If I had it to do all over again, I would step into any leadership position with the fundamental mindset of being a coach leader. Yes, there are a lot of other skills, characteristics, and aspects that are needed in leadership. Leadership is not only about spreadsheets and results, it’s also about the leader’s ability to assist people to be the best they can be. Teams that reach their goals, objectives, and expected results are the outcome of a team that has been well-coached.
A friend of mine took me to a professional baseball game. He wanted to go early to watch the team warm up before the game. We were able to sit in the seats behind home plate to watch what went on behind the game.
I was watching a batter struggle with his hitting. He kept hitting foul balls down the third base line, or high pop-ups into center field. He was getting frustrated with his performance, you could see it in his nonverbal language and it was loudly spoken. He kept looking into the dugout, I assumed it was at the batting coach. After a few more swings the coach comes out and walks up to the batter. The coach pointed to the batter’s hands and had him make a slight adjustment to his grip on the bat.
The coach makes eye contact with the pitcher and nods. The pitcher fires one over the plate and this time instead of a popping sound as the bat connected with the ball as before, there was a loud crack as the bat connected with the ball sending it deep into the center field. The pitcher threw a few more balls and with each swing, the ball went deeper into the outfield until the ball sailed over the center field fence.
The batter looked over at the coach, the coach nodded in approval at the batter. The coach looked at the pitcher and nodded at him again. This time the pitcher started throwing some serious heat across the plate and the batter answered with a barrage of balls sailing deep into the outfield and over the fence.
The nonverbal language of the batter turned from frustration to confidence all because the coach came in and gave the batter feedback to improve his skill. The batter’s confidence was in his ability to accept the feedback to do his job and do it well even when the task became harder because someone took the time to diagnose the challenge and suggested an approach to change the outcome.
The other thing that happened was the pitcher was throwing balls at a speed any professional baseball player should be able to hit. Once the problem was identified and the batter practiced and performed at that level, the coach had the pitcher throw faster and harder pitches to hit. Because of the batter’s newfound confidence in himself, he stepped up and was able to connect with the more difficult pitches.
A lesson for us when someone asks for a stretch assignment. Are they performing at the level they should be and do they have the skills to step up to the plate? You’re the leader coach have you prepared them for the challenge?
Aspects of a coaching culture
Coaching is usually known as a collection of techniques, skills, and approaches used to navigate complex human situations of change, development, and personal improvement. Leader coaches learn to ask questions, encourage exploration, cautiously advise, and demonstrate well-developed listening and feedback skills. Leader coaches usually have clear self-awareness, genuine interest, and caring through curiosity, open questioning, and listening.
Center for Creative Leadership tells us effective use of coaching is a way for leaders to balance toughness of mind with consideration for the emotional climate of those they lead. Coaching is about getting to the truth and the knowledge that recipients of uncomfortable truths can change. Coaching never misleads others about the consequences of their actions, choices, and relationships. Coaching is about discovering the whole truth, facing tough issues, and creating a liberating space for improvement.
When you see it, do something about it
With the work that I’ve done over the years with leaders and teams, I have discovered that most problems or challenges start with a misunderstanding. I know, you’re rolling your eyes and saying that I am making things too simple. There are degrees of misunderstanding that can start as a small pop or a large explosion. If you establish yourself as a leader coach you should be able to mitigate most incidences at the point of occurrence before they become major challenges.
How many times
Think back over your own experiences, how many times have there been when you should have stepped in and handled something at the very beginning? There are many for me. There were even times when my staff tried to mitigate something themselves and made it worse before it got to me. Even then you can demonstrate how to coach effectively.
Exercise | Deliberate practice
Not all of us wake up in the morning hoping to face some crisis or conflict on our teams because it’s so much fun to deal with. There is not one coaching approach that resolves all issues. Every opportunity, challenge, or conflict must be treated individually and with patience. Over time you will develop a coaching approach or strategy that works for you, it takes practice and yes there will be failures on your part.
The Center for Creative Leadership has some excellent resources for all aspects of leadership. I have pulled a few ideas presented here from one of their research papers on where to start in developing your coaching culture for your team.
Creating a coaching culture for your team starts with you
First and foremost you need to have established a safe space or environment on your team where people can engage in healthy dialogue without repercussions even when it’s uncomfortable. No one wants to be hauled into the HR office for something they said or did. If at all possible, resolve it in your office.
Ask good questions and then listen to understand. Remember, you are coaching, you are modeling the behaviors you would like to see your team use. You are trying to identify the root of the problem before you try to resolve anything, where the issue started, or what triggered the misunderstanding. If the situation is still cloudy, ask clarifying questions and keep asking questions until you get to the bottom of the challenge. People learn the most and take accountability when they uncover the answers themselves. Then make sure everyone agrees on what started it and what will they do moving forward, in other words, “Are we all in agreement on ________?”
Take the emotions out of the equation. We can’t stop emotions from happening so tell everyone to suspend emotions so you can focus on the facts. Be positive and supportive during the conversations.
Coach in the moment. Whether someone is asking for help with developing a skill, or help in resolving a problem make the time to do this as soon as possible. Learning best occurs at the moment not weeks later. Most people learn best by doing, so coach as you go. Ask them what they learned from the experience and how they will apply the new knowledge or skill moving forward.
The coaching continuum – 5 steps
Over the years I have used variations of this approach. Here is the most current version of coaching for improvement. This approach can be used for a variety of situations from conflict to personal improvement.
Question – What is the current condition?
You first have to understand what’s going on.
- What started the conflict?
- What created the need for more training?
- Where did the need for personal improvement come from?
- What’s going on between the two workgroups?
Question – What is the ideal outcome?
Now you need a target, what is the result?
- How do you want to see this resolved?
- Can the group come to a consensus and what would it be?
- What do you see as the best outcome?
- What would you like to see happen?
Question – What can you do to effect change?
In other words, what are you willing to do to improve the situation?
- Improve the relationship?
- Correct the behavior?
- Repair the damage?
- What can you assist with?
- Where can we make changes?
Question – What will you commit to?
- What will you be accountable for?
- Where do you see yourself in this solution?
- How will you practice this new behavior?
- Are you able to identify situations that trigger your reactions?
It’s important to note here the people involved need to hold themselves accountable for the change, so what are they willing to do to hold themselves accountable?
Question – What have we learned?
- What was most useful to you?
- How are you going to use this new skill/knowledge moving forward?
- How will this make a difference when you are faced with this situation again?
As a leader coach, it is important to anchor the new learning and have the person take ownership by identifying ways they will use what they learned.
What can we do better?
As a leader, you can ask questions every morning in team huddles, team meetings, process improvement meetings, and drop-by questions, anytime, anywhere. Coach at the moment, be curious and find out what’s happening. You are responsible for creating and maintaining the coaching culture.
- What are we trying to achieve?
- Where are we now?
- What’s our current condition?
- What’s currently in our way?
- What’s our next step and what do we expect?
- When can we see what we have learned from taking that step?
- What was our last step? Did that work, why or why not?
Write down these questions in your journal then write other questions or versions of these questions. Make the questions yours and write them to fit your specific situations. I always believe you need to start somewhere so here’s a place to start.
There will always be situations that are much larger than our ability to manage or coach. Ask for help as soon as you can. Be a wise leader and know your limits.
Don’t wait for tomorrow, tomorrow never comes. What you have is today and this is the best time to begin anything.