I met with a lively and well-informed group of leaders from the Singapore Ministry of Health recently. Although they may not have needed my expertise on executive coaching, their questions instead centered on why a supervisor, manager or executive needs the same skills that professional coaches use. We teach that leaders can be more effective if they have a coaching mindset and coaching skills, but what does that mean? As they pointed out, executives seldom have time to take a 1/2 hour to hold a “coaching session.”
Coaching can be useful for both improving performance and developing others, but it may look quite different in practice. For the active manager, coaching happens in the moment, in the hallway, or walking from a meeting. It doesn’t usually require an appointment – just an opportunity.
Take the typical problem of a direct report coming to you with a complaint about the performance of a peer on a project. This can be approached in a variety of ways, but I think a coaching approach promises the most desirable results.
Let’s consider the alternatives. Presumably you, as a manager, could agree to go talk with the peer and solve the problem. Depending on the approach you take, the peer may be resentful, feel betrayed by the co-worker, or find it helpful to get some assistance. However, no matter how skilled you may be at the intervention, it will not improve the working relationship between the two peers because one of them ran to a greater authority. The best that can be hoped for is compliance in the present project and postponement of the conflict to the next joint project.
So, let’s suppose that you resist the temptation to fix the difference between two others, but instead use a directive approach to save time and get the problem off your plate. “Go. Work this out between you!” seems likes a better option, but it also has some inherent limitations. There’s no telling how well prepared the direct report is to actually work it out effectively. It is likely that the only certain result is that the direct report who came with the problem feels ignored and is now frustrated and irritated.
Perhaps a coaching approach could yield a positive result without taking a lot of time. One of the key components of a coaching mindset is a determination to let the person being coached keep responsibility for the solution. So a coaching leader will respond without taking over the problem. Questions work best. “What have you done so far to solve this?” could be a good opening. “What else could you do?” “What do you know about why your colleague is not delivering?”
These questions take about the same length of time as giving advice or issuing an order, but they create the possibility that the person being coached will take a new tack, try a different approach, and keep at it. They reduce the chance that you will make it worse through intervening (since no one can actually solve a conflict between two others). More importantly, they imply that you have confidence in the intelligence, good intentions, and capability of your direct report. More clearly than just announcing, “I have confidence in you!”, it communicates the truth of that.
When you add coaching to your repertoire of management and leadership skills, you enlarge the range of actions available and you encourage your direct reports to stretch themselves to consider alternatives. Coaching approaches are not the best for everything (you still need to direct, organize, advise, and teach), but they are a valuable tool in your box.
Have you added coaching skills to your leadership toolbox? If so, how has it made you more effective as a leader?