Forget the image that springs to mind when you hear the word “coach.” For many of us, we picture the person in charge of our favorite sports teams. If you’re imagining someone with a whistle and a visor who is barking out directions and correcting mistakes, that’s not the kind of coach we’re talking about. Coaching is the act of helping someone sort through what they know, think, and feel to determine their next actions.* A good coach listens intently, asks questions, and leaves the responsibility for determining next steps to the other person in the conversation. True coaching involves very little feedback or advice. The bulk of coaching is asking questions.
Here’s an example. Imagine that one of your employees pops into your office waving some papers and says, “Hey, how did you want us to handle these requests for installations that came in past the deadline?” This is a topic you reviewed recently at a meeting. In the interest of speed, some leaders might just give the answer. Or perhaps you’re tempted to reply with, “We just talked about that at the Ops meeting on Monday, don’t you remember?” In a situation like this, coaching is an opportunity to assist the employee while also nurturing commitment. A coaching response might unfold like this:
“Thanks for asking, Jim. What options do you see?”
[Jim pauses to think… ] “Well, the crews are fully booked already, so we can’t guarantee the installs.”
“Good point. But what can we do for them?”
“Well, if the schedule changes we might be able to fit them in. We should… oh, that’s right. We said we were going to run a wait list, right?”
“That’s right. What’s your next step?”
“I remember now. I’ll let them know that they’re on a wait list and that we’ll get to them if room frees up on the schedule. I’ll send an email.”
“Is there a better way?”
“Than email? [Pause] I suppose a phone call is better, so they don’t feel dismissed. [Laughing] Plus, I can answer all their questions at once instead of exchanging seven more emails.”
“I love that you’re thinking about how they’ll take the news. Great job.”
Notice in the example above that the boss almost exclusively asked questions. Plus how he asked those questions matters. He wasn’t playing “gotcha” or sarcastically testing the employee. With coaching, you are patiently engaging in a supportive conversation designed to activate the employee’s thinking. You help Jim sort through what he knows or thinks is the best path forward. You also praise his thinking and reinforce his instincts. In a conversation that likely took just sixty seconds, you made Jim feel knowledgeable, capable, and valued.
Coaching is an ideal response when someone has a question, or a problem, and we believe they have the information or insight to arrive at an answer.* A coach asks the right questions in the right order to create self-actualization. The conversation is driven by treating the person being coached as an expert and using questions to help that person sort through their expertise: What do you think? What do you know? What informs that thinking? How are you feeling about that? What do you want to accomplish? What does your gut tell you? What will happen if you go in that direction? What else could you try? What would you do if no one was here and you had to act alone? Amid these questions, a good coach acknowledges worthwhile ideas and insights while encouraging an examination of those that could be less effective or inaccurate. As a result, coaching conversations boost confidence, enhance creativity, spur critical thinking, create accountability, and prompt problem-solving.
Coaching also cuts down on the boss-has-all-the-answers routines many leaders fall into. Let me say that again: when the boss embraces their role as a coach, they don’t have to have all the answers. With coaching, subject matter expertise is not required to guide anyone through an exploratory conversation. Conceptually, if an astronaut walked into my office tomorrow and was struggling with a problem on the International Space Station, I could coach that person. It doesn’t matter that I’m the least astronauty person around,† because our interaction is not about me having answers. It’s about guiding the astronaut through a series of questions that helps her sort through her options and choose the best course of action, as determined by her.
This approach can be tricky for leaders. Some bosses are very good at telling others what to do. Many managers are in their role because they possess knowledge, they genuinely want to help, and they excel at directing. Others have come to derive their own value from the dependency others have on their knowledge and presence. Plus, coaching conversations can be slow and cumbersome at times. But a full-time command-and-control leadership style fails to deliver the psychological building blocks that lead to commitment. When employees are constantly directed, they don’t experience critical thinking, autonomy, and ownership. Expecting employees to just do and not think robs them of their agency, which can spark boredom, resentment, and complacency. One thing that’s become clear in all the job upgrading of the last decade is that employees want to be coached. They want to take an active role in learning and problem-solving. They want to partner with you in their development. They want mentorship.
Showing up as a coach, it should be noted, isn’t just about the conversations leaders have. It’s about the mindset we bring to our work with people in general. At the heart of coaching is setting aside judgment in favor of curiosity. Coaches operate with the assumption that people are both decent and capable. So when something goes awry, the leader seeks first to understand, not jump to conclusions.
For example, if you have an employee who starts consistently showing up late for work, resist the urge to decide that this person has stopped caring, can’t manage their time, or is being careless. Instead, be curious. Ask yourself: What’s happening here? What might be going on with this person that would cause them to show up in this way? What do they need that they’re not getting? Then make time to hold this very conversation with the employee while refraining from judgment. “Hey, I noticed you’ve been late a few times in a row now. Are you okay? Help me understand what’s happening…”
Coaching is the transcendent leadership skill. Show me a manager who has received training on how to be a coach and actively applied that training to their interactions with others, and I’ll show you a leader with higher levels of commitment and retention on their team compared to others. These are the results that show up again and again in organizations that develop coaching leaders. Gallup’s research has found that one meaningful coaching conversation each week can have a profound impact on engagement and retention. Likewise, the Workplace Wellness Trends survey found that organizations that engage in coaching for their employees have 65 percent less turnover.
When leaders coach, they create pathways to deliver many of the experiences this very book argues are key ingredients to creating a destination workplace. Coaching draws out employees’ strengths, gives them purpose, accelerates belonging, develops trust, and sees you functioning as an advocate. In fact, if you can only make time to develop one skill among the leaders in your organization, an argument can be made that it should be this one.
Employalty is about creating a more humane employee experience. If you want people to commit to your organization, the people leading them must commit to showing up as a coach. This is the first dimension to operating as a Great Boss. Next, leaders must grant and earn trust.
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