The Leader as Coach

Historically, managers came up through the ranks and knew what needed to be done, taught others how to do it, and managed their performance. It was command and control.

Today, change and disruption are constant, and what worked in the past does not predict success for the future. Modern managers don’t have all the answers, and this new reality changes how managers and leaders interact with their teams. Prescriptive instruction is replaced by guidance and support. Employees learn to adapt to a constantly changing environment in ways that release fresh energy, innovation, and commitment.

The role of manager is becoming that of a coach.

This is a fundamental shift as more organizations invest in training leaders as coaches. This coaching in ongoing and executed by managers inside the organization rather than consultants; it creates a true learning organization, and it helps define the culture and advance the mission. It’s work that all managers should engage in with all their people all the time, in ways that help define the organization’s culture and advance its mission. An effective manager-as-coach asks questions instead of providing answers, supports employees instead of judging them, and facilitates their development instead of dictating what has to be done.

Skilled coaching involves unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance. Coaching at its best imparts knowledge and helps others discover it themselves.

Aspiration and practice are most often not in alignment.

Effective Meetings

Rule #1 – Ideas can come from anywhere. Attendees are there for a reason, because they can add value–knowledge, expertise, or stakeholder value.

Rule #2 – Act on facts, research hunches. Force participants to back up their statements with reliable evidence before making a play on their input. Slate hunches for background research.

Rule #3 – Stay focused on the agenda item at hand. Establish talking points ahead, set the agenda and guide people back when the conversation strays.

Example Agenda Outline:
I. Introduction
II. Statement of problem
III. Ground rules
IV. Problem Discussion – 15 minutes
V. Solution Discussion – 30-45 minutes
VI. Action Items

Facilitate Solution Discussion:
1. Open – Write down all ideas and all reliable evidence to support each idea
2. Narrow – Debate. Vet ideas for solvency and doability.
3. Close – Rank and prioritize the next best play.

Rule #4 – No Distractions. Send a signal to side talkers by standing in between them. Invite participants to turn their phones back on after the meeting, no electronic note taking, checking emails etc. This means the meeting should be relevant and adding value to all invited. If that is not the case, invite them to engage in a more valuable activity. Really.

Rule #5 – Co-authored and unique to organizational culture. For example, no one bring a topic that seems to always come up and is not constructive in nature.

Creating an Engagement Environment

Let’s get this out there first; you can’t MAKE someone engaged. You can, however, create an environment where people can choose to bring their best and be highly engaged. One of the best ways to do that is regular 1-on-1 meetings with your direct reports.

I get it, time is the most valuable asset any of us possess. What we spend our time on, then, reveals what we view as worthy of value. Dedicating time to 1-on-1s create the conditions for engagement by communicating to employees on a consistent basis, “I care about you. I have a vested interest in you and your success.”

Why, then, don’t more managers use this valuable tool effectively, or at all? There are three main reasons:

  • They don’t know how to do them or are intimidated by 1-on-1 interaction, so they don’t schedule these meetings at all.
  • They’re holding 1-on-1s, but only as a status check to monitor progress.
  • They say they don’t have time, and this is by far the most common reason.

If you say you don’t have time to have regular 1-on-1s, you are saying you don’t have time to be an effective manager. Good, now you’ve decided to be an effective manager, here are four ways to use your 1-on-1s to do that.

1. It’s not about you

This is not a status update. Effective 1-on-1s are the team member’s meeting, not yours. Ask them to prepare the agenda (provide them with a worksheet or template, if needed). Say, “We’re going to be meeting next week. I’d like you to use this worksheet or one of your own to think ahead of time about the things you want to cover. There are a few things I want to cover, too, but we’re going to tackle yours first.” That kind of language and intent communicates that your team member and their work matters to you.

2. Energy matters

Don’t schedule these meetings at the end of the day when energy is typically low. These are important relationships and deserve our time, creativity and energy.

3. Personal concern

To the extent your team is comfortable, your communication should include the whole person and not simply their professional lives. Ask about their family, their vacations etc. You can’t fake this. You must be genuinely concerned and interested, creating a connection to the team member.

4. “Hold on, someone more important is texting me.”

For this meeting to be most successful, your phone should be out of site/mind. This goes for tablets, laptops, desk phones, smart watches and any other communication device that could interrupt the meeting.

This is a time to learn about problems you can fix to make work go smoother and more efficiently. This is a time to focus on what the employee wants to do next at the company and to give feedback on how to get there.

I don’t think there is any magic when it comes to the frequency of 1-on-1s. Weekly meetings are preferable, but bi-monthly and monthly meetings work as long as the schedule is kept. The duration can also vary. But at least a half-hour needs to be set aside for this to be effective. These meetings should not be rushed.

Besides creating the conditions for employee engagement, 1-on-1s are just as beneficial for leaders. Use that time to learn what you’re doing that’s working (and not working) to build your skillset as a manager. 

Even if the feedback is not direct, if you listen, you’ll learn. You’re part of this team, and you’ll benefit from the engagement, collaboration, and camaraderie of regular 1-on-1s. 

Citizen-Centered Design

Government needs to be more innovative and take an outside-in approach to the design and delivery of government services to fulfill the commitments being made by political leaders and government executives.

Developing an understanding and empathy is key to the CCD approach, but the people directly involved in the process are often too close to the problem to be able to think outside the box. This is often the case for frontline workers with a government-centric process-driven mindset. The ability to ideate is dependent on the individual’s abilities to look past how things are done today Establish a cross-functional team that includes a mix of backgrounds and capabilities — from inside and outside of the organization — to maximize the effectiveness of the CCD process.

Government organizations that directly service or support citizens have been early adopters of CCD, and the related techniques are already in use and led by business areas. For example, local governments can take an HCD approach to focus Smart City strategies around the problems that matter to their cities.

Engagement – 5 Questions

Mission and vision are important, but day-to-day leadership involves connecting each team member with an inner sense of purpose. Each action has many levels. I’m typing on a keyboard, writing an article, and encouraging better leadership at the same time. One action-different levels. True leaders walk employees up that ladder to help them find meaning in even small tasks. Asking these five questions is one way to make that connection.

What are you good at doing? Which work doesn’t seem like work? What gets you noticed because you are so good at it? Help identify their strengths and open up the possibilities.

What do you enjoy? During the week, what do you look forward to doing? What do you see on your calendar that energizes you? If you could decide, how would you spend your time? Help them rediscover what they love about work.

What feels most useful? Which work makes you most proud? What tasks are most critical to the team or organization? Helps to identify the inherent value of certain work.

What creates a sense of forward momentum? What are you learning that you’ll use in the future? Where do you see yourself next? Show how today’s work helps get to future goals.

How do you relate to others? Which working partnerships are best for you? What would your favorite team look like? Think about and foster relationships that make work more meaningful.