A Coach’s Playbook for Leaders

All organizations have access to more or less the same resources. They draw from the same pool of people in their markets or geographic areas. And they can all learn about the latest tools and techniques.

Yet not all organizations perform equally. There is a huge gap between high- and low-performing organizations. What accounts for this huge gap is leadership.

Leaders develop and bring out the best in people. This dramatically expands the performance capacity of an organization. With a strong leadership foundation, management systems and processes, as well as technology and technical expertise, expand to their full potential.

That’s why coaching has become such a key management development topic in so many organizations. Too many managers are bosses, technicians or even bullies. They kill team spirit, arouse mediocrity and suck the energy out of the room. The results are poor morale, loss of talented people and low performance.

Effective leaders, by contrast, develop people. Rather than running around solving problems, while overflowing e-mail and voice mail boxes suck up huge amounts of their time and energy, strong leaders empower and enable others to solve daily operational problems.

Of course, successful leaders also direct and control when needed. But mostly they teach and engage people throughout their organization to reach ever-higher performance levels.

Strong leaders don’t just see people as they are. They coach people into becoming what they can be.

Here are the best practices of leaders who provide the best coaching to the people in their organization:

Clarify roles and goals

There’s an old saying that teaches, “The clearer the target, the surer the aim.” It’s common sense: We can’t achieve top-level performance if we’re not clear what it looks like.

However obvious this critical coaching strategy may seem, many managers fail to practise it. Unclear roles and goals is a primary cause of job dissatisfaction.

Effective coaches are masters at helping people set the performance bar very high by aligning organizational, customer and team needs with the individual’s personal goals. While jobs may be shifting and roles evolving to meet changing conditions, a strong leader will get everyone involved in a continuing process of redefining and resetting roles and goals. Strong leaders build upon successes and string together small wins to boost confidence about what can be achieved.

Build on strengths

Abraham Lincoln once said, “It has been my experience that people who have no vices have very few virtues.” Dwelling on our own or another’s weaknesses rarely improves them. And it sure doesn’t do much for self-confidence, passion or commitment. Like a good hockey coach who has specialty players or lines for specific situations — such as power plays or penalty killing — a strong leader finds people whose strengths most closely match the requirements of the role (and whose weaknesses are less important) in a given situation.

Rather than defining the ideal role and trying to find a perfect person to fit it, effective leaders find someone who meets most of the key criteria. He or she then tailors the responsibilities to align with the individual’s strengths. Strong leaders give people a chance to do what they do best every day.

Confront poor performance

When performance problems arise, they need to be confronted. Like porcupines in love, such discussions can be painful for both parties. That’s often why managers avoid them.

Leaders, however, know that poor performance is like a highly contagious disease. The longer it goes unchecked, the more everyone suffers.

Confronting performance problems is generally more humane than letting the individual and his or her co-workers suffer. An underperforming team member is often unhappy and likely mismatched to his or her job.

If training, developing or some of the other coaching approaches don’t appreciably improve performance, helping the individual find new work inside or outside the organization will put everyone out of their misery.

Servant leadership

So much of what is done by a mediocre (or worse) manager makes it difficult for people to get their work done. “I am from head office and I am here to help you” sends the snicker meter over the red line in many organizations. Too often managers have made it harder for people on the front lines to get their job done.

Strong coaches start by building agreement or buy-in to roles and goals. Then they flip things around and serve their teams and organizations.

In his book, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, University of Southern California president Stephen Sample writes, “If a would-be leader wants glamor, he should try acting in the movies. However, if he in fact wants to make a consequential impact on a cause or an organization, he needs to roll up his sleeves and be prepared to perform a series of grungy chores which are putatively beneath him, and for which he’ll never receive recognition or credit, but by virtue of which his lieutenants will be inspired and enabled to achieve great things.”

Give good feedback

Effective leaders are effective communicators. And an essential part of this skill is the ability to deliver useful feedback.

Good feedback nourishes growth and development. Without it, the leader as coach is unable to clarify performance targets, develop skills and abilities, reinforce progress or build on strengths. Strong, relevant and useful feedback shows how much leaders care about the growth of people on their team.

A core element of corrective feedback is to objectively focus on the problem, issue or behavior and not the person. Through guiding self-reflection or giving behavioral observations, good coaches provide balanced feedback that helps people clearly see what they should keep doing, stop doing and start doing.

Ask and listen

Asking and listening are fundamental to strong leadership. They are learnable skills. Whether we choose to develop them or not depends upon our values.

Managers will claim they care about people in their organization. But their failure to seek out and really listen to other views or ideas tells the real tale. What comes across is, “If I want any of your bright ideas, I’ll give them to you.”

Many managers feel that the people in their team or organization have misguided views or petty issues. “That’s just their perception,” is a common response to input that they don’t agree with. “We need to show them the reality of the situation,” they’ll often counter. Attitudes are something to be adjusted rather than probed for underlying improvement opportunities. Weak managers often believe that customers’ perceptions are to be changed rather than better understood and learned from. Often, internal or external partners (such as distributors, other agencies or departments and suppliers) are classified as whiners who just don’t get it.

Asking probing questions and listening attentively to the answers is a key sign of a strong leader. Mediocre managers do all the talking. They would rather be wrong than be quiet.

Leaders, on the other hand, listen. They know that coaching and developing people is impossible without paying attention to others.

The old bromide, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” illuminates the base of mutual respect so fundamental to good coaching.

Cheerlead

It has been said that there are only two types of people who thrive on being recognized for their achievements: men and women. We have all experienced the incredible energy of getting recognition or appreciation from people whose opinions we respect. We cherish notes, cards, awards, trophies or the warm afterglow of a compliment.

A common complaint of people in low-performing organizations is that they don’t get recognition and appreciation from their boss. They feel like a piece of furniture. It’s a huge contributor to declining levels of morale and self-motivation. It’s one of the reasons people leave an organization to work elsewhere.

Effective coaches understand the power of sincere recognition, genuine appreciation and celebration. These are what provide the atmosphere of encouragement that develops confidence and builds on strengths.

This encouragement needn’t come from the leader. It can be just as meaningful coming from peers, customers, team members and other partners.

But it’s the leader who sets the emotional tone and atmosphere for recognition, appreciation and celebration in his or her organization.

© 2011 – 2015, Jim Clemmer. All rights reserved.

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