Coaching applied to project management – APM seminar (#APMEoE)

By Elisabeth Goodman

Managing, coaching, mentoring, training, consulting, counseling: these are all terms that may or may not be part of a team and project manager’s toolkit.  How are they different?  And how can coaching in particular be applied in project management?

About 25 practicing project managers and others interested in the topic gathered near Cambridge on the 27th March to hear from Lesley Trenner, a change coach (, at the latest APM East of England branch meeting.

The session was engaging, very interactive and well received.

What is (business) coaching?

Obviously there are lots of definitions around, and there are aspects of business coaching that are quite different from, say, sports coaching.  One of the definitions that Lesley shared with us was that of the ICF (International Coach Federation):

The ICF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.

One of the important distinctions between business coaching and all the other types of possible management interventions is that it’s the individual concerned, not the coach, who finds the answers.  The coach uses skilled listening and questioning to help the individual, in the words of one of the delegates “crystallize their ideas rather than just keep them in solution”.  This type of coaching works on the premise that we all have the answers within us, it’s just a question of finding and then committing to applying them.

How does business coaching apply to project management?

As defined above, coaching enables project team members the time, space and support to solve problems and achieve their objectives.  It could be viewed as a tool for increasing individual empowerment.  It could also help with an individual’s development – something that might more traditionally fall within a line manager’s remit.  In fact we agreed that coaching should be an intrinsic skill set for any manager.

Other applications for coaching in project management could be in interactions with stakeholders, to draw out their ideas, and to generally build individual team members’ or the project manager’s relationship with them.

How does business coaching work? What qualities does a coach need?

Lesley shared some key steps and principles with us, which were variations of the GROW model that readers may already be familiar with:

  • Goal – what do you want to achieve from the coaching session?
  • Reality – what is the current situation?
  • Options – what are the alternative solutions available to you?
  • Will – what action will you take?

Lesley’s key steps and principles also emphasized the importance of the coach really listening to the individual concerned, without interrupting them.  She also stressed the importance of having an ethical framework for the discussion – ensuring confidentiality, creating trust, and being honest.

We also explored what qualities this kind of coach needs to have.  Examples we thought about included:

  • Being willing to look at yourself, possibly so that your own issues don’t interfere with the coaching session, and to practice what your preach
  • Being a good listener
  • Patience (to listen, keep asking the questions, wait for the answers)
  • Courage (to keep asking the questions and deal with whatever arises)
  • Empathy (so that the person knows they are being heard, but without colluding if you don’t agree with what is being said)

Putting coaching for project management into practice

Lesley and one of the delegates bravely gave a (unpracticed) demo of the coaching process around one of the delegate’s project management issues.  We then practiced in pairs, for 10 minutes each, around each of our own issues.

Lesley gave us a set of questions to work from:

  1. What’s the situation – and where are you now?
  2. Where would you like to be?
  3. What’s stopping you?  (A good addition to the GROW model – and an alternative way to frame the Options discussion)
  4. Who or what could help you? (Another good addition – also around the Options discussion)
  5. What action will you take?


We had a lively closing discussion on people’s experiences with the coaching exercise.  Some of the insights included:

  • Not worrying about silence – it shows the individual is thinking and as a coach you need to have ‘the guts’ to let the silence hang
  • The commitment question is great, and a follow-up session could pick up and reinforce the progress with this
  • Whilst the 10 minutes might feel artificial, actually a lot can be achieved in that time, or even in a few minutes in a corridor conversation
  • This ‘touching the tiller’ approach can seem quite easy for some, but harder for others.
  • If people come up with their own answers to problems, they will have more confidence in taking them forward..

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that helps business teams to enhance their effectiveness for greater productivity and improved team morale. (We using coaching as well as training, mentoring and consulting in our work with our clients.)

Elisabeth has 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry where she has held line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and in Lean Sigma and is a member of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals), and APM (Association for Project Management).