Why Good Coaching is Critical to Our Leadership Approach
In my last piece, I focused on the need to develop the skill of delegation. Learning to effectively delegate is one of the most essential—and should be one of the first—skills a young leader develops. After learning to navigate an airport security line or how to swipe your cell phone open, delegating is as fundamental and essential a modern skill as we can hope to learn. When we delegate effectively, we free up time to invest in activities appropriate to our leadership role. We avoid working on tasks that misuse our time and talents and which—further—rob our direct reports of the opportunity to grow and develop their skills appropriately.
From Delegation to Coaching
When you have a handle on delegation—and have recouped some of that mis-spent time—the next area of focus needs to be coaching. There is a very natural evolution at work here: first we focus on ensuring that we—and our direct reports—are working on the right tasks and functions. That settled, we can turn our attention to helping our direct reports better perform those role-appropriate tasks and functions. When we’re in a leadership role, responsible for others, we should spend as much as 70% of our time in a coaching capacity; working to develop our team and ensuring the work is satisfactorily completed through them.
What Coaching is Not
Importantly, coaching is not managing. Coaching is a leadership activity. We may manage processes, but we lead people—and leading is a wholly different function than simply managing. While both are important, leading is an active and deliberate exercise that multiplies the work an organization can accomplish by improving workplace efficiency. It is the single most important contributor to organizational culture. No one looking to hire an inspiring leader ever thought it was a reasonable concession to simply hire a manager instead.
This insight is the starting point for the most fundamental shift that must occur when we move from individual contributor to leader: the understanding that the organization now expects the work to be done through you, and not necessarily by you. Getting your direct reports to think of themselves as part of a high functioning team rather than merely a collection of individuals who simply report to the same individual is no small matter; and, further, the value of that team to the organization is many times greater than the collective output of each individual. The adage about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts is particularly true in a team environment. And the only way to create a high functioning team, rather than a bunch of high functioning individuals, is through good leadership.
What a Good Coach Does
Beyond offering support and guidance, a good coach establishes regular communication with his or her direct reports. Deliberately setting aside time with direct reports to check in on their progress, allow for questions and concerns, and to coax them to create their own solutions, is an essential part of the coaching process. Further, coaching sessions can be used to explore a range of developmental needs for the direct report—beyond simply managing tasks or working on issue resolution.
Effective coaching offers an opportunity, through good, open-ended questions, to explore what your direct report does and does not understand, and to encourage a deeper consideration of their roles, their responsibilities and their own leadership pathway. Are you simply rattling off answers to their questions, or going through their open tasks like a grocery list? Or are you helping them to solve their own problems and challenging them to think differently about both the “what” and the “why” of what they do? There is a very big difference in these two approaches. One solves the problems of today; the other creates the problem solvers of tomorrow.
This process of leading an employee to discover their own solution, as opposed to simply “telling them the answer” does not come easily—trust me! In our misguided effort to help our direct reports succeed, we often think just giving them the answer will provide a shortcut; that there is no reason for them to stumble, as we have stumbled, over the same professional challenges. Why shouldn’t they benefit from our mistakes, and the wisdom we have gained from our journey? But you wouldn’t expect to describe how to drive a car, or swing a golf club, and have an individual immediately become proficient—much less fluent—in the activity. Why, then, do we anticipate that our reports will understand the complexities of the modern professional landscape and be competent to navigate these ever-changing and fast-paced currents based on simply telling them how we did so?
The lessons that left the greatest impression, and which armed you with the best ammunition to meet and overcome those challenges, were those you learned for yourself. Coaching your reports, then, is a critical method for transmitting that wisdom, but doing so in a way that opens up your employee to making that discovery for themselves.
Toward this end, I would encourage you to try a more open-ended approach the next time you have a one-on-one meeting with a direct report. To do this, try employing a standard coaching method: validate; acknowledge; and clarify.
Validate, Acknowledge, and Clarify
Validation creates an environment in which employees feel heard and know that they have your undivided attention. Validation consists of playing back what the employee tells you, recognizing that you have clearly heard and understood what they’re saying. This type of playback is often introduced by phrases like “What I think I have heard,” or “If I’ve heard you correctly,” from the leader. This feedback helps to initiate the next step: acknowledgement.
Acknowledgement is key to building trust and rapport with the employee because it operates on an emotional channel. Acknowledgment consists of recognizing the employee’s right to feel the way they feel—to express the subject they want to express, on their own terms. It does not mean you implicitly accept their position, but you honor their right to express their own viewpoint and to introduce subject matter important to them. Commonly, you can acknowledge through phrases like, “I understand how you feel,” or “I can appreciate how you might feel that way.”
Lastly, a good coach uses clarifying, open-ended questions to coax out more details and spur thinking from their report. Instead of simply offering a solution, try structuring a series of questions that lead the report to make their own connection, or draw their own conclusions, to the problem or issue. Even a simple phrase like, “tell me more about that,” can encourage your employee to explore the matter in more depth and open insights he or she would not otherwise experience. In short, the more time your employee spends sharing, the more experiential value you create for them. This has a compounding effect long-term, creating an improved sense of self-reliance and self-agency for our direct reports. This translates into direct reports more capable of developing the necessary skills to become, themselves, successful leaders.
Coaching Propels Your Leadership Journey
By spending the appropriate time to coach our direct reports, we—as leaders—truly start on our leadership journey. It is impossible to consider more advanced aspects of leadership without having first mastered these basic building blocks. If your coaching leaves something to be desired, take comfort: you are not alone! In terms of both time requirement and in the exercise of skill, coaching is an extraordinarily demanding and difficult ability to develop. But if you are tasked with the responsibility of leading others, coaching is a skill you must develop. Nothing will create a more measurable impact on your organization than effectively leading your team. And the people you spend time developing will enjoy the rightful opportunity to grow into the leaders of tomorrow, predicated on your example and the values you instilled. That is the most valuable legacy you can leave behind!