As a leader, one of your greatest opportunities (and challenges) is to produce sustainable, exceptional performance in those you lead and manage. To do this, you must foster — in others — the abilities to make good decisions, take effective actions, build strong relationships with stakeholders, embrace change, and take risks.
You can do this by telling and directing but we know from adult learning theory (and you know from experience) that telling, commanding, and directing don’t always produce lasting behavior changes. Yes, sometimes directing is a necessary leadership move, but it is grossly overused in organizational life and often leads to resentment and resignation among the workforce.
Coaching is a powerful alternative that can have a dramatic and positive effect on the way individual contributors and teams function and produce consistent results. Executive coaching has officially been around for the last 20+ years and, in the past decade, it has been adopted globally as a leadership and management tool in many companies, large and small.
What organizations are recognizing is that a coaching approach to leading and managing can bring out the best in others by helping them to think in new ways, take new action, better align with the organization’s mission, take on greater challenges, and gain greater job satisfaction and personal well-being.
So, what IS Coaching?
Simply put, coaching is a specific type of conversation that elicits new thinking, new behaviors and new actions from the one being coached (let’s call them the “contributor” for purposes of this article). Instead of directing or telling the contributor what to do, the coach asks powerful questions that help the contributor reframe their challenge and identify new ways to move forward more consistent with their — and the organization’s — desired outcomes.
From adult learning theory we also know that adults (and kids too) learn best when they engage with a problem — reflecting and questioning — rather than being told the answer or solution. Within an organizational context, coaching aims to get the contributor to engage with the problem or challenge from a new perspective and identify new behaviors that will better address the issue.
While there are many competencies required of a leader or manager to be a good coach, the ones highlighted below are essential:
1) The capacity to ask questions that go beyond problem solving
A masterful leader-as-coach allows the contributor the opportunity for exploration beyond what next action to take or solution to design. By asking powerful and provoking questions in the safe and non-judgmental context of coaching, the contributor can explore his or her underlying concerns, blind spots, limited perspectives, and unexamined opportunities for the sake of being able to generate new actions and solutions.
2) The capacity to listen for the contributor’s cares
One of the most common and costly losses in organizational life is passion and commitment. Helping the contributor get back in touch with what he or she cares about and how that connects with the goals or mission of the organization is a powerful coaching move. In your coaching role, you want the contributor to understand the connections between their day-to-day actions, what they care about, and the larger context in which their commitments are being made. This is actually where meaning comes from in our work. We need to know that what we do is making an impact to something bigger.
3) The ability to break the conversational patterns in which the client is trapped
The success of an individual contributor, team or company depends on the effectiveness of their conversations with all stakeholders, internally and externally. To be successful, the conversations need to produce shared commitments; they need to lead to effective and coordinated action; and they need to align the cares of the individual contributors with the cares of the organization.
Often, however, we fall into conversational patterns that are completely ineffective. We get stuck in complaining mode. We are blind to how ineffective our requests are. We aren’t clear about expectations.
A leader in the coaching role has the opportunity to help the contributor see where they are being ineffective in how they communicate with stakeholders and can help them design new practices to redesign their communications.
4) The capacity to recognize and change the emotional landscape within which the client works
As human beings, our ability to change our behaviors and actions is greatly dependent on the moods and emotions we operate from. A good coach will be attuned to the emotions the contributor has fallen into (eg., resentment, resignation, frustration, overwhelm, etc.) and find ways to help them generate the emotions needed to accomplish their objectives (eg., ambition, acceptance, curiosity, etc.).
Supporting the contributor to increase his or her emotional intelligence and understanding of how emotions impact behavior is a key competency.
In an ever-increasingly-complex-and-competitive world, all contributors in an organization need to learn to engage in innovative thinking and act more quickly and on-purpose. Paradoxically, as time demands and stress increase in organizational life, everyone spends less and less time having the reflective conversation that will produce new thinking, new learning and new behaviors. Good coaching can accomplish just this.
Most of the leaders and managers I work with are people who are kept awake at night not so much by the drive for another 10% of profit or productivity improvement — but by how they can create a better team, be a more supportive leader and create a more sustainable future with their actions. They are finding that by adding the skill set of coaching they are more successful in accomplishing this.