10X Your Leadership Impact: Coach Instead of Tell

By: Suzanne Qualia - Published on March 27th, 2024

What I’ve witnessed over and over in my 1:1 executive coaching work over the last 12 years is that leaders who use a “coach” approach vs. a “directive” or “tell” approach in the right situations, create far greater impact and outcomes.

Leaders complain their teams aren’t motivated, engaged, inspired, committed, and accountable. In our work together, I ask them to recount the conversations with their direct reports, team members, and peers and, more often than not, what’s missing is a “coach approach” to eliciting the best ideas, insights, innovation, creativity, motivated and, ultimately, engagement and accountability.

Let’s dive into the 4 M’s around elevating your “coaching” skills: Meaning, Mindsets, Motivations and Methods.

Meaning:

When we define “leader as coach,” we’re referring to when a leader creates the space to have an empowering conversation that enables someone to see a new perspective, gain more confidence, and take new action.

Let’s look at what coaching is NOT:

  • Directive – Being direct in a conversation is a good option when someone doesn’t have the knowledge, skills, or experience to move forward. Coaching, on the other hand, is about leading with curiosity and asking questions to help someone get unstuck and uncover their right next step.
  • A knowledge transfer – coaching is not about having all the answers. Instead, coaching is about tapping into the knowledge and wisdom of others. Many leadership gurus agree that great leaders don’t have all the answers, great leaders ask great questions!
  • Feedback – coaching is not the same as giving constructive feedback and telling the person how to do better. This is an old-school and antiquated definition of coaching. However, when executed well, feedback can turn into a coaching conversation once the initial feedback is delivered. Coach the feedback recipient to develop their own action plan based on the feedback you have shared. Coaching is used to inspire, motivate, and create commitment.

Mindsets:

What mindsets are important for effective “leader as coach” impact?

Curiosity -The ability to suspend judgements and put aside assumptions.

Patience – Coaching takes longer to execute than directing or simply telling someone what to do. But what’s the longer-term ROI on investing that time? A saying that comes to mind here is to “teach a fisherman to fish vs. catching all the fish for them.”

Time – One of the biggest blocks I often hear leaders say is they don’t have the time to be a coach. But is that really true? Does every outcome really have to happen in this moment? Is everything really on fire, last minute, every day? If this is true, then there are other significant building blocks that you might consider putting in place to rectify that issue. These might be delegation, team growth and development, strategic planning, prioritization, and some time management skills. This might be a time where the saying “sometimes you have to go slower to go faster” can apply. That is, taking the time to coach team members can actually be a way out of reducing the whirlwind.

Belief that the person being coached (the coachee) is capable – Great coaches truly believe and trust that their coachee has the answers within them. Great coaches coach the coachee to self-discover the blocks that are keeping them “stuck.” These blocks are often in the form of assumptions, limiting beliefs, or past experiences that keep the answers hidden, unrecognized or forgotten by the coachee.

Motivations:

Only use a coach approach when you are interested in gaining commitment and motivating someone into action. What makes a coach approach so effective?

Quite simply, it’s how our human brain works!

First, we are way more committed to our own ideas and ways to solve a problem than when someone tells us their ideas on how to solve it. Even if our idea is 50% correct, if we are 100% committed to the idea, the results are going to be much greater than if our leader tells us the 100% correct way to approach or do something and we are 0% committed to that idea. The math on that is simple – 0% results. I call this the C% x C% = O formula. That is, the Level of Correctness of the idea multiplied by the Level of Commitment to the idea = Outcomes.

Second, understanding how to motivate someone to take action requires a very rudimentary and over simplified (but accurate) neuroscience lesson. Often times, the ideas in our neocortex (our frontal lobe) are brilliant, innovative, creative and the exact right thing to do. Why don’t we do them? Because those ideas must then pass through the filter of our emotional brain, the limbic brain, before they can become actions. And that’s where things get “stuck.” Our emotional brain harbors all our past experiences and memories which form our attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions – positive or negative. The limbic brain lays this filter over all the brilliance coming out of our neocortex. And then guess what? We avoid, stay stuck, and overfocus on risks and threats instead of rewards and outcomes.

This is the most valuable use of a “coach approach” in leadership – getting your team member “unstuck” and moving forward on their brilliant ideas. Repeated over and over, these new actions that create success and new outcomes now rewire neural pathways in the brain and become our new habits. Those new habits (thoughts, feeling and actions) overwrite the subconscious routines and the coachee never even remembers the time when they were once “stuck.”

Methods:

1. Recognize the “coaching moment.”

How will you know when you’re in a situation that coaching is appropriate? Generally speaking, they will be situations where you are fairly certain your team member knows what to do based on training or past experience, but you can see they are “stuck” and not moving forward. If there is a knowledge gap, then a directive or educational type of dialog is in order. But if they can articulate the right level of knowledge about something, then the issue might be “stuck”, and this is where the moment is right for a coaching vs. directive conversation.

I was recently coaching a leader who wanted ideas and strategies for how to guide her direct report – who had been promoted into her new role six months earlier – to step into the more strategic planning and executing realms of her new role. When I asked this leader to recount the previous conversations to gain insights into what she’s tried in the past, I noticed two things. First, this leader was “telling” the direct report that she needed to be more strategic, but there wasn’t an exploration together of what that meant or how it might be applied in the new role (motivation issue #1 above). Then the leader shared that the direct report indicated she felt “nervous” about certain aspects of what they were talking about (motivation issue #2 above). I immediately asked, “What did you say next”? The leader responded, “I told her she was capable; she was hired into the role due to her perceived capabilities in this realm, etc.” While I applauded the leader’s use of “championing” her direct report, it was applied too early in this situation. The coaching moment was to explore what her direct report was “nervous” about.

2. Employ the two main coaching “power skills” – Active listening and asking open-ended questions.

Even beginner coaches can create high levels of effective outcomes by utilizing the two main power skills of active listening and asking open-ended questions.

Active listening can be described best by:

  • Listening to understand vs. listening to respond. Quiet the brain from trying to formulate your next idea, thought or question and truly listen to what is being said.
  • Talking 30% of the time and listening 70% of the time. Seasoned coaches move this ratio closer to 20/80. Remember the power is in the question, not your words.
  • Listen to what’ s not being stated – what beliefs, perceptions and attitudes are lying beneath the surface that the coachee themselves might not even recognize? Great coaches test these insights, often creating breakthrough perspectives in the process for the coachee.

Asking open ended questions can be best described by:

  • The question usually begins with “what” or “how” vs. “do you,” “should you,” or “did you.”
  • They are not leading questions; the questions themselves don’t suggest an answer.
  • Avoid asking “why.” It can unintentionally put your coachee on the defensive. Instead of asking “Why did you do it this way?” instead ask “What made you take the steps that you did to solve this problem?” The intention behind the question is the same, however asking “why” can have an unintended consequence of your coachee thinking they have to justify the steps they took vs. explaining their motivation or rationale for taking the steps they did, which has a completely different energy around it.

3. Coach the person, don’t problem-solve the situation.

Because you’ve ascertained in step #1 that it’s not a gap in technical knowledge and by using the power skills covered in #2 above, you will uncover their hurdles to success. Coach them over the emotional hurdle they are experiencing. Don’t fall into the trap of sharing too much content or theory. If knowledge gaps are identified, take a time out to share whatever content or framework is helpful, but then get back into coaching around how that content might apply in their situation.

4. Become comfortable with silence.

Silence is necessary in order for you, as the coach, to consider what you’ve just heard and formulate your next question. And silence for the coachee is critical in providing the space for them to reflect, consider and shift perspectives.

5. Follow a 4-part flow in your coaching conversation.

Coaching conversations should always be considered fluid (time not equally divided between the steps) and never exactly linear; it can go back and forth between these 4 steps, depending on insights and discoveries. This simple 4-part framework can serve as a mental guide in creating the outcomes your coachee is looking for.

a. Set the intention for the conversation – i.e. what a vision of success looks like. And always remember, intention in a coaching conversation is always the coachee’s vision, NOT your vision as the coach. If you are coming into the conversation with YOUR intention, step back and ask yourself if this is really a coaching conversation or rather a feedback or directive dialog instead.

This might sound like: What would success look like in this situation? (Create a bigger vision.) What would great look like at the end of this conversation for you related to that vision of success? (An outcome that will move them toward the bigger vision.)

b. Explore the current state – find out what’s working and what isn’t. In this section of the conversation, listen for where they’ve been related to the topic and potential areas they might be avoiding.

This might sound like: What have you tried? What has worked? What hasn’t? How have you approached this so far?

c. Strategize possibilities – use things like “reframe,” future self, recalling past successful experiences, analogies, and metaphors. Get the coachee to gain insights into limiting beliefs and perspectives that can open the doorway to new insights, potentials, and possibilities.

This might sound like: When have you achieved success with something similar in the past? What did you do to create that success? How might that apply in this situation? If a friend came to you with this problem, what advice would you give them? Why wouldn’t that apply to you in this situation? Fast forward one year and this problem is solved. What did you do first to solve it?

If you are familiar with a hobby or sport that is meaningful to your coachee, a metaphor might be a great communication tool. Try to get them to think of the outcome they are trying to create in the context of that hobby or sport. Let’s say your coachee is a baseball fan. They are struggling or overwhelmed with the scope/breadth of the problem. Some questions you might ask are: What would a home run look like in this situation? What action or next step might get you a base hit?

Maybe they aren’t relying on their stakeholders or others on the project and trying to focus on doing it all themselves: There’s a runner on third, you are up to bat. What’s the better option, a sacrifice fly or you getting on first base?

d. Create commitment – the final but critically important piece of the coaching conversation is to create commitment. Otherwise it’s just a nice discussion! What is going to happen next? This is about getting into action. The coachee is energized by the new possibilities and ideas generated in the previous section of the conversation and selects one or two action items that will lead them toward their desired outcomes. The action item, whether executed successfully or not, creates learning opportunities. The result of that learning forms the beginning of the next coaching conversation and the embedding of new habits that lead toward success.

In conclusion, the payoffs for mastering the leader as coach behaviors are huge. It is the key contributor to high levels of innovation, motivation, engagement, and the ability for your team to continue to outpace their objectives, achieving greater results.

If a complimentary 30-minute strategy session would be helpful as a next step to upleveling your leader as coach skills, click here. Let’s do this!