Coaching approach to leading people

We live in exciting new times when more and more people work in so-called knowledge based economy having jobs that require creativity, knowledge, passion, ownership and that inner feeling of doing something that makes sense and will make a difference. How do you lead people in such environment? Well, the good old carrot and stick don’t work anymore and you need to resort to more subtle ways of leadership.

One of the approaches you may take is to stop acting as a boss and start acting as a coach. How does a coach look like? Let’s take a look at analogy from sport. He is not the best athlete on the team, he may not be the biggest expert on the game, he is someone who sets a direction and enables his team to mobilize all their skills and tap their abilities to the extreme to win the game.

It works exactly the same way in business setting. You just need to understand the underlying principles that will guide your behavior and make you a successful coaching leader. Let me talk about couple of ones I consider important.

Trust

One of the basic beliefs of coaching is the idea that in heart people work to the best of their abilities and no one does anything bad on purpose. This essentially means that you need to trust your team and you need to show it in the way you behave and react. Even though you may believe that a particular person is not telling the truth or he has some hidden agenda, you need to get rid of these thoughts as they will inhibit your ability to be a trusting and trustworthy leader. The moment you start questioning honesty of your team it will show, it will reflect in the way you talk, act and at the end you will be seen as having some hidden agenda on your own.

Context

Every behavior is correct or has some value in certain situations so always try to understand the context. Let me use a bit silly example here. You are walking in the hallway and encounter a member of your team who is raising his voice and yelling at a customer. Your first reaction will be anger and thought that this person is a bad at dealing with people and you need to talk to him and correct his behavior. So you come to him and tell him that this was totally unacceptable behavior. He should go and apologize to that customer and if you see him doing it once more you will fire him. As it turns out the person that was “yelled at” is half-deaf and you need to raise your voice when you talk to him.

How do you think your team member see you now? You just made a rush conclusion based on what you saw without understanding the context. Based on that conclusion you talked down a person doing just his job. How different would the situation be if you borrowed a page from the book of coaching? “I just saw you yelling at that person and I’m not sure why you did it. Can you help me to understand it?” “Well, the person is deaf”. “Interesting, I didn’t know that. Thanks for letting me know.” And that’s it. The message you send by this approach: I’m interested in what you are doing. You told me something interesting I didn’t know and I’m grateful for that.

No assumptions

Extension of the previous two points is important aspect of “every behavior has positive motivation”. Even if you don’t see it now, you should believe that it is the case. For example, you are on a meeting and you have disagreement with your peers or your boss. They disagree with your idea of how something should be done. Your conclusion is that they care only about themselves, hate the idea because you brought it up, they don’t understand what needs to be done. You are bitter and demotivated.

Now, just take a step back and ask yourself: “Keeping in mind that every behavior has positive motivation, what their positive motivation might be?”, “Well, maybe they try to prevent me doing something stupid that may hurt my career opportunities.” You still don’t know what really is behind the behavior, but this approach at least opens your mind to possibilities so you stop arguing and start thinking.

And then you simply describe the behavior you see. “Look, I see that you are saying this… and I feel rather demotivated. Do I understand it right or did I misread something?” You are essentially removing any wrong assumptions you may have made in your mind and getting back to the facts.

Resources

People have all the resources they need. Every single person on your team has all the resources he needs to be able to do his job. This is a strong belief that you need to build into your management style. As a leader who is using this approach you just need to “open the gates” so the person understands what resources he has at his disposal. It also means you need to be giving people the right job. Ideally, it is something just a bit above their current “proven” skill level so they are challenged to dig deep into their internal resources and find out something they didn’t know they have. That way they will grow.

There might be situations where the person may not have all the resources to finish successfully the job. That most likely means that you are giving him a wrong job. For example, you have a person fresh out of university who got his first job as an associate project manager. He has all the resources he needs for that particular role (helping more senior colleague, managing small project). If you task this person to manage project like “sending man to the moon” no amount of coaching will help this person as he is being tasked by something way above his internal resources and technical / functional knowledge. This person needs years of training and mentoring to be able to do it. So always task people with work that is challenging but they still have a real chance to succeed.

There are numerous other coaching tools and beliefs that can help you being a coaching leader. What is your favorite one that always worked for you?

7 thoughts on “Coaching approach to leading people

  1. Good post and very good tips how to be a good coach. This should be a “must have” reading for all people managers, because for many people is management = to be a boss. And most of the managers just want to act as bosses

    My personal experience is that bad manager act like a boss even more if she/he doesn’t know how to make a right decision and she/he simply defends her/his position.

    But, this “how-to in this” is very difficult to practice and it requires much self-control. I would recommend to start with a small tasks and for example prepare for each meeting in advance and think about what will be discussed, what’s my opinion, what could be the opposite/different one and then THINK WHAT’S THE BEST solution for everyone and problem you need to solve.

    One last thing, a piece of respect is required too to be an effective people manager. This “how-to” will work for people who are motivated or willing to learn something, not for people who come to work for 8 hours of boring stuff. Then, you, as a leader/coach need to be an inspiration for these guys and show them that you have a knowledge, not just a power of boss 🙂

    Michal

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