There’s one leadership skill that will set you apart from other leaders – coaching. Coaching is all about asking questions; it’s about facilitating reflection and the search for answers. It’s not about giving the answers – in fact, too many managers build an empire where every decision has to go through them. Coaching is about helping others solve their own problems or find their own answers. It’s often said that “great leaders are known for the questions they ask, not the answers they give.” Great leaders know how and when to coach… and you can too. But it takes diligence and practice.
Let’s start by contrasting coaching to mentoring. Mentors provide answers; they share their point of view, offer solutions, and give advice. That’s why you seek out a mentor – to learn from their experiences. Coaches ask questions; they strive to get the individual to see possibilities, explore alternatives, and reflect on their own thoughts and behaviors. Coaching is a purposeful conversation where the goal is to unlock insight and awareness.
There are three fundamental skills you’ll need to be a good coach. First, you have to be a good listener – you must have the patience to let the other person talk without dominating the conversation. Second, you have to be focused – in order to keep the conversation moving and really hear what’s being said, you have to pay attention and be totally into it. Finally, you must have empathy. You need to have the capacity to imagine what it’s like to be in the other person’s position. If you can bring focus, empathy, and the ability to listen to a solutions-oriented conversation, you can make that interaction a coaching opportunity.
Here’s a simple process that I use when coaching executives. Start by letting the individual share the current issue – in other words, get the story – the facts, the “what”. Let this go on until you have a firm grasp of what they want to discuss. Essentially, you’re listening to the “past” – something that’s happened. Next, move them to the “present” and find out how they feel about the situation. What are their emotions, beliefs, feelings (the “so what”)? How are they reacting to or behaving in light of this situation? This is a critical step – don’t skip it. You need to understand how they’re processing the event.
Finally, lead them into the “future” – the land of solutions and attitude or behavior change (the “now what”). Ask several questions about alternatives, resolutions, etc. It’s OK to offer suggestions they might consider, but resist the urge to tell them what to do. Coaching works best when the individual is coming up with their own answers. In the end, it’s about the individual changing their perceptions, attitudes and mindset… and you can’t do that for them.
If you’re searching for the keys to a great leadership legacy, coaching can be a big part of your reputation. In the end, it might just be the most fun you’ll ever have as a leader; I’m pretty certain it will be the most rewarding.