Want to Be a Great Leader? Be a Great Coach

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This piece was written by Andrew Blum and originally published on Forbes.

It’s no secret that the Bay Area is one of the highest-priced labor markets in the country, if not the world. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it is also a place where some of the most talented people in the world choose to work. I was recently chatting with a client — the CEO of a company that’s fully equipped with expensive, but also highly skilled people — about how best to not only leverage, but also inspire his team. We discussed all the things he was doing to motivate them. It looked like the KPIs were already set and the goals were very clear, and that many of his people were already highly skilled at collaborating.

So, we sat in the question of “what’s next.” I asked if his leaders were effective coaches. He looked at me and said, “I don’t even know what that means.” I told him, “That’s what people of the caliber of talent you have want — not to be directed, but rather to be inspired to discover their own strengths, and then be trusted to collaborate.” I went on to explain that we are now in a coaching era of leadership and outlined how we got here and how it is different from the past.

Until about 20 years ago, most leaders grew up in a Post-World War II leadership model that was focused primarily on “command and control.” Leadership was largely about getting people to follow direction, and the primary orientation of the leader was ensuring that execution was consistent and orderly. Everything from strategies to processes were set up to control for outcomes and employees were evaluated on compliance and non-compliance.

As information became more ubiquitous and people became more educated, there was a subtle shift toward an era of collaboration, where the primary leadership orientation placed less emphasis on hierarchy and direction and more on bringing shared skills to the table. During this era, the most successful organizations built their capabilities by leveraging the collective strength and wisdom of the leaders. Working with others became critical and cross-functional collaboration became an imperative.

In the current era, we have collected more data on what inspires people. Research suggests that certain constructive feedback is of limited value. Instead, leaders should focus on helping people discover their own greatness and leverage their unique talents. This is what I call the coaching era, and it requires a fairly distinct and radically more evolved skill set than leaders previously needed.

An essential premise of coaching is that the question is more important than the answer. In a “leader as coach” orientation, the leader’s fundamental assumption is that the people they lead have everything needed to excel. By listening and asking questions, the leader understands their people and helps them better understand themselves. In this case, “understand” literally means “stands under” them — supporting them, helping them grow and making it clear that success is best achieved by people discovering and leading from their own wisdom. This whole concept is still relatively new and, like most change, comes slowly. According to a SHRM/Workhuman Employee Recognition survey, 93% of employees believe their managers need training on how to actually coach employees. So what’s clear to me is that most leaders are still operating in outdated modes and inappropriate orientations.

Still, for the CEO, it was a question of how. He asked, “For my leaders to be inspired to take on the mantel of coaching, how do we build it as a core leadership competency?” My answer is simple: The best way to learn how to coach is to be coached.

A leader who has the experience of being listened to, guided in their own discovery, held as an expert, observed and supported by a coach, will have a better understanding of what coaching looks like, what it feels like and the value that can be gained from it. I know this from experience. I became an executive coach only after being coached myself. It made me realize how to lead people in a very different way.

A recent Harvard Business Review article, “The Leader as Coach,” suggests that the kind of coaching that creates sustainable success requires that all managers coach their people all the time, “in ways that help define the organization’s culture and advance its mission. An effective manager-as-coach asks questions instead of providing answers, supports employees instead of judging them, and facilitates their development instead of dictating what has to be done.”

A leader who has the experience of being listened to, guided in their own discovery, held as an expert, observed and supported by a coach, will have a better understanding of what coaching looks like, what it feels like and the value that can be gained from it.

In this complex, ever-changing world, I believe leadership development training is necessary and to make it lasting and repeatable, organizations of the future will make coaching the primary tool for growth opportunities. In best-class companies, it will be seen as an honor, not a reflection of weakness and inadequacy. In a 2019 Trium study on coaching best practices, 50% of participants stated that they use coaching today as a leadership development tool, yet nearly 100% indicated an aspirational desire to use it for helping already strong performers become even stronger. We already see this manifesting in leading companies. Take Microsoft. According to Joe Whittinghill, corporate vice president of talent, learning and insights, Microsoft has put a new coaching initiative in place that reinforces a “growth mindset in the way managers interact with their employees.” Expect Microsoft to be one of many companies who require their leaders to become better at coaching.

So, ask yourself: Are you oriented to control, collaboration or coaching? You can use many different leadership models, but how you interpret the application of that model will be driven by your mindset…your orientation…and your underlying assumptions about who you are. In the coming years, I believe that organizations that embrace a “leader as coach” philosophy — and require its leaders to lean into it — will create unprecedented levels of performance that honor the talent of the people they lead.

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