There is no one perfect script or style for leadership. However, research has shown that there are distinct leadership styles, each of which has a unique impact on an organization’s climate and results. This makes it worthwhile to assess various leadership styles to determine their situational effectiveness and what conditions must be in place for success.
In this post, we explore a coaching approach to leadership - one that focuses on investing in the long-term development of others.
The Anatomy of a Coaching Leader
Coaching leaders demonstrate a genuine interest and belief in people. The coaching leader helps team members develop successfully, supporting and mentoring them to ensure they have the knowledge and skills to be successful. Coaching leadership requires a confident and grounded leader who believes that employees are capable and willing to learn, even if it means making mistakes along the way.
Coaching leaders emphasize problem solving and feedback, helping employees build organization-wide perspectives on their work and identify the reasons they are doing what they do. They also have a strong desire to help employees grow within their organizations.
Coaching leaders are valuable because they help meet the needs of today’s employees and organizations. Younger workers, especially, expect more control and influence over their work and their organizations; coaching leaders offer them that opportunity.
Coaching leaders’ focus on developing staff means they delegate as often as possible, and they are willing to tolerate failure as part of a learning process. Their outlook lends itself to flexible and innovative management thinking and helps them thrive in situations in which their workforce is widely distributed and often virtual—which in turn, is linked with better morale.
Coaching Leadership Skills
Coaching leadership works best when employees understand their weaknesses, are receptive to suggestions for improvement, and are willing to put in the work. Those who use coaching as a leadership style tend to be less judgmental than others and are emotionally intelligent, curious, confident, and patient. They work in organizations that support learning, and allow employees to test new ideas.
A coaching leader guides his or her employees through a learning process. This process begins by creating awareness, which involves helping the employee identify and gain clarity on their strengths, weaknesses, and goals. The coaching leader builds on this by helping the employee explore what is possible and then commit to taking action.
The result of this process is that the employee learns from the experience and develops independent critical thinking skills. Some of the specific skills a coaching leader uses to foster this approach are listening, asking powerful questions, direct communication, and designing actions.
Skill #1: Listening
The first skill, listening—is essential to developing trust. Many people don’t listen very well, but listening is a skill that can be practiced and learned. The three levels of listening include:
- Self-focused listening in which people may hear the words of others, but are primarily aware of their own feelings, and are actually paying attention to their own interior dialogue. They are thinking about themselves, not the person they are listening to. Self-focused listeners relate everything back to themselves, interrupt frequently, and make quick judgments. They hear, but don’t listen.
- Attentive listening in which the listener’s full attention is focused on what the other person is saying, and on their nuances and gestures as well. Attentive listeners ask clarifying questions, paraphrase what others are saying to ensure they understand, and are curious about the opinions of others.
- Empathetic listening in which the listener puts himself or herself “In the shoes” of the person he or she is listening to. Listeners at this level pay attention to non-verbal cues such as tone, volume, body language, and energy level. They are fully present in the conversation and are comfortable being in the moment, even if the dialogue has long periods of silence.
Coaching leaders must strive to demonstrate attentive listening with a goal of more consistently becoming an empathetic listener. This is because the effectiveness of the coaching leadership style is rooted in trust and understanding. Additionally, a Coaching Leader must be curious about an employee’s motivation and perspective to create awareness; and empathetic listening is essential to developing this level of understanding.
Skill #2: Asking Powerful Questions
The second tool a coaching leader needs is the ability to ask powerful questions. Powerful questions make the person who is required to answer them think and reflect before answering. Powerful questions generate curiosity, bring underlying assumptions to the surface, invite people to be creative, and move discussions forward. Most importantly, they evoke additional questions from the listener.
Questions like “what is possible?” challenge the way things have always been done. “What might we think about this five years from now?” encourages others to take the long view of a situation. “What would happen if we did this differently?” is another way to get people to think out of the box.
Powerful questions are solution focused. They examine possibilities, are forward-looking, and facilitate action. They promote ownership of problems and solutions. They do not call for quick, easy, answers. If an answer comes right away, it’s likely the question wasn’t as powerful as it could have been!
When the coaching leader and employee identify an opportunity or challenge to investigate, they use powerful questions to explore assumptions, hone in on the heart of the matter, clarify priorities, and generate forward movement. This is especially useful when the employee is working through an issue that they have been “stuck” on for a while. Well-placed powerful questions may generate new levels of thinking and unlock previously unidentified courses of action.
Skill#3: Direct Communication
Direct communication is a third skill coaching leaders practice. Coaching leaders should strive to be clear, articulate, appropriate, and respectful. Direct communication minimizes confusion and leaves little room for interpretation. In the context of coaching leadership, it is essential that the leader use direct communication when providing feedback, recommending action, and challenging the employee to commit to action.
An effective coaching leader will get to the essence of the communication and avoid getting sidetracked. They set aside preoccupations such as emails in order to be fully present in the conversation. They address significant actions taken by the person with whom they are speaking. They ask others to make commitments. Finally, they speak up when someone is sidestepping an obvious issue.
Skill#4: Designing Actions
Coaching leaders look to move employees towards action. They accomplish this by working with employees to co-design concrete plans and then help them evaluate the plan to ensure it is realistic and comprehensive. As part of this conversation the coaching leader may ask the employee to assess his or her role in the action, consider risks they might face, help the employee prepare for resistance from others, and identify ways to get and provide feedback to foster progress and learning.
A key to this approach is allowing the employee to own the ideas. The coaching leader allows the employee to do the heavy lifting in moving forward with actions. The coaching leader’s role is to help set a foundation that will maximize the employee’s chance at being successful. Regardless of the specific outcome, the coaching leader will provide constant feedback and support in hopes of advancing the employee’s learning process.
Will a coaching leadership style work in your organization? I encourage you to revisit the factors that lead to success (curiosity, confidence, emotional intelligence, and patience) to assess your personal readiness. From there, test it out with a small group of employees who are receptive to suggestions for improvement and are willing to put in the work to learn and grow.
Share your experiences here in the comments below and we’ll be happy to support you through the process.