies as the face-to-face coach, but even more so. A foundation for the coaching engagement is key to success in the ongoing virtual journey of discovery. Both the coach and the coachee must agree on the ethics, confidentiality, boundaries, and logistics of the coaching relationship. Who is the "client"? What information can be shared? Is the coaching on business-related issues only? Or is it more holistic about the person and life? What is the best means of communication? What technology works? What about cancellations at the last minute? In my experience, the logistics and boundaries must be even more explicit in virtual coaching than in the typical face-to-face relationship. Questions arise, such as, how long can one expect to wait for a response to an email? Is it acceptable to call directly when no appointment is scheduled, or should an email be sent before the call? What are acceptable business hours when the coach and the coachee are in different time zones? While some of these issues may arise over time and cannot be anticipated, it is advisable to address the known concerns at the beginning of the coaching relationship.
Relationship building is the heart of any coaching journey. Without the ability to see one another face to face, trust building may take longer in virtual coaching. Tone of voice becomes more important than body language, even if there is an advanced technical platform to reveal one's facial expressions and body movements.
If coaching is done by telephone, each side conjures up an image of what the other looks like. Sending a photograph may be helpful to make this image more accurate. Virtual relationship building may take longer, because the two parties do not see each other in a variety of settings. The coach may need to reveal more personal information than normal in order to provide more context about background and experience. Working in a virtual setting could mean more formality is required to establish one's presence, or it might mean less formality is required to portray the whole person. In any case, relationship building cannot be bypassed in the virtual setting if conversations are to be open and honest.
The chemistry between coach and coachee is built on good communication skills. The coach must be able to listen deeply. While this is true for any coaching endeavor, it is harder in a virtual environment, because the coach must assume and test out what is behind the words. With use of a camera, one can observe facial expression or body language, but misinterpretation is a higher risk with virtual coaching than when face to face. The coach must ask even better and more incisive questions to delve behind the words for meaning and must communicate directly and without judgment to the coachee. In virtual coaching, using these skills takes extra effort and focus. Global virtual coaching is even more complex because of different cultural norms and expectations. Different foreign accents and communication in second- or even third- languages make understanding more difficult in a virtual setting.
The results of coaching are exhibited in action plans, increased awareness, and changes in behavior over time. It is up to the coach to facilitate this process and to hold the coachee accountable for the results. The virtual global coach must do this from afar, relying on the coachee to evaluate progress, actions, and impact. Sometimes the virtual coaching session may seem like a long recap of what has happened since the last virtual meeting, but that is necessary for the coach to understand the context and be able to ask the questions that provide insight and progress in the learning journey. While every coach does this, the virtual coach must be more precise, more intuitive, and more provocative. Sometimes it feels like a blind date in which the coach, no matter how experienced, is really uncertain of the path ahead and is moving forward without a key sense-sight.
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The tenacity of virtual coaching—get used to it!
In spite of my own conversion and understanding that virtual coaching does work— or can work— I often hear clients and coaches say that they prefer face-to-face coaching. I also agree with that. Face-to-face coaching speeds up relationship building, may decrease the chance of misunderstanding, and can provide a true sense of warmth between the coach and the coachee. I have coached a woman in Kuala Lumpur for four years, and have worked with her through corporate relocations, marital difficulty and resolution, a change in employer, the adoption of a baby, as well as the basic leadership issues in business that one encounters as a coach. All of those personal issues impact her leadership performance. At least 90 percent of our interactions are virtual, but when we see each other once a year, we are genuinely happy to be together. We have learned about one another's families and health issues, and we spend most of that face-to-face time just catching up personally. That opportunity adds to the richness of our relationship and our ability to go deep in our virtual coaching discussions.
If I succumbed to the demand for nothing but face-to-face coaching, I would lose the opportunity to work with interesting leaders like this woman. She would also lose the opportunity to have a coach over a long period of time, one who knows her well and has walked the journey with her as she has moved from country to country.
As coaching has become more commoditized, organizations are unwilling to pay the premium for coaches to travel long distances to meet face to face with leaders or teams. As organizations themselves have become more global and exist around the world, problems and solutions are occurring around the clock. As teams become dispersed globally, able to answer client demands twenty-four hours a day from somewhere in the world, it is necessary to work with them in their context. For all these reasons, virtual coaching is the answer, providing just-in-time reflection and solutions.
Virtual coaching allows one to tap into resources that are not otherwise accessible, or easily accessible. It provides better access to talent and expertise around the world. It provides round-the-clock service and saves travel costs while reducing the carbon footprint. In team settings, virtual coaching may even allow more people to speak up and share because they can speak without being seen.
Psychologists have described the phenomenon whereby people who are socially shy may be more likely to open up to a computer screen than to another person. This is evidenced by social media and can be an advantage to virtual coaching. It is also possible that cultural differences could be minimized in a virtual setting, because the nuances are stripped away and the verbal sharing is the essence of the communication.
Whatever the reason, virtual coaching is here to stay.
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Things to watch for in virtual coaching
Nothing is perfect, but everything can be improved if one is aware of potential pitfalls and watches for them before they derail progress.
Virtual coaching may occur in any combination of the many communication media, from asynchronous (such as email or electronic bulletin boards) to synchronous (such as chat, phone, video conference, or face to face).
To avoid common communication pitfalls, a general rule of thumb would be that the more routine and certain the issue, the more likely that asynchronous means of communication might be appropriate. The more nonroutine, uncertain, or conflicting the issue, the better it is to be discussed in synchronous communication. This rule applies to any interpersonal communication between individuals or within teams, but also pertains to virtual coaching.
To improve the likelihood of success, and avoid potential pitfalls of virtual coaching, thoughtful attention to the communications medium is advisable.
In a new coaching relationship with a global manager in Peru, we share as much as possible through email. He sends me his resume, previous performance reviews, 360 evaluations, and psychometric results, such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®). I send him my professional bio that outlines my experience, because it is more difficult to establish credibility in a virtual relationship. In our first telephone conversation, we may spend significant time talking about who we are as people. I invite him to begin with "I was born . . ." or with his education and career, whatever he is comfortable with sharing. I answer any and all questions that he has of me. In this way, we discover an amazing list of experiences we have in common. Over time, we build on this background data so that we can utilize various communications media to best fit the situation and time that we each have available.
The technology may create a pitfall to effective coaching. Both the coach and the coachee must be comfortable with the technology. Some platforms are less stable than others. Most have some insecurity in the communication. Some cost more, as in international telephone calls or sophisticated video conferencing systems. Some may be inaccessible, such as mobile cellular reliability in certain geographic areas. The technology is changing rapidly and becoming cheaper and easier to use. This chapter is not designed to review the technology, except to say that it must be easy and accessible to each side in the coaching relationship.
Virtual coaching, especially when done by email, may make it difficult to ascertain the full meaning of the message that often comes from body language, tone of voice, or contextual inferences. Control over interpretation of the meaning then falls more to the receiver than to the sender. Cultural and language differences may cause misunderstanding. It may take longer to build trust in the relationship.
Virtuality makes it easier for one or the other to multitask during the virtual coaching meeting, thereby losing focus on the conversation at hand. Time differences around the globe may interfere with optimum scheduling of coaching conversations.
Some cultures value face-to-face relationships more than virtual, which might be seen as dehumanizing, cold, and impersonal.
Virtual communications may become more transactional, making it more difficult to get below the surface to explore leadership and interpersonal issues. Task-oriented managers may resist the amount of time required in a virtual relationship to build trust, and they just want to get to the point or the bottom line results.
There is no obvious solution to these potential pitfalls, just the realization that they may occur in virtual coaching to an even more extreme degree than in face-to-face coaching. If the coach and the coachee are aware of these possibilities, and if they can talk about them directly to one another, there is more likelihood that the virtual relationship will develop and prosper.
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Suggestions for Successful Virtual Global Coaching
Spend time getting to know one another. At the beginning of the virtual experience, the coach must devote significant time to relationship building. This is the basis for the trust that the coachee will have in the coach and that will allow the coachee to feel understood. If possible, an initial face-to-face meeting is preferable. If not, then spend intentional virtual time getting to know each other and explaining to the coachee why you are doing it. Ask about the country of origin and particular traditions or customs. Share what you know about that part of the world and whether you have traveled there. Find something in common-things you may both enjoy, hobbies or vacations you have taken, or family similarities. Share a story about yourself, and ask the coachee to share a story. Find something to laugh about together to make the time together enjoyable. A good way to discover shared experiences and shared values is to do an exercise together such as the Social Identity Map.1 This is an exercise where individuals are asked to reveal those characteristics with which one was born or given along the way, those that one has chosen, and those that are at the core of our values. By sharing those intimate details, it speeds up the process of getting to know one another and may reveal certain mental models about leadership that may be supported or challenged in the coaching process. At the same time that you are relationship building, do not ignore the task at hand. Busy people need to recognize the value of the time invested in the coaching call.
Spend plenty of time on the contracting phase. While this is important in any coaching, it is even more important in virtual coaching because there is more room for misunderstanding. Contracting includes whether the conversations are confidential or reported back (and to whom), how often one will talk, who will call whom and on what platform or telephone number, what the time differences are, and what the boundaries are around calling outside of normal working hours in the local area. I have had coachees call me on their mobile phones while they are riding in taxicabs or while waiting for a plane. It should be negotiated up front whether this is acceptable to both sides. Or should the coaching call be given more priority and privacy and be scheduled when the focus is the call alone? Much of the growth that comes from coaching results from the coach challenging or playing devil's advocate. In a virtual setting, the challenge can be misinterpreted or experienced as too harsh. The coach and coachee may need to negotiate how much the coach can push before the coachee takes responsibility for saying, "enough."
Listen differently to connect at a deep and personal level. This takes an enormous amount of focus on the part of the virtual coach. The coach must find a way to be more present and more mindful in a virtual setting. I take a lot of notes during coaching discusions to help me focus. Multitasking is a practice to definitely avoid. The coach must listen for the meaning behind the words, must put together disconnected statements, must ask questions about context, and must test hypotheses about what is really meant by the coachee. The coach must listen for what is not obvious, and maybe even not recognized by the coachee, but is lurking below the surface. The coach must be comfortable with silence and "listen" for what the silence may mean. Take a risk and explore some of what you think you are hearing, even if the coachee initially denies it. It may provide food for thought over time.
Co-create the coaching journey within the virtual relationship. Talk about what is working for each of you and what is not working. In a virtual relationship, conflict can happen easily without being discovered or understood by both sides. If left unaddressed, it can cause problems later. Consider various ways of making the virtual relationship come alive. Experiment with different technologies. Try out different formats for the conversation, the sequence, sharing of documents and resources. Use silence, and do not push the conversation when time for thinking is of value. Allow time for insight and new ideas to emerge. Use process checks often during the course of each conversation and over time. Talk about it directly if there appears to be discomfort in the virtual relationship.
Share mental models. When misunderstanding or conflict occurs, back up and talk about assumptions. What is the context in which one interprets the meaning of the situation? Is it cultural? Experiential? Value based? Typological? Confused by language translations? Explore what each person believes to be the "truth" of the situation, and jointly discuss alternative scenarios and options. Ask the coachee to address a situation from the perspective of another— perhaps from another culture or another location. In coaching an international development professional in a field office in Botswana, I heard her complain about the people from headquarters who come to the field and, in her mind, add no value. When I asked her how those folks might view the trip to the field from their perspective, she realized that if they knew the kind of work she did, they might be better able to help her navigate the bureaucracy at headquarters. She needed to consider a different mental model to resolve the conflict.
Begin and end each session with informal relational comments. The relationship building continues for the duration of the coaching engagement. There may be a tendency in a virtual exchange to get right to the task, but the small talk is important to ease stress and open dialogue between the coach and the coachee. It also gives some clues about what else may be on both minds that could impact the outlook of either the coach or the coachee. The coach must be self-aware of what is going on in addition to the coaching conversation that may impact the coach's response.
Plan the calls and track the progress. Even more than in conventional coaching, it is helpful in virtual coaching to think in advance about the topic for each session. Even a brief email message before the planned call can set up both the coach and the coachee for the topic of discussion. If the coach has supporting materials, they can be transmitted electronically in advance of the call and explained during the virtual session. At the end of each session, the coach and coachee can agree on the assignments or interim goals for the period of time until the next call. That provides the introduction for the conversation on the next call. Two key questions may be helpful: What will you invest in the session? What will you take away from this session? Ultimately, the sessions must lead to the results set forth in the coachee's goals that reflect enhanced behaviors and improved performance. Tracking progress along the way improves motivation to focus on the goal.
Adjust your methods to the size of a virtual team. Coaching a virtual team can be exhausting due to the need to pay attention to multiple individuals. The first time I worked with a virtual team on a videoconference, I found myself quite unnerved. I could see on the screen that individuals seemed to be multitasking, and some even walked out of the room during our discussion. Because they are not face to face, and there may be some anonymity in a crowd, people may be a bit discourteous. Think about what are the ground rules? What are you willing to accept? What are the rules of engagement? Realize that if you keep the virtual session too formal, it does not replicate their real-life relationships within the team.
When virtual team coaching, multiple methods are needed to keep people engaged. The sessions should be no more than two hours. Send advance handouts or share charts via a shared technological platform. Advance exercises for the whole team, such as the Social Identity Map mentioned above, that are designed to build relationships are helpful, so the coach can consider people's roles in the team. Psychometrics such as the MBTI® add a layer of understanding and can be used to analyze the team interactions within the virtual setting. Virtual team coaching demands shared responsibility and leadership within the team in order to devote the required time and attention to the effort.
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When all is said and done . . .
Virtual coaching is not a replacement for face-to-face coaching, but it is imperative in the world of global leadership. It builds on the good qualities and skills of a master executive coach, while those skills must be finely tuned and exaggerated in the virtual setting. It takes more practice and experience than face-to-face coaching and transactional telephone coaching. And it is here to stay.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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