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Using the Coach Approach: Learning to Lead Effectively

I recently had a client who requested my services for a very specific issue. It's an issue I think many leaders have experienced and which I coach on a lot: using the coach approach.

He had torn down an employee who had been consistently underperforming in a large meeting with many other employees. Mark, the person in question, had been dropping the ball for a while now and had missed all four quarterly quotas in the previous year.

My client had meant this drilling down as a way of motivating Mark to do better, to work harder. Except it came off to the others in the room as diminutive, which meant Mark was the talk of the office, and my client had lost some trust from his team as a leader.

So how can moments like these be handled better? How does an effective leader toe the line effectively and still gain the trust of their teams?

The obvious answer here is to have these conversations in less public spaces and use a coach approach instead of a demanding one.

Leading with the Coach Approach

When I meet clients, I tell them there are two different ways to tackle workplace issues:

  1. The Helpful Approach

  2. The Coach Approach

The helpful approach is, as it sounds when a colleague or team member is struggling, we spread the work by lending a helping hand. The issue with this approach is it often ends up lessening the workload of the underperforming teammate and broadening your own workload! It tends to take on the form of telling, advising and micromanagement, which aren’t sustainable means of leadership.

The coach approach takes a more holistic view of the employee’s situation and focuses on long-term growth. Within the coach approach, you are assisting that teammate towards self-awareness to recognize what went wrong and how to solve the problem for themselves. It is coaching rather than telling. It relies on using phrases such as “walk me through what happened” or “I need to better understand your process in this situation.” The coach approach asks the team member to reflect on the situation and choose a course of action that garners the most success.

Clients often ask what percentage of their time should be used in each approach, and I rely on the 80/20 method. 80% of a leader’s direction should be through the coach approach lens. There are moments when the helpful approach is necessary or useful, so I give it a good 20%. There are those moments where a leader needs to jump in and help out, but that should be significantly less of the time than coaching.

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The Coach Approach in Action

The simplest way for me to explain the coach approach in action is with math:

Powerful questions+mindful listening=Results.

Asking powerful questions will move your conversation and interaction with the team member into a deeper, more reflective place. When people have their perspectives and views challenged in thought-provoking and safe ways, growth happens. Being a strong leader means being a strong questioner. Instead of framing questions in an accusatory way (why did this happen etc.), the coach approach has you frame questions with curiosity and empathy in mind. “What steps did you take with that client in that situation because I’d love to know?” This framework ensures the worker reflects on the situation and knows you are invested in the problem instead of being annoyed by it.

Listening is the second major component of effectively utilizing the coach approach in your leadership. When you ask questions, you want to be as present and mindful as possible when listening to the answer. As leaders, we aren’t just listening to hear. We are listening to ensure our team members feel validated and heard. Using phrases such as “I hear that, I understand that” validates a person’s experience and shows that you are invested in finding a solution with them instead of for them.

The last part in this is sometimes the trickiest. The coachee in the coach approach needs to set a direction or goal by the end of the session. After explaining, feeling heard and validated, they should be able to problem-solve in a direction that moves the situation forward in a productive way. A coach-like leader never leaves a session without a direction for their coachee to take, which is measurable and timely.

Finding the Expertise in Others

The paradox of being in a leadership role is that you have garnered enough knowledge and expertise to lead others. It is often when I am coaching clients on the coach approach that their expertise, or lack of, can overtake or overshadow one of the phases in the approach.

They will ask, “but how can I coach when I know the solution?” or “how can I coach when I have no expertise in this area?” The truth is, coaching is about dropping what you as a leader know or don’t know and finding the expertise within your team member.

It’s all about utilizing the method: questioning, listening and direction setting. The listening should be predominant (listen 4x more than you talk!) in the coach approach because it guides your worker towards finding their own expertise. When we begin asking, not telling, when we stop advice-giving, people can analyze their own strengths and stretches. This is a little bit of ‘teach a person to fish’ vs. "fish for the person."

Coaching is a Skill

So how do you get better at coaching? It is your own self-awareness journey through this that matters most. When clients ask: “How do I get better at the coach approach?” I simply tell them: practise, practise, practise! It takes time to make something a habit, so keep practicing until it comes second nature.

Your next step might be in learning how to be more coach-like yourself.

If you’d like to learn a bit more, fill your company with coach-like leaders and boost business performance by 20%, consider bringing The Coach-Like Leader Experience to your organization. This unique blended learning solution provides organizations with the tools to support their leaders to become more coach-like without breaking the bank.

Enjoyed this article? Here are three more to help you fine-tune your coach approach as a leader:


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