As you work on your own leadership development there is one tool that is the most powerful thing you have available to you and that is coaching. Now many managers, and employees, have a very negative view of coaching because they equate “coaching” with a negative performance discussion with their boss. Nothing could be further from the truth. So, let’s begin by calibrating a bit on what coaching really is – it’s feedback. That’s all. According to UC Berkely, coaching covers a wide range of leader behaviors and yes, it does sometime involve negative performance coaching, but it also includes checking in to ensure employee’s wellbeing, reinforce positive performance, noticing when something has changed, and many more situations.
Let’s also calibrate a bit on the difference between coaching and mentoring. Done well, they involve many of the same tools as listening to what’s being said, reinforcing positive progress, advancing the goals of the employee, challenging people to solve their own problems and take responsibility for solutions. Maybe the biggest difference is that a mentor is generally not your boss. A mentor is often those who do not directly impact your performance review, but they encourage you to set and reach significant goals. What are significant goals? Mark Murphy discusses this in an article a few years ago in Forbes.
Let’s look at 3 ways that being a good coach can become your greatest “superpower” as a leader.
Maybe the most important opportunity to flex your superpower is when NOTHING needs to be said. Here is the outcome of a common role-play scenario I do in classes. The employee did a good job on something and I ask the boss to comment. Many times (too many to count) the boss in the class simulation says, “Steve, you did a great job. What can you do even better next time?” Wrong, wrong, wrong. I’d encourage you to watch a great little video from Marshall Goldsmith about when to know it’s time to just shut up.
I also see this when avoidance or accommodation would be the best way to approach a challenging situation. This happens particularly with micro-managers. Not long ago I was doing coaching for an individual struggling with her manager. In one situation the manager assured her she would review an important presentation as she (my client) developed the presentation. The manger did not do that, she waited until the last minute and reviewed the presentation with the rest of the team present and then proceeded to pick apart things like word choice, fonts, graphics, etc. NONE of these changes being proposed made any material difference, they were just style preference on the part of the manager. Now pause a moment and think about how you’d feel if you were in my client’s shoes.
Recognizing good performance is also coaching! Again, coaching isn’t always about fixing poor performance. It should be common knowledge that as leaders you get more with positive recognition than with negative feedback. Reward what you want more of. When you look for opportunities to do this you very positively influence engagement and your return on this small investment is paid back over and over. People don’t need a coffee mug with your corporate logo, they need to know that the boss “loves them”, cares about them, and sees the positive impact they are having.
And of course, there are times you need to have the leadership courage to address poor performance. How do you engage in these difficult conversations? You demonstrate respect, listen carefully to what you get back from the employee, clarify your expectations, and practice accountability.
The first one, demonstrate respect, is very important. Among other things it assumes you don’t have all the facts. It’s more about opening a dialogue and this begins with heart. When it comes to leadership development there probably is nothing more important than being able to truly demonstrate empathy (more on this in another blog). This is especially true of younger generations. A really nice talk about the urgent need for empathy in leaders is given by Simon Sinek.
In listening, try to listen not to form a rebuttal, but to genuinely hear what’s being said (and sometimes what’s not being said). Clarify your expectations: not by lecturing on what you want, it’s about making sure your vision is understood. As you do this, be open to considering the approach of the employee, maybe they have a better way.
Last, practicing accountability – this is a two-way street. You are accountable to the employee and they are accountable to you as a leader. In each of these areas it may be very helpful for you to engage with a mentor/coach who can help you explore your own opportunities for growth as a leader. Don’t let your superpower become your kryptonite!