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Why Your Leaders Should Let The People They Coach Fail Forwards

A skydiver falling forwards back to the ground

Here’s an intriguing business coaching question.

Let’s say one of your leaders is coaching a team member.

And the person they are coaching suggests a way forward the leader knows will not work.

In fact, the leader is convinced it is the wrong option.

Do they panic and tell them not to do it?

That is probably the most natural reaction. But is it the right one?

Well, independent business coach Tienie Loubser believes allowing people to ‘fail forwards’ is crucial.

And it is something we cover on our new online ILM Level 5 course in effective coaching and mentoring.

Tienie said: “If we think about when we learn something the best, it tends to be when we tried something, and it didn’t succeed.

“We didn’t succeed, but we learnt from that. ‘Failing forwards’ could be rewritten as ‘not succeeding but learning’.

“There is a great quote from Nelson Mandela about this. He famously said, “I never lose. I either win or learn”, which shows how when things go wrong, they can become a learning opportunity.

“And that learning gives you something to explore further in future coaching sessions.”

But this ‘try, fail, learn, try again’ approach can feel daunting and risky.

It takes some bravery.

Should a coach sit there and let someone go ahead with their doomed plan?

Tienie says business coaches need to be aware of those risks and know when to intervene.

“When you are coaching someone, the caveat you need to consider is the severity of the impact of failure,” he said.

“Allowing someone to fail forward with a £1.2m budget is not the right thing to do.

“So, you need to ask questions like, who else needs to know about this? What will the impact be if it doesn’t work? What will the impact be if you do succeed? What are some of the contingencies you need to consider?

“You need to have an objective approach from a positive and development perspective to what you are exploring with the individual, so they consider it fully.

“And, actually, while it may sound in your head like it will fail, it might succeed.”

To explore this further, I asked Tienie to give me an example of when he allowed someone to fail forwards in his coaching.

He said: “A person I was coaching needed to present something crucial to the board. They were telling me, ‘I’m not great on PowerPoint - I’ll rely on my charm to sell it to them’.

“So, I asked them if they thought it would work, if it was what the board wanted and if it was an approach that has worked for them before.

“Then I could see they had bought into their idea. And I asked what the contingency plan was if this didn’t work.

“Because they still felt comfortable it was the right approach after all those questions, I wished them good luck and let them get on with it.”

The key, in a scenario like this, is to follow it up and go through what happened in the next session.

“Follow it up in the next session and find out how it went, how it could have been improved and what needs to happen to improve the board’s impression of that person,” said Tienie.

“The person in this example came back and rated their performance as a 50 per cent pass. So, our conversation afterwards looked at whether that is how they want to be perceived by the board. And how we could shift that perception.

“We looked at what that person would do differently and where they felt they stumbled. And we went over the questions I had asked in previous coaching sessions and how they might respond differently to them now.

“By allowing them to fail forwards, we had something we could dissect to enable them to move forward in a different direction.

“And, while they may not have the same opportunity to present the same thing to the board again, they now know to prepare differently for those types of opportunities.”

I wondered whether this outcome left the person being coached in a better position than if Tienie had intervened ahead of the presentation.

Tienie says this is where business coaching judgement needs to come into play. “My judgement was based on how seriously they had brought into their ideas,” he said.

“And I knew that the worst outcome would be they were told to go away and do it again.

“Doing it this way helped them to learn what the board wanted from them - and that charm alone was not enough - and that helped them grow in the business.”

That idea of the person being coached buying into their ideas is vital. Tienie says when that confidence is not there, it could be time to intervene.

“If I was in the same scenario as the example I just gave, and I sensed hesitancy from that person about what to do, then I wouldn’t let them fail forwards,” said Tienie.

“You can pick up the sense that someone is trying to pick the best from what they know are a bunch of bad ideas.

“To do this, you have to be present when you coach. Otherwise, these sorts of things will pass you by, and you will not notice they have happened.”

You can find out more about failing forwards on our new online ILM Level 5 course in effective coaching and mentoring.

The BCF group has been helping organisations develop their talent, inspire their people and overcome obstacles and challenges for the past 25 years.

We deliver training that makes a difference. Find out more about our business coaching, management training and interpersonal skills options.

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