Leader as coach: 5 Steps to Becoming a Leader Who Coaches Rather than Manages
Take your first steps to a coaching leadership style
Traditional command-and-control style of management and leadership has been dissolving for years, if not decades. A new era of leadership skills is on the rise: one where managers are people leaders who coach their team members.
What's the difference between traditional people management and a leader who coaches?
The core difference is the approach to people development: a shift from a cookie cutter style approach to a technicolor approach. The modern style of leadership inspires people rather than instructs them. It can even inspire so much, that they advertise to the world their sadness at your departure. Like in 1991, when Bill Campbell, one of Silicon Valley's celebrated leaders, left his role as CEO of Claris, his team responded by taking out a full page newspaper ad to share their gratitude and sadness.
How did Bill inspire his team so much? Because he was a coach to his team, first and foremost.
How do you become a leader who coaches?
Taking the first steps to a coaching leadership style can be daunting. Here are 5 steps to get you started.
1. Spend quality time with your team
The first and most critical step is to spend quality time with your team. If you are only speaking to your team members 1-on-1 at the annual or bi-annual performance review, then that's not quality time. As a leader it's important to always remember that it's not your title that makes you a leader. Your people make you a leader.
Have regular 1-1 catch ups with your team members. During those 1-1s, listen more than talking. Constantly ask yourself: how well do I know my team members and what motivates them? The more that people work on what motivates them, the more effort they will put in, and the more energised they will feel by it.
2. Acknowledge that you don't have all the answers
No one has the answers to everything, and it's okay to acknowledge that you don't either. A leader's role is not about providing answers all the time. Rather, it is about creating the best possible environment for your people to thrive .
Toxic environments are often born out of the best intentions, and pretending to know all the answers hoping to create faith in your leadership skills can have terrible consequences. For instance, the next time you find yourself feeling the urge to be the first to offer a solution, just pause for 10 seconds. Then double that pause. Within that pause, you create the room for your System 2 to take over, and process whether you might be better off waiting to see what your team offers first, or saying something like 'That's a tricky problem. I don't have a solution for this right now. How about we brainstorm some ideas together?'
3. Learn to use Socratic questioning
If no one has all the answers, then how do we solve our biggest problems? The answer lies in collaboration: invite your team to contribute their solutions! Learn to use methods like guided discovery through Socratic questioning to organically arrive at 'aha' moments to navigate individual and team challenges successfully.
Socratic questioning can bring you from a superficial solution, like 'we just need unconscious bias training to become a more inclusive workplace' to the insight that there's actually a deeper cause, namely 'we cannot create a sense of belonging if we expect everyone to fit into a narrow mould, so we need nuanced and personalised solutions that are also scalable'.
4. Offer support without judgement
There are of course many moments in a leader's journey where you have to make the tough and unpopular decisions. But, this doesn't mean that those decisions need to be made with zero empathy.
Having empathy doesn't mean that you are 'soft'. On the contrary, it shows great leadership if you can offer your support to your team members, while remaining clear-eyed and objective.
Next time a team member comes to you with a grievance, try to leave judgement at the door. Practice this so that you communicate effectively when it matters. You can practice this on yourself first: often we are the harshest critics of ourselves. The next time you hear that inner critical voice, tell yourself: ‘That's a bit harsh. Now, how I can reframe this to be more supportive of myself?’. The more you practice empathy on yourself, the more easily you can offer it to others.
5. Facilitate personalised growth and development
Every individual is unique. The nature of modern day work means that achieving the best results for your business is intimately tied to your ability to motivate your team and empowering them. This is not achieved by enforcing cookie cutter standards and expecting people to fall in line.
Nurture trusting relationships within your teams and support people in navigating uncertainty. You can start small by acknowledging your vulnerabilities or owning up to mistakes, and sharing what you learned from them. Humans are mimetic creatures, and we copy what our leaders do. By modelling behaviours like vulnerability and demonstrating that everyone has a lot to learn, you as the leader can create a true learning organization.
Where to continue your Leader as Coach journey
If you're interested in taking your coaching skills to the next level, then organizations like the International Coaching Federation, or IECL; and universities like Harvard, or the University of Sydney offer courses and degrees in coaching skills and coaching psychology.
If you are a self-learner, there are many free or budget resources available like our blog (start with our post on 3 frameworks for coaching and personal growth), the Human Leaders blog, and events organised by Conscious Leadership group.
Keep an eye out for a future post with book recommendations to get you started on your coaching journey!