I recently started working with a large employer in my area to help them develop leaders throughout the organization. They do not have a culture of strong commitment, accountability, or results. Instead, their culture is one that over-does-it when it comes to personal autonomy: nobody can tell anyone else what to do.
A major aspect of the leadership development with this organization involves training those in supervisory positions to use coaching as a management tool. When I first introduced this idea, some of the top-level leaders balked. After all, they said, their leaders need to learn how to be directive and assertive, not how to listen and ask questions and facilitate.
As counterintuitive as it might seem, coaching plays a key role in strong leadership and management, even in weak and underperforming organizations. Coaching those you manage requires four commitments.
First, you must be committed to a clear organizational mission. The mission serves as an unchanged meta-agenda for all coaching that’s conducted by leaders and managers throughout the company. No matter what topic or issue is being addressed, the manager-as-coach keeps the mission as the North Star. Employee agendas that misalign with the mission are out of bounds and need to be brought back into alignment.
Non-manager coaches bring zero agenda to the coaching relationship. This is not the case for those who use coaching as a management/leadership tool. Managers do have an agenda: the organization’s mission.
Second, you must be committed to focusing on outcomes. Leaders influence others to achieve outcomes, and when a leader/manager leverages coaching, we do so in service to outcomes that support the organization’s mission. This means that the coaching manager often brings the topic when coaching employees.
When the coaching concerns issues related to organizational success, it’s crucial to keep outcomes front and center. For example, I know a plant manager who needs her line supervisor to be more collaborative. The plant manager took a coaching approach to the challenge by reminding the line supervisor that the plant’s overall performance is enhanced when collaboration is high and suffers when key people operate in silos. The plant manager stated clearly, “I need you to be more collaborative, and here’s why…”. From there, the conversation sounded very much like any other coaching conversation, with the plant manager drawing out options, addressing barriers, identifying actions, and checking for commitments.
This second commitment should not be misconstrued to say that internal coaching cannot support personal coaching agendas. Many managers coach their direct reports on issues not related to the organization. Doing so is beneficial to the PBC for obvious reasons, but it is also beneficial to the company for less obvious reasons: employee satisfaction, reduced turnover, reduced stress, and a stronger, healthier workforce.
Third, you must be committed to making employees work. Like all humans, leaders and managers are tempted to give answers and solve problems. Instead, managers who coach must keep the spotlight on the employee for coming up with ideas. The manager uses questions, active listening, observations, and feedback to evoke awareness for the PBC.
Some managers mistakenly think that if they bring the topic, then they have to do the work of solving the issue. Not true. The plant supervisor mentioned above set the agenda for the coaching conversation (“be more collaborative”) and then shifted to make room for the employee to do the heavy lifting from there forward. She used some powerful questions that were informed by what she heard from her employee as well as some direct statements:
- Right now, I’d say you were a 3 out of 10, if 10 were highly collaborative. To be successful in your role, you need to be at least a 6.
- What’s the biggest barrier hindering you from being more collaborative? (The employee pointed to the faults of his co-workers.)
- What can you do about that? (The employee replied with a mixture of “I don’t know” and “nothing”.)
- If the answer were easy, you’d already be doing it. I want you to think about what you can do to be more collaborative. Again, what you can do. (The employee said he could loop more people into key decisions, but he resisted doing so because doing so would take too long and slow things down. He feared spinning his wheels.)
- From my perspective, going a little slower in the decision-making process is a small price to pay for better decisions and better collaboration. How would you know collaboration was turning into “spinning your wheels”? (The employee replied that when a piece of information was being shared the second time or people were chiming in with opinions.)
- How could you manage that? (The employee replied that he could prompt people to participate in collaboration according to certain ground rules that addressed wheel spinning behaviors.)
When coaching the line supervisor, the plant manager refused to let go of the agenda (be more collaborative) while refusing to become the problem-solver. Instead, she kept the spotlight on the line supervisor, who did the hard work of identifying what he could do and how he could overcome obstacles.
Fourth, you must be committed to non-coercion. When we coerce another person, we try to force them to do something they do not want to do. As a manager who coaches, we must remain open to the reality that some employees will not want to do what is needed to be successful. For example, the line supervisor mentioned above might refuse to be collaborative. That would be his choice. Such a choice would have consequences, perhaps a demotion or even termination. Life is full of choices and all choices have consequences. The remedy to coercion is choice.
A final word before wrapping up: coaching those you manage rarely looks like the kind of coaching that would pass for ICF-approved, PCC-level coaching. That’s okay, it’s not supposed to. In fact, the ICF specifies that coaching those you manage cannot count toward the hours of experience needed to be credentialed. Why? Because this expression of coaching is not fully aligned with the ICF understanding of coaching since the manager often brings the agenda and measures of success.