What do coaching and management have in common – and why does it make sense for managers to borrow from the coaches’ toolbox? This article provides answers.
At some point in your workday you’d probably love to have the serenity of a Jedi – wouldn't you? Especially when your diary looks like a colorful patchwork rug, your mail inbox is overflowing – and you wonder when you’ll ever find the time to focus on your strategic work.
So, what can you do?
For a brief moment, you feel torn. Give up? Keep on like this? Or draw your light saber and chop your computer and desk into small pieces?
Well, I can't give you a light saber or awaken the Force that gives the Jedi their power. But I can give you something to strengthen your leadership.
You have a choice
Not always, of course. The systemic conditions in which we live and work can't always be influenced. Our inner attitude can, though.
When I know that certain conditions will trigger certain responses in me, I can ask myself whether I really want that to happen.
One example: You love ice cream – and you can't seem to pass an ice cream parlor without stopping to indulge. But hey, you have a choice: you might ask yourself whether you really want to be this person who's conditioned to fall for ice cream – or someone who makes a conscious decision on whether and when to treat yourself to an ice cream.
The moment you start asking questions like this and observing your own behavior, you've begun to break the pattern – and to change your attitude.
And you have another choice: there are always two doors in life. Choosing the first means you continue acting the same way as before. You let your jam-packed schedule dominate you. And you accept the fact that your email inbox is overflowing, which means you burden yourself with more and more responsibilities. Or – think of the ice cream – you choose the second door. You decide to adopt a new attitude.
When you choose that second door, you may suddenly remember that there are other people besides you at your workplace. And that you don't have to do everything on your own. With this new attitude, you might begin to realize that with strong, well-developed people around you, everything will get easier – and you will gain breathing space.
Be a development guide to your people
When you ask managers what their most important job is, they usually answer, "Keep track of targets and develop a future-oriented strategy." And yet, these are precisely the things that many managers don't pay enough attention to on a day-to-day basis. Why not? Because day-to-day business keeps pounding on their door, leaving no room to deal with the greater picture.
So far, so bad. What else is new? Well, for one thing, as times have changed, the consequences of neglecting your strategic work have become even more severe. In this VUCA world with all its volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, any shortcomings in your strategy will soon be sorely felt. Which also means your success can slip away faster than you can say what that four-letter acronym VUCA actually stands for.
One approach that has provided valuable solutions for many executives is to use coaching tools. Note that I am talking about using the coaches’ tools – in my experience, your role as a leader will typically prevent you from being a genuine coach, in the sense of being a fully unbiased companion. What I’ve also observed, however, is that many successful managers have mastered the use of coaching tools that are appropriate for the individual person and situation. As with so many things in life, using coaching tools successfully comes down to timing and which tools you use.
It’s not rocket science
Trust me: people development is not rocket science. With a few basic coaching techniques that any manager can learn, you can develop your people step by step – and create the space you need to successfully accomplish your core tasks.
Yes, it’s true: working with people who’ve been developed and empowered allows you to focus on your most essential tasks – instead of panting to keep up with the rapid changes in the VUCA world.
Once you have a good command of some basic coaching tools, you'll be able to provide appropriate development guidance in any given situation. Which, in turn, creates benefits for both you and your staff member – and thus contributes to your organization's success.
By the same token, when staff development is inadequate, the resulting problems can easily get in the way of corporate success. They take up lots of your time and attention, and keep you busy sorting out the details of day-to-day work routines. Stuff you've delegated comes back to you like a boomerang. Eventually, this situation may even result in destructive stress patterns, preventing you and your organization from reaping the fruits of your work.
It doesn't have to be like that. And it isn't that hard to change it. As I said, it isn’t rocket science.
Leave the hammer in the toolbox
Your key task in using coaching tools is to inspire and motivate people so they can develop their potential. The basic idea behind it is to enhance relationships between individuals in social systems, creating benefits for both the individual and the overall system.
In short, coaching means helping people to help themselves.
Let me use an example to show you how effective even simple ad-hoc support can be.
"I just don't know what to do. There's this rookie who's giving me major problems," the team leader tells her department manager. Now imagine this department manager is you. What would you say to the team leader?
This may not sound like a typical coaching-tools situation at first. After all, it is not about long-term people development but about finding a quick solution.
Yet, it is in handling acute, burning problems like this that ad-hoc support can be very effective. The coaching tool you need to pull out of the box here is "asking questions."
The team leader in this story is blocked by her fierce struggle with her problem. Asking appropriate questions could help her see more clearly. For instance: What makes this "difficult" person different from the rest? Is there anybody she gets along with well? What would that person say?
This way, instead of handing that team leader a ready-made solution, you help her adopt a different perspective on her problem and ultimately find a way out. Your questions help clear the "fog" in her head, so to speak. You don't present her with an elaborate strategy – the big hammer stays in the box. Instead, you provide the impetus she needs to resolve the problem that is eating up her energy.
It’s all about trust
What do you see when you turn your gaze on your team? Many of the leaders I meet at my coaching sessions around the globe seem to have lost sight of a simple fact: that they are surrounded by people who are both willing and able to help them – if only they empowered them and let them help. These are managers who try to master every challenge and make the best of every situation; only they seem to believe that they can and must do so on their own.
What they lack is trust. Using coaching tools requires clarity and trust between you and your staff. There are two basic prerequisites for this: you need to listen actively and with empathy. And you need to take your time. You can't use coaching tools effectively when your thoughts are elsewhere.
Also, don't give your people ready answers – ask them questions. This is not trivial, as many people have never learned how to ask appreciative questions to help others find their own solutions. So, make sure you have good rapport with the person you talk to. Look for the tell-tale body-language signals: Are they folding their arms? Do they seem to be leaning slightly away from you in their chair? Or are they facing you? If they are, that's a signal that trust is emerging. You are on the right track.
That’s the Way
On your path towards greater business success – and towards more breathing space for you, thanks to having empowered and developed the talent around you – you will encounter various opportunities to reach into your coaching toolbox.
People development. This is the prime discipline of coaching. Whenever you deal with people who are somewhere in between tenderfoot rookie and seasoned expert, asking the right questions can provide valuable development support. There are three basic situations:
Idea development. Coaching techniques provide impetus, stimulate creativity, and open the way to new solutions.
Problem-solving. As with idea development, coaching tools help to change perspectives and to free up solution energy.
Conflict mediation. When you need to resolve a conflict, you can use coaching tools to create a setting in which people can find a way to reach an agreement.
Tool time – how much is the Force with you?
On a scale from one to ten, how far are you from a Jedi? Are you closer to Yoda or closer to Jabba the Hutt?
Scaling questions are a powerful tool for managers facing structural conflicts in their departments. You've probably experienced this before: gridlock, nothing moves, no solution in sight. Scaling questions are a good technique to work on these frozen conflicts in a series of talks. They let you find out what needs to happen for things to get better.
For instance, you can ask your team: Was the situation better/worse before, and what helped to make it worse/better? While other questioning techniques often expose gigantic projects so complex no one actually feels like tackling them, scaling questions are often easier to digest and therefore more helpful. After all, it is the small steps that can be implemented quickly and easily.
The right attitude awakens the Force
Your overriding goal in using coaching elements is to develop employees continually and sustainably. People development benefits the overall system. It also strengthens people’s ties with their company, which helps keep their valuable skills and experience in the organization. At the same time, it helps managers gain more space for themselves, allowing them to focus on their strategic work because they are able to delegate more and more. In addition, coaching tools can be applied to reach development goals in the short term or even ad-hoc in seemingly trivial everyday situations.
There are countless coaching techniques. Almost all of them have their own specific purpose and value, almost all work wonderfully. Which is why it doesn't really matter exactly what you choose. Just as, when you decide to draw a portrait, it doesn't matter that much whether you use a lead pencil, charcoal, or your computer and mouse. You may even decide to use a ball-point pen or carve the portrait in wood with a knife.
No matter what tools you choose, the key is to build rapport, listen empathetically, and ask mindful questions that will enable the other person to find a solution for himself or herself.
More than anything, it is the appropriate inner attitude that will enable you to develop your people into powerful allies for dealing with the VUCA world. By sufficiently developing and empowering the talent around you, you’ll gain more freedom to concentrate on your essential tasks. As a result, you won't be struggling to keep up with the changes of the VUCA world. Instead, you'll be positioned just right, thanks to the right strategy. And you will see further positive results: not only will you stop feeling bad about neglecting your strategic work – you will also be rewarded with greater business success.
So – may this force be with you!
“Impact: Develop Your People – Enhance Your Company's Success” by Masha Ibeschitz, Wiley, 2018.