Effective leadership requires flexibility and a range of leadership strategies and styles to choose from. Particularly when they have a strong team that could be stronger, it’s important for executives to master the art of coaching leadership.
Coaching leadership is an intentional approach to developing the people who work under or alongside the leader. It starts with the decision to let others problem-solve, take the credit (and the blame), and achieve the successes (and the failures) while the leader provides support, guidance and advice from the sidelines. It’s not always the best approach, but when there’s too much for one person to do, it can be the only way forward.
In growth organizations especially, knowing how to coach others to success is crucial. Organizational growth applies stresses and strains to everyone, and leaders must prepare for this challenge thoughtfully. There is never enough time and rarely the right resources to do what needs doing, so knowing how to help others step up to success can be the difference between making it and blowing it.
Case in point: Kathleen is determined to grow her ad agency by 135% in 24 months. They have the sales pipeline to do it and a staffing plan, which includes contractors, to support the work. Her current leadership team isn’t up to the task, however. They spend too much time in leadership meetings asking her to slow down, and Kathleen is tired of feeling dragged back.
In an honest conversation, she’s told them that the leadership team running the company in two years will be able to lean into growth by stretching their teams and using freelancers more effectively. This message put her team on notice that leaning back is no longer an option. Several of her team members said they’ll step up, and one didn’t. That one is now on an exit plan.
For the team members who are willing to learn, Kathleen is starting to coach them on how to recruit and manage freelancers and how to be better project managers for virtual teams. These skills are ones she’s mastered personally, so she finds it easy to help others learn how to more accurately estimate work, negotiate 1099 contracts and manage team deliverables.
Kathleen was less prepared for the challenges she encountered handing over control of such complex programs. She had some misconceptions about what a coaching leadership style was to begin with, but once we overcame them, Kathleen realized she had some other skills to develop, herself. Here they are.
Leading With Intention
For many leaders, it is natural to tell people how to work. Once they understand a challenge, their brain kicks into problem-solver mode and starts spitting out action items. They do it instinctively, because it’s what they’ve done before. Most of us, however, are not as good at describing what the end goal really looks like, which is what our people need to understand to feel empowered to solve the problem themselves.
If leaders take the “how” approach too often, people who haven’t done the task before start running alongside them with little clue about where they’re going. This situation makes them dependent on their leader to make good decisions. Imagine sitting down to play a board game, but you’re the only one who understands most of the rules and how to win. When you roll the dice, you immediately know the choices before you to increase your chances of winning. Others, not understanding whether they need to gather more pieces or cross the goal line first in order to win, will either make poor (not strategic) choices, or they’ll look at you for what to do.
For employees to become good at the game, they must learn how to play. Leaders have to explain what winning looks like and the rules they must follow (e.g., budget and authority limits) as they encounter obstacles. While sharing this information is easy in a board game, in business, it’s a bit fuzzier. “Winning” is more than a number on a spreadsheet. For example, since Kathleen’s goal is more revenue, in order to help people understand the strategy behind the number, she has to provide a more holistic picture of success. Hers included five new “large” clients, including two from a new market segment (described to her team); a new service offering; new pricing incentives; and additional staff, in the form of contractors.
This holistic vision of success is what I call an intention. It’s a definition of success that’s fully fleshed out. The purpose of the extra details is to help people imagine success as though it were real today. Once they can imagine it clearly, they begin to see paths to fulfilling it. When leaders coach employees to play the game well without much guidance, giving them an intention is an excellent way to quickly reduce their dependence.
There are tricks to this skill, of course. For one thing, true success often looks a little different than the original intention, because … life. But a master of intention understands this reality and adjusts along the way. Also, unlike a board game, where the rules and pieces are set, the intention will mean more to the team if its members play a role in creating it. Masters of intention know how to engage their team in the intention-setting process.
Discomfort is a powerful state of learning when the right tension is held, not stretching too far or too little. In this tension, people can observe problems more deeply and feel the urgency to fix them without panicking. Coach leaders support the powerful learning for their teams when they help establish this effective level of tension. For example, Kathleen refused to let her team slow the growth process, forcing them to address the tension associated with “too much work” so that learning to manage a freelance bench was the necessary way forward.
Some people reacted poorly to the tension at first. Like most of us would, this reaction triggered Kathleen into emotional responses when her team members did the kinds of things people do under stress — acting immaturely, becoming angry, being defensive, leaning out instead of in, etc. While emotions themselves are not the problem, reacting emotionally can be, because an emotional reaction is rarely intentional.
In this situation, Kathleen learned that triggered reactions can ping-pong among people and build on each other, distorting everyone’s ability to focus on anything but the emotion. And, since leaders’ words and deeds have a strong impact on their teams, Kathleen’s unintentional emotional reactions had double the negative impact, creating higher than usual anxiety in team members. Before long, she was in danger of losing the right level of tension, as people became fixated on all the ways they were triggering each other. As soon as Kathleen focused on de-triggering her own reactions, things started to calm down, and her team members’ focus returned to the business problems of onboarding freelancers. (Please note that triggered emotions are not a gendered issue. Men struggle with these issues, too.)
A coach leader has a responsibility to reduce the number of triggered emotions among people, including and especially themselves, because it interrupts the learning process. When people are emotionally reactive, all they learn is that certain situations make them emotionally reactive and that they should avoid them. They miss everything they would otherwise be learning in non-reactive discomfort.
Coaching leadership is not appropriate for every situation, but I encourage leaders to explore developing their own coaching leadership style. In addition to empowering their team and expanding their impact, learning to coach-lead is an excellent way to gain greater perspective themselves. They’ll soon see patterns and challenges in a new light, and they’ll become better leaders for it.