Leaders as Coaches

Leadership Excellence

April 4, 2009

by Marshall Goldsmith and Patricia Wheeler

Even in the most intimate moments, we can’t help passing judgment.

We can’t help ranking what people tell us–lining it up as more, or less, pleasing or insightful than what we expected them to say.

There’s nothing wrong with offering an opinion in the normal give and take of business discussions. You want people to agree or disagree freely– but it’s not appropriate to pass judgment when we ask people to voice their opinions about us.

This is true even if you ask a question and agree with the answer.

Consciously or not, the other person will register your agreement. And he or she will remember with great specificity if you don’t agree the next time.

The contrast is telling, as with the CEO in a meeting asking for suggestions about a problem and telling one subordinate, ‘That’s a great idea.’ Then telling another subordinate, ‘That’s a good idea.’ And saying nothing at all to a third subordinate’s suggestion. The first individual is pleased and encouraged to have the CEO’s approval. The second individual is slightly less pleased. The third is neither encouraged nor pleased.

You can be sure of two things. First, everyone in the room has made a note of the CEO’s rankings. Second, no matter how well-intentioned the CEO’s comments are, the net result is that grading people’s answers–rather than just accepting them without comment– makes people hesitant and defensive.

People don’t like to be critiqued, however obliquely. The only sure thing that comes from passing judgment on people’s efforts to help is that they won’t help you again. How can you stop passing judgment, especially when people are honestly trying to help you? I assure my clients that I don’t judge them or the changes they try to make. It’s not my job to weigh in on whether you’re a good person or bad because you’ve decided to change Behavior A instead of Behavior B.

Monitor Your Responses
You need to extend that same attitude to people trying to help you. No matter what you think of any helpful suggestion, keep your thoughts to yourself, hear the person out, and say, ‘Thank you.’ Try this: for one week treat every idea with neutrality that comes your way from another person. Don’t take sides or express an opinion; don’t judge the comment. Just reply, ‘Thank you.’ After one week, you will engage in fewer pointless arguments at work and home. If you continue for several weeks, good things will happen. First, this neutral response will become automatic. And if you do this consistently, people will eventually brand you as a welcoming person, someone whose door they can knock on when they have an idea, someone with whom they can spitball casual ideas (without spitting at each other).

If you can’t self-monitor your judgmental responses, ‘hire’ a friend to call you out and bill you hard cash every time you make a judgmental comment. If you’re docked $10 for each gratuitous judgment, you’ll feel some of the pain you’ve been inflicting on others–and stop.

Know Your Style
Leaders and managers are responsible for developing the people around them, building the bench strength and future of their organizations.

In our work, we often see that smart, committed leaders who recognize the importance of ‘people development’ may not always function well as coaches.

How can leaders and managers be more effective in a coaching role? First, remember that coaching is not merely giving advice. It’s true that when we coach others, we come from an effective skill-set that has helped us get from ‘here’ to ‘there’ in our own careers. However, telling our people what worked for us will not necessarily be the ‘golden nugget’ that helps them overcome the obstacles that they face. Great coaching involves a twoway dialogue in which the coach must see the world from the coachee’s perspective.

Only then can we collaborate with one another to getting ‘there’ in a way that boosts performance and engagement simultaneously.

What are some of the ‘ground rules’ of coaching effectiveness for leaders? First, as a coaching leader, you must know yourself and your style! This will help you know when you are in good ‘coaching mode’ and when you are not. To the extent that you recognize your own vulnerabilities and derailers (blind spots which occur when you’re under stress), you bring both credibility and clarity to the conversation.

Self-knowledge helps. When you’re upset, you’re not coaching, regardless of what you say or how helpful you mean to be. All others will hear is the voice of your upset, which they are likely to experience as criticism. At this point, your overly taxed brain is producing massive quantities of adrenaline and cortisol, which are not the ‘happy’ neurotransmitters. It takes 20 minutes, at least, for these self-generated chemicals to exit your body. Only then do you have the physiological ability to maintain our emotional balance, which is a necessary skill for effective coaching.

At first glance, this sounds like a ‘no-brainer,’ but how often do you see leaders who charge ahead again and again during these times, wreaking havoc on their people? For example, one senior leader is a dynamo–naturally creative and strategic. He is also very talented in executing the plans that he and his team produce. He drives so hard that he periodically overtaxes his own and his reports’ physical and emotional reserves.

The problem? Without his conscious knowledge and despite his best intent, he is prone to drive his staff mercilessly with the result they experience him as overbearing and critical and seek to leave his department.

Our Leadership Style assessment indicated a high level of ambition but a tendency to neglect his need for rest and renewal. Under stress, he was likely to push against people in a way that appeared judgmental and arrogant.

He also had a strong need to please his CEO, which led to increased agitation when projects were not proceeding as he had planned. Not surprisingly, he rarely checked his emotional level during the day, no matter how many projects or meetings were on his plate. So these derailers occurred often, and his attempts at coaching his people fell flat.

As we crafted his Action Plan to be a better coach for his people, we talked about his need to accept his style–he wasn’t going to automatically manage his stress level without a great deal of conscious awareness and ongoing practice. He decided to carve out 10 minutes between meetings to take a breather. This small step had an immediate positive effect on his patience with his staff. He also pledged to remember that events that he assumed would be displeasing to his boss would be stressful to him, and that these times are NOT good opportunities for coaching his staff. He would need to wait until he was calm and balanced. He adopted a more conscious, emotionally intelligent, deliberate approach to be certain the stage was set for him to be approachable to others and able to listen to noises outside of his own head.

Basic Ground Rule
In our coaching, we always begin with this ground rule: know yourself, your signature strengths, and your blind spots that can derail you.

We each have our own strengths and blind spots, which create our own custom mix of leadership and personal presence. And we are each responsible for learning how to best combine them with the culture so that they produce an effective blend.

Since he objectively looked at his strengths and derailers, he’s become better at developing his people. They are happier, more motivated, and more productive. One of the best things he does is differentiate between ‘coaching’ and ‘no coaching’ times. He’s also become a great model of a person who takes the time and makes the effort to become an even better leader. LE

Marshall Goldsmith is an executive coach who helps leaders make positive changes and author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There Visit www.MarshallGoldsmithLibrary.com.

Patricia Wheeler is an executive coach and Managing Partner in the Levin Group. E-mail Patricia@TheLevinGroup.com or call 404 377-9408.

ACTION: Improve your coaching skills.