When we become managers, we start with assumptions about our role. We may believe that, as the person in charge, we need to a be a decision-maker, problem-solver, idea person and quality controller.
That’s a good list. But it’s incomplete.
Working with managers for many years, I’ve learned that the best leaders also aspire to be coaches. When they learn to stop fixing things and start coaching people, it can be a game-changer. The staff is stronger, and the managers are more effective.
The reason is simple. When managers act as coaches, they help others make good decisions, solve their own problems, generate better ideas and improve quality. As a result, employees aren’t simply following orders. They’re not delaying routine decisions until the boss weighs in first. They’re not holding back ideas, because they presume the manager’s always take priority. They’re far better at self-starting and self-managing. And managers, no longer doing work that could be done by their staff, have time to do work that only they should do — and that they otherwise often would have done in the wee hours when they finally had time.
The secret to being a coaching leader
I define coaching as guided discovery. The manager is the guide. It’s not fixing, which is what too many managers do. Fixing involves giving orders: “This is how I want you to do it.” Or even doing the work for the other person: “Just let me handle it.” Fixing may get the job done in the short term, but in the long term, people may not be learning, so the fixing continues. It creates a just-tell-me-what-you-want cycle of dependence on the boss and staff that says, “Just tell me what you want” — when what you really want is for them to do well without your close oversight.
So what does it take to be a coach?
Start with mindset. I teach managers that people fall in love with ideas and solutions of their own creation. Coaching leaders never lose sight of that. Before jumping in with a solution or direction, they open the door to ideas from others. Then they carefully help refine those ideas, if needed. They check their ego at the door and get real pleasure out of seeing other people’s ideas prevail.
Develop the skills. Coaching takes skills that managers often haven’t had training for. The key tools are questioning, listening, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, curiosity, patience and resilience.
Have a game plan. I developed a model for leaders to use when they want to coach rather than fix. I call it QUEST: Question, Understand, Explore, Suggest, Trust. (See sidebar below) Note that this process always begins with questions. Not answers, not advice — but questions. That’s because you can’t coach until you have context. Questions ensure that you don’t take the first thing you hear at face value. People often describe a situation as they think it is. You, as a coach, need to widen the lens to make sure you and they are looking at a bigger picture.
When to give the coach a rest
As much as I love coaching, I also know there are times when you need to jump in and decide, or simply tell someone what to do. This includes situations that involve high risk, high expense or multiple stakeholders across the organization, and you as leader should bear full responsibility. Or maybe time is short, or the situation is urgent. You can always discuss it later. Another instance might be when the staffer is impervious to coaching. Some people — not many — prefer to defer to others. Or perhaps the staffer, despite your best efforts, lacks the skill or the will to do what’s needed in their role. That’s when it’s time for a difficult conversation, not a coaching session.
The bottom line is you need to know your people and each situation well enough to determine when coaching isn’t the best option. And if it isn’t, that’s when it might be better to adopt the fix-it approach.
Coaching may seem time-consuming at first, but coaches soon learn how to do it succinctly — and their team members learn to come to those coaching conversations prepared to answer questions.
Here’s one last tip: If you want to coach rather than fix, start with your highest performing employees. When you test it out on them, you’ll see how good their ideas and solutions can be — often better than yours! It will give you the confidence to become a coach to all.
And as I like to say at the end of a QUEST chat: Please let me know how it turns out.
The QUEST coaching process: Help people solve their own problems
Question: The best questions are open-ended and non-judgmental. They get people to fill in the blanks of a situation. “What have you tried so far?” “What else is going on that might be contributing to this?” “What are you most concerned about and why?” “What would success look like to you?”
Understand: Listen with your full attention. Listen so well that you can tell the other person what you just heard. I like to reply with, “Here’s what I heard you say — let me know if I have it right.” Not only do people feel validated, but sometimes, just hearing their own words causes them to think more deeply. Coaches restate and also reflect: “You sound very discouraged.” “You’ve mentioned the budget several times as an issue, so it’s clearly weighing on you.”
Explore: This is where you apply your critical thinking skills. Has the other person been using hyperbolic language — words like “always, “never” or “impossible?” And if so, what might that mean about their perception? Are you hearing bias or assumptions? Are they considering other stakeholders? That’s when you can explore: “Tell me more about why you believe ‘young staffers are always this way.’” “Why are you assuming this change is impossible?” “What will happen if you do nothing?”
Suggest: By this point, the person you’re coaching may have already come up with their own solution. All you need to do is validate their idea. But if they haven’t, now is the time for you be more direct: “How would you feel about trying…?” “Given what you’ve told me, I like your Plan B.” Still, your goal is to get them to take ownership of the solution.
Trust: End your coaching session by ensuring the person will follow up. “What are your next steps?” “Who might be your ally in this?” “What’s your backup option?” “Please let me know how this turns out.” If you feel they may not follow through, make an appointment, “Let’s talk again Tuesday at 2:00 p.m. so you can tell me how things are going.”