3 Effective Ways to Lead as a Coach Rather Than a Boss
Positioning companies for growth and long-term success requires leaders who are coaches more than managers.
You’re a good leader who strives to hire more good people leaders. That’s admirable, but you may still wind up with a toxic work environment or disengaged team members. Even good leadership can have bad habits that affect everything from corporate culture to turnover. As an executive coach and now as partner in a global professional services firm, I’ve seen the same story play out countless times in my corporate career. The pattern is back-breaking for leaders — and it’s high time we break the back of that pattern.
Take the way leaders treat their team members, for instance. Their engagement decisions can sway team morale and productivity by 70 percent, according to Gallup. Unfortunately, far too many misunderstand how to develop their workers. Instinctually, they want to help and coach. But they make errors such as waiting until annual reviews to provide guidance or just telling people what to do instead of encouraging them to find answers.
This is nothing new, of course. But simply labeling misguided leaders as “bad” bosses is unfair. Plenty are just repeating what they experienced as they came up the ranks. For example, a leader might have learned from a past leader who was mercurial but seemed to get results. Now, that leader’s go-to stress response is reacting instead of reflecting.
Learning excellent coaching techniques and strategies (and unlearning bad habits) is essential for leaders today. Many of them know it, too: Research from Singapore Management University suggests that about one-third of mid-level managers surveyed knew they had trouble connecting with their teams.
Considering the many benefits that great leaders who are also amazing coaches can bring to a company, coaching skills are well worth the investment of time and focus. One advantage is knowing you have people in your organization who are more likely to progress personally and professionally because of an empowering coaching approach. Enabling innovation -- even if it leads to failures or setbacks -- is another. A third benefit is being able to instill resilience in a new generation of leaders so they can bounce back in the face of the unexpected and coach their own team members to do the same in the future. Essentially, great coaching creates an invaluable ripple effect.
Not quite sure you know how or where to start on your journey to becoming a better coach? Whether you’ve been the head of your business for decades or just launched your dream startup, take the following steps. In time, you should see a big difference in the attitudes and actions of your team members.
1. Switch from a “fix it” mindset
First things first: From this point forward, stop yourself from offering solutions. When people come to you, ask questions before giving answers. Listen as they come up with solutions on their own. If you’ve been like most leaders, this will feel counterintuitive and possibly uncomfortable. It could feel slower than solving for them, at least in the short term. Stay the course, though, and you’ll be surprised by what can happen when you stop fixing everything for everyone.
Case in point: A few years ago, our team worked with a plant manager who was intent on being the “fix it” person. Unsurprisingly, he logged plenty of hours and became stressed. He knew that something had to change, so he decided to learn to be a coach. We helped him shift his management style to the point that he could easily empower others as part of his coaching. Rather than shying away from problems, his team members rose to the occasion and began resolving issues independently. What was the icing on this coaching cake? He didn’t have to work as hard, and his department still won a productivity award.
2. Strive to meet your staff members where they are
Maybe you’re eager to start coaching and gain the advantages of working with people who don’t need you to do all the heavy lifting. Just know that you can’t create a culture of coaching until you identify where each employee stands in terms of understanding, accepting and embracing you as a coach.
As a leader, be sure to head off any concerns or hesitations with open and transparent communication. Being vulnerable allows you to create a more level playing field and meet your staff members where they are.
For example, state your intentions clearly: “I really want to empower people more. I know I need to work on my coaching style to do that, so I will be trying out some different approaches to make that shift in myself. Are you up for me trying to work differently with you while I learn how to do this?”
In more than 20 years of working in this field, I have never had a leader tell me an employee wasn’t on board. Sure, some people might assume that you want to start one-on-one coaching meetings for punitive reasons. Gallup findings even show that four out of five people will begin looking for a new job if a leader gives them negative feedback. But being open about your intentions can help combat this. Stop team members from jumping to negative conclusions by sharing how you’ll meet them where they are and grow with them.
Then, prove your growth along the way. For example, in a former role at Facebook, Asana Co-Founder Justin Rosenstein realized he wasn’t being well-received by colleagues. He analyzed their feedback, recognized themes, and then changed his behavior. Six months later, his colleagues were much happier working with him. People will appreciate your commitment to progress.
3. Prepare other leaders to be future coaches
Once you start seeing positive results from strong coaching, you can expand that impact. Essentially, coaching should drive your approach to talent development as much as daily leadership.
You might want to dive deeper into coaching people in key roles for major change, scarce roles where retention is essential or roles with sizable reporting-line spans. You might even want to build a network effect and deeper emotional connection that is possible in a residential workshop to accelerate the transfer of coaching experience for these important cohorts of leaders. It’s much easier to promote from within, retain talent and engage people when you know for a fact that someone has learned to coach as part of a group of leaders driving change.
The experience should surface not only models and frameworks, but also topics such as empowering employees, giving candid feedback and building team trust. Ensuring this practice isn’t “standardized” will be essential, too. Generic coaching programs are trite, so make sure your approach is relevant to your business and easily applicable in the flow of work. Coaching shouldn’t feel like just another box to check. Instead, leaders and team members should consider it vital to leadership and company growth. When leaders are facilitators, mentors and role models, they set the ripple effect into motion.
Coaching might not come naturally to you, and it might not have been the expectation of what outstanding leadership looks like in your early days. Put on your coach hat, anyway. You might be pleased with the outcomes and freedom that happen when you change your leadership style.
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