The Leader as a Coach

How do leaders stay ahead in today’s fast-paced environment? By using a coaching approach to empower their team.
Philip Hunter
September 30, 2019

Today’s leaders are operating in highly-dynamic environments characterized by increased complexity, uncertainty and pace of change. Disruptive change has been normalized, and, as a leader, you can expect to experience ongoing transformation. External factors outside of leaders’ control can deepen this uncertainty and drive further change. For example, in its most recent annual CEO survey, PwC found that policy uncertainty, geopolitical uncertainty, speed of technological change, and exchange rate volatility are among the top ten threats on the minds of CEOs.

At the same time, the profile of workers and their expectations have changed. Today’s workers are more highly educated and skilled than ever before. In their professional life, they prioritize opportunities for having meaning and impact, as well as growth and development. In fact, a 2019 survey showed that 51% of workers are willing to take on an internal side project to gain experience by learning on the job.

What this means for leaders

In this fast-paced and constantly-changing environment, “keeping up” is no longer good enough. Leaders are expected to stay ahead by being strategic, anticipating change, staying nimble, and initiating disruption, all the while “doing more with less” and executing flawlessly. If that’s not enough, leaders are also expected to develop their people at the same time. Feels like a full plate?

A traditional, top-down, approach to leadership is not sustainable in this context. When leaders are expected to provide all the answers, solve their team members’ problems, and issue ongoing directives, there is no room for strategic thinking, agility, and anticipating change. There is also a dissonance between the expectation that leaders “provide all the answers”, and the expectation that leaders serve as people developers. As a result, leaders feel overwhelmed and confused. They can barely keep up, never mind staying ahead. This leaves most leaders wondering: what kind of superhero do I need to be to meet all these expectations?

There is a better way

The good news: there is no need to start training to become Wonder Woman. A much more effective (and realistic) way to tackle this challenge is for leaders first to shift mindset from “It’s up to me to provide the answers”, to “It’s up to me to create an environment where my team members increasingly create solutions”, and adopt a more coach-like leadership approach. Coaching is a way to develop people’s skills to increase their performance. The practice engages others to find solutions in the face of challenges and determine how to leverage new opportunities. Coach-like leaders start from a mindset that their team members are smart and capable. These leaders empower workers, enhance individual performance, and encourage development by serving as a coach instead of a top-down manager. A coach’s goal is to help others develop their critical thinking and problem-solving abilities, rather than always solving problems for them.

What coach-like leadership looks like

By shifting their mindset, coach-like leaders fundamentally change their practices. Their focus is no longer on telling their team what to do and providing answers. Instead, they deploy several key coaching skills that create an environment of co-creative problem solving:

  • Listening, connecting, and building. When engaging with team members, coach-like leaders take time to listen to understand, connect with what resonates, and build on the idea being offered.
  • Asking powerful questions to help team members to gain clarity on what is important and to uncover new insights.
  • Reframing and creating opportunities for workers to view the same facts with a more constructive lens.
  • Creating accountability by helping workers identify concrete actions, establishing commitment, and defining areas where the leader can provide support.

It’s not just one-on-one conversations that benefit from coach-like leadership. Leaders can deploy these skills in virtually any interaction when a collaborative approach can add value, such as the initiation stage of a project, to bring a team together to leverage a new opportunity, or when addressing performance issues.

The impact of leaders who coach

So why is coach-like leadership so effective in today’s fast-paced and uncertain times? At a basic level, it has been shown to increase performance – nearly 80% of organizations whose leaders act as coaches reported improved performance when surveyed.  But, more importantly, it allows leaders to leverage the input of those closest to the work in a collaborative fashion, which can surface new ideas — a necessity in today’s organizations where innovation and disruption are expected. It also serves, over time, to develop the problem-solving capabilities of workers, which provides leaders more bandwidth to “get out of the weeds” and dedicate greater attention to the higher value, strategic elements of their role.

Coach-like leadership also shifts the experience of workers. Individual input is valued and workers are more empowered, over time, to make decisions and act on them. In the same survey, 73% of organizations reported greater worker motivation and 58% reported greater team cohesion as a result of coaching practices. And when workers feel engaged and committed to their work, organizations benefit. For example, Gallup has shown that business units with engaged workers see 21% higher profitability, 17% higher productivity, and up to 59% lower turnover as compared to business units with disengaged workers.

What about that challenge of making time to develop team members? Conveniently, development is a natural side-effect of the coaching approach. By guiding workers with questions to find their own solution, instead of feeding them the answer, leaders are providing vital on-the-job learning opportunities every day — exactly what today’s workers are looking for.

Today’s leaders don’t need to be superheroes. They need to acquire the skillset and confidence to demonstrate coach-like leadership by partnering with their team members to find solutions, develop innovative approaches, and stay ahead in the constantly-changing business environment.

Interested in making the transition to a coaching approach but not sure where to start? We are here to help. Learn more about our business coaching services.

Philip Hunter is an organizational effectiveness expert with more than 15 years of experience working closely with leaders and teams to create the conditions for optimal organizational performance. As a Principal within Verity’s Talent Management Practice and the facilitator of Coach-Like Leadership, Philip brings a passion for empowering leaders to elevate their impact.

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