As leaders, we need to be adaptable and it’s why I believe that developing your leadership toolkit is beneficial to help leaders and their teams. This week I wanted to talk about how to add coaching to your leadership toolkit in a practical way.
Your Leadership Toolkit
Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and leadership author, studied 3,871 executives for his book Primal Leadership and identified six leadership styles: Commanding, Visionary, Affiliative, Democratic, Pacesetting, and Coaching. What he found was that the most effective leaders didn’t over-rely on a single style; they had mastered multiple styles and could skillfully match the right style to a situation.
Similarly, as a manager, you have a toolkit of skills, styles, and competencies to pull from. In order to be the best manager possible, you need to: (a) assemble a diverse and varied toolkit, and (b) wisely select the tool that will be most useful in a given situation. By adding coaching into your leadership toolkit and calling upon it in the right situations, you can uncover your team’s blind spots, help your direct reports grow into more capable leaders, and ultimately, enable your team’s best work.
What is a coaching style of leadership?
A coaching style of leadership is a reflective one, which requires you to lead consciously, with awareness and motivation. This kind of leader acts as a catalyst in the personal development of another person. Whilst being a leader doesn’t require you to be a coach, you can still include a coaching approach.
Coaching is getting someone from where they are to where they want to be by tapping into their own wisdom and keeping them accountable to achieving their goals. It is a skill that can be used within your role as a leader. Coaches use certain tools to partner with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential. Some of these tools are:
- Listening deeply
- Asking powerful questions
- Crafting a reflective space
The key thing to remember is that you do not need to solve the problem, you are encouraging them to do that through their own experiences and learning. When they use their own wisdom (instead of ours), two things happen - we invest in their inner teacher i.e. we help them see patterns and behaviours so that going forward, they can develop their own resources and best practices to navigate their challenges. Secondly, we empower them to trust themselves: You’ll see a shift in your team member’s ability to more clearly and confidently articulate the next steps they can take to solve a problem or achieve their goal. Win-win in my book.
Coaching skills for leaders in practice
Let’s take the three coaching skills I mentioned earlier and explore how you might add them to your leadership toolkit in practice.
Listening with empathy
This is the skill I believe has the biggest impact on another person. When we listen with empathy (and curiosity) we attempt to see the expressed idea and attitude from the other person’s point of view and to sense how it feels to the person, through their personal frame of reference.
As humans, we want to help others (mostly) and we have learnt from a young age that the best way to do this is to suggest a solution. This means that when we are talking with colleagues (friends, family etc) we are wondering what this information means for us or planning our responses and solutions before they have even finished their sentence! In doing so, we aren’t really listening. This is totally normal because our brains are designed to look for patterns and problems to solve.
What if instead, we took a genuine interest in what the other person is saying? This requires patience and practice! Deep listening is only possible with a reflective mindset, not an impulsive one. You certainly need to practise being there in the “now” by focusing on the other person; shifting from "What does this mean for me?" to "What's going on for this person?"
- Listening to understand another person's experience: What's going on for them? What are they thinking, feeling, and experiencing?
- Staying curious and open to possibilities — including things that might surprise us or change our minds.
A final thought on empathetic listening. You don’t have to feel the same feelings as the other person, nor do you need to compare the other person’s experiences to your own.
Asking powerful questions
Powerful questions are open-ended questions. They can lead to discovery, insight or even a commitment that fuels further action. An open and honest question expands the set of possibilities for the other person to respond with and helps draw out their best ideas.
When you ask a closed-ended question, like a yes or no query, you cut yourself and the other person off from the opportunity of deep listening. Sometimes, this approach can be useful. For example, if you need to make a fast decision on an urgent issue, you may not have the time to explore the full range of possibilities.
Consider the (closed-ended) question, “Did you reach your target?” If the answer is no, the next question is naturally “Why not?” however, this can increase the other person’s anxiety and may be demotivating. Instead, you might ask: “How can you reach your target?” or “What can you do differently to experience more progress?” These questions inform, and create awareness but also encourage the worker. They create space for learning.
Crafting a reflective space
The world feels uncertain in lots of ways and all the time we are required to expand our skill sets. Having a reflective state of mind, rather than an impulsive one, creates space for focusing on the now AND the long term. This is because when we react to a situation, we access the fight, flight, freeze, fawn response - these are often inflexible and uncompassionate. They are an automatic response to the situation. Practising a coaching style requires us to be more reflective and empathetic.
Tips for adding coaching into your leadership toolkit
It can feel daunting to master all of these new coaching skills overnight. As you look to incorporate new techniques into your day-to-day approach, keep these tips in mind:
Start small and think about one step you can take to incorporate coaching into your leadership toolbox. It can be as simple as asking a few open and honest questions during your 1:1s this week.
Express your intention
It can be jarring for your team members if you drastically change your leadership style. Set context for this shift. Let them know you’ll be trying a different approach by introducing more coaching practices into your work together.
Get feedback and adapt your approach
Create a timeline with specific check-ins where you explicitly talk about what’s working well and what they’d like to see more of. Set up a time on your calendars to have this feedback conversation so you can both learn from it and adapt accordingly.
Be patient with yourself
You’re not always going to get it right. Often, you’ll ask a question that doesn’t land or run through an options exploration session that doesn’t actually get to a viable solution. That’s okay. Be patient and keep trying. Good leadership is a practice.