AMA’s Ask The Experts Series: Dr. Bill Thallemer on Virtual Coaching

Published: Jul 10, 2020



One of the most challenging aspects of virtual work is effective coaching. If there ever was a management responsibility that is best conducted face-to-face in the same room, it is coaching.

The third webcast (on June 3) in AMA’s New Online Management Series Ask the Experts discussed key concerns about Coaching in a Virtual Environment with expert consultant, leadership coach and change management practitioner, Dr. Bill Thallemer. The conversation was moderated by Dorothy Deming, Director of Education, Content and Operations at AMA.

“You have to replicate the face-to-face environment in the online environment,” Dr. Thallemer began, noting that it’s not always easy to assess whether you’re being “received” or not. “I’m not sure I’m getting the true you—that’s the first challenge. The second challenge is technology. Make sure you’re using the right mode, and use a variety depending on the situation.”

When Deming asked, “How do you know what kind of technology to use?” Thallemer replied, “The first thing is to ask your employee. They can let you know what they’re comfortable with, and then you can make the adaptation.”

Employee preference is especially important when you’re discussing something that’s hard to talk about, like performance.

Building trust is also a challenge, according to Thallemer, especially with a new employee: “They don’t really know you and haven’t been around you.”

“The employee has to come up with a suggestion of how they want to get to a goal,” Thallemer further explained. “The other thing you want to remember is the importance of silence—to actively listen, instead of just saying, ‘Let me tell you what I want to tell you.’ Most managers are problem solvers. You want to be a problem facilitator.”

“The three questions you ask them,” said Thallemer, “are: ‘Do you want me to just listen?’ Sometimes the employee doesn’t want you to solve a problem for them. They just want you to listen. The second question to ask them is, ‘What resources can I provide you?’ In that way, the employee still ‘owns’ the problem. The last question is very simple: ‘What do you think?’”

That approach paves the way for the employee to give you their solution for getting to the goal, so the manager has effectively facilitated the problem, and not solved it for them. It’s also a way to get buy-in, which is necessary for commitment.

“The first thing you always want to do when you’re coaching virtually is do a personal check-in,” said Thallemer. “For example, ‘On a scale of 1 to 5, how do you feel today?’ and if they say 4, that’s good, I’m going to get a lot out of them today. And then the coach can say, ‘What can I do to get you to a 5?’ But if the answer is a 1, I’ve got to do something different. They’re not feeling so good, so I’ve got to be more empathetic to them. So this one-minute temperature check is a good way to start the coaching session.”

Thallemer said that the manager also needs to know their desired outcome before the coaching session begins. “Let them know, ‘I hear you, I care, I support you,’” he elaborated, “but let’s get to that performance goal, or whatever you want to get to.”

These virtual check-ins need to be frequent—at least once a week. “If it’s less than that, engagement can suffer,” Thallemer said. “Research tells us Wednesdays and Thursdays are the best day to do the check-in. On Fridays, nobody listens.”

“Know the range of competencies you’re coaching across,” Thallemer specified. “Next, know if you have a high performer, or someone who just shows up, does everything they’re supposed to do, and then goes home. Then you have to figure out where to start the conversation, and ‘the stretch goals.’ I never work with more than two goals.”

The manager should look for what the employee is open to changing, Thallemer believes, such as learning a new technology or undertaking a process improvement. All of this should happen before the actual conversation.

“Some people don’t want to change,” he said. “Our job when virtually coaching them is to get them the best they can be, and develop them at the level they want to be developed.”

Deming observed that after the coaching session, goals frequently fall by the wayside as people get busy with other things.

“You have to commit to a concrete date to follow up with them,” Thallemer advised. “You have to help people have accountability. Keep them engaged and ask them how they’re doing, even on a quick, one-minute basis. Virtual is all about confusion, so be clear. For example, you can simply say, ‘Good job today.’”

Added Thallemer, “Change is about people. We threw this change at people in one week. People have not had any time to process what this change has been. You have to be very empathetic. Their lives have been turned upside down. You’re less about pushing a goal right now, and more about being that safe place of ‘How are you feeling today?’ Helping the emotional side helps the work side.”

To set the best tone for the coaching conversation and help ensure a productive session, Thallemer suggested being “present” and removing any distractions. He also stressed the importance of applying “The 4 Cs” to coaching conversations.

“Clear, Cogent, Concise and Continuous,” Thallemer explained. “Clear means it’s a two-way conversation. Cogency means there’s a purpose to the conversation, that it’s not random. And that purpose should be to help [the employee] develop. Concise means get to the essence of what it is. Continuous means let’s keep these weekly conversations going. But if I start bringing my [management] agenda into it, then it’s not a coaching session.”

Summing up, Thallemer added, “Remember not everyone is virtually functional, so be patient and empathetic.”

Deming then noted, “Managers need self-care too.”

“Amen,” agreed Thallemer. “We forget about that!”