How to Coach To Lead

One of my clients, a SVP of Sales for mid-size company, came to me with this recently: he had essentially dressed down one of his direct reports at a company all-hands meeting.

‘Mark,’ the direct report, had vastly underperformed the previous year. He missed all four quarterly quotas.

My client was drilling ‘Mark’ on every dropped deal in the previous year. Much of the room watching this was becoming massively uncomfortable — to the point that the CEO and CFO had to step in and end the situation.

There was a happy hour that night, and all anyone could discuss was the live, in-person attack on ‘Mark.’

Even though ‘Mark’ had underperformed, my client was now in a tough spot with the rest of his team.

How could this all have been handled better?

Obviously, he could’ve removed the dynamic from being so public, i.e. in front of the entire company. That would be the most logical and professional idea.

But there’s a bigger issue here as I told my client. And that’s using coaching instead of berating — a far preferable approach that’s respectful and yields better results.

The role of coaching

When I work with clients, I tell them there are 2 general approaches to attempting to fix any workplace problem:

  • The helping approach

  • The #coach approach

‘Helping approach’ sounds like a good concept, but too often it falls towards advising, telling, and micromanagement. It’s when the leader wants to get down in the details of what happened — “Well, why did you lose the Wells Fargo contact, Mark?” — and change/redirect the behaviors with influence and, sometimes, force.

A ‘coach approach’ is where you work with the individual to bring out self-awareness and help him/her understand what happened. In the above example, the SVP could have said, “OK, walk me through the Wells Fargo deal and what happened step-by-step. I want to understand it a little better.”

Clients of mine often ask me what the percentage breakdown of these 2 behaviors should be, and I’d argue that leaders need to default to 80 (coaching) vs. 20 (helping). There are some situations where everything is a total mess, hair is on fire …. or through consistent coaching you’ve discovered that your team member has neither the capacity or capability to rectify the situation on their own … and you need to dive in and fix. That would be ‘helping’ and that’s valid, sure — but only about 1 in every 5 times.

Otherwise, it’s best to coach others.

How would I define coaching?

The simplest, stickiest way I can describe coaching is:

Powerful Questions + Mindful Listening = (lead to) Results

Powerful questions move a conversation to a deeper, more reflective place. Instead of “Why did this happen?” (which is also accusatory and good coaches never use ‘why’ questions), a more powerful question might be “What steps did you take with that client in that situation, because I’d love to know?” You are asking for something and indicating you want to hear the answer.

Listening is the second major component of great coaching. Ever had a dog? See how they react when you say their name or a word like “park” or “food” and the ears go up? You want to be that for your team. That’s mindful listening. Being present and truly focusing on what the other person is saying. In the moment, respond to them. “I hear that. I understand that. What could I do to impact that aspect?” Show them you are part of this. It needs to be a 2-way street.

Taking action as an outcome of the situation is where the results come in. If your discussion has not ended with the coachee setting a goal and move forward action … it wasn’t a coaching conversation. It was only a conversation. A good coach never leaves a coaching conversation without a commitment from the coachee for measurable, timely action.

The hardest thing about coaching conversations for most leaders

… is paradoxically simple: You have a good deal of subject matter expertise as a leader. But coaching isn’t about your expertise. It’s about helping others find theirs.

When I teach leaders coaching skills this is a point of resistance. “How can I coach ‘Sue’ on completing this process, when I myself don’t know the answer?” (Coach lacks subject matter confidence.) Or “How can I coach ‘Sue’ on completing this process, when I know the answer?” (Coach has an abundance of subject matter confidence.)

The approach is the same no matter the situation: default to a coach approach.

It’s about questions, listening, asking and not telling, the 80-20 rule (listen 4x as much as talk), and honestly — stopping of advice-giving. When an issue arises, in fact, a coach’s first approach is “Tell me more. How I could best support you?” That should be way ahead of “I would have done this …” The goal is to increase the coachee’s self-awareness, ability to think and effectively problem-solve. This is a little bit of ‘teach a person to fish’ vs. ‘fish for the person.’

How do you get better at coaching, then?

Coaching is actually one of the most effective ways to get the most out of people in a professional context. It’s about bringing out self-awareness, listening, guiding, and asking the right questions.You get better by continually practicing coaching until it becomes a habit and then, ultimately, the way you lead.

If you’d like to learn a bit more, consider my Coaching Fundamentals course. I’ve taken several organizations and hundreds of people through this half-day session. Perhaps this is the next step for you?