What does coaching have to do with leadership? Everything. Years ago, as a new leader (a.k.a. manager), I was responsible for a team of people and a pile of targets. There was so much I didn’t know about effective leadership. It’s easy to believe that as long as there’s plenty of work to do, you’re dividing it up fairly, and you’re checking in to see how your people are getting on, you’re doing a good job. All the better if you’re dropping in on the odd team lunch and having weekly progress meetings. But as I came to realize, that’s not leadership.
Managing workload is not what brings out the best in people, even if being organized makes people happy. It’s not leadership because it’s not getting to know people, and on a deeper level, that’s what they need.
What I wish someone had told me early on was the real leadership is about making time for people and understanding their career aspirations and strengths. It’s about providing direction and clarifying purpose. And it’s about building on what’s working well, rather than spotting all of the errors. If you look hard enough for all of the ways in which people fail, that’s what you’ll find, a whole pile of gaps.
Often I hear people saying that good leaders become good with experience. Through time served, they figure out what people want and how to keep them motivated. But leaders with little experience can still create the energy that a team needs to perform well. A few key aspects of leadership create the best type of employee experience, whether you have experience or not. What’s interesting is that these three traits are also what make for a great coach:
Belief. The psychologist Carol Dweck coined the term growth mindset as the ability to see that we are always learning. Sometimes we’re not yet there, but we will be, and we can see setbacks as an opportunity to learn. Those leaders who truly believe their people can get there with support, encouragement and the right training or experiences are the ones who create a fantastic foundation upon which people can grow. But it starts with the leader believing that they can change, learn and evolve too. Unless you believe this, you will struggle to give people the encouragement they need to grow.
When we manage performance by looking at all of the gaps and trying to fill them, we don’t work where the energy is. Yet when we recognize people’s strengths, allow them to build on them, and help people to craft their roles around what they do well, we see people’s potential—because we’re catalyzing it.
Presence. In a constantly distracted and overloaded world, sitting in a room with someone and paying attention to them and what they need can be tough. Acting on what they need can be even tougher. Yet for leaders to have any credibility, being present is essential.
Being present is about listening to what team members are saying in meetings and asking probing questions that open up the conversation. It’s about asking people how they are, and listening with interest when they tell you. And it’s about being able to concentrate for long enough that people believe you are genuinely interested in what they have to say, and in their opinion.
Confidence. This has so much to do with self-awareness. Unless you create the space for other people to shine, and recognize the importance of giving others credit and a voice, you risk disengaging your team. Nowadays, people want to feel heard, be recognized for their contribution, and being able to contribute in a meaningful way. They need to be able to take risks, be able to speak up about what’s not working, and be seen by others in the organization who could benefit from their talents.
When you are confident as a leader, you won’t be likely to feel threatened by your team excelling or by their speaking up about what’s broken. This is especially true if you had anything to do with the creation of the process or the issue they’re challenging.
Leaders must recognize the importance of coaching skills to be truly successful in the modern world of work. That means being able to forgive, showing compassion, and having the ability to step back and listen, then empowering others to act, and take the credit for what they achieve. It all sounds straightforward enough. But in a ‘stressed’ working environment, it can be the hardest thing to do. The key is to focus on creating connection between you as a leader and your team, and be able to view everyone as an individual with a lot to offer. But to believe in others, you first need to believe in yourself.