The role of great coaches in achieving high performance has been recognised for decades. From the world of sport where the concept emerged to leading boardrooms around the world, the idea of coaching individuals to be their best makes fundamental sense. But it is worth looking more closely at the role of coach, and especially leaders as coaches, to uncover the approaches that have real value in creating breakthrough results.
Many leaders will have coaching responsibility for one or more of their direct reports. It is desirable for leaders to adopt a coaching-style to get the best from their people. Research by Gallup, the global organisational analytics firm, shows that “workers who know and use their strengths average 10% to 19% increased sales and 14% to 29% increased profit, among other bottom-line results.” And great coaches are seasoned experts at – and see great satisfaction from – getting workers to uncover and play to their strengths. However, the line between coaching and mentoring is often blurred. Giving more junior staff, or those being groomed for high office, the opportunity to ‘learn from’ the leaders of an organisation is an important strategy. But it can lead into a focus on ‘passing on wisdom’ on how things are done which can actually inhibit new thinking and approaches.
Gallup research also shows that “only 26% of employees say the feedback they get [from managers] helps them do better work.” We’ve seen countless examples in organisations of monthly “coaching sessions” with line managers, easily and accidentally deflecting into performance reviews and ‘order-giving’ meetings where the leader lays out their vision and lists expected behaviours, tasks and results from the “coachee.”
Great sports coaches do not seek to improve the performance of their charges by showing them what to do, or by relaying stories of how they once were great. Instead, they fully back the talent of the individual and do whatever they can to remove barriers to the full realisation of that talent.
To be effective coaches in business, leaders must do the same. They need to take a stand for those that they coach. They must fully get behind and support who the individual says they want to be and achieve. The best coaches spot potential beyond what the coachee can see in themselves and help them to recognise and live in that potential.
A dynamic to be conscious of is ‘3 steps to sealing the truth’. This is where we make an assessment of someone (step 1), then we find evidence to support our view (step 2), and finally we decide that ‘they are that way and will never change’ (step 3). As a leader, we need to be mindful not to seek and reinforce our own limiting judgements of others, if we are to coach them. The pay-off for judging someone and proving it with evidence, is that we get to be right. The cost is that we can no longer generate a stand for that person, or effectively coach them. Instead of seeking to validate our own judgements and biases, we need to be curious about the commitments of the people we lead and coach. Focusing on their commitments and coaching them to succeed from that place, will keep us grounded in our stand as a coach. It also means we can coach anyone that has a commitment, versus only people that we already rate as capable.
By taking this role, leaders will empower the individuals around them to constantly learn, stretch and take on challenges that are entirely aligned with their own values and aspirations. But today’s leader must do more. As McKinsey outlines in its New roles for leaders in 21st Century organisations, leaders as coaches “create environments where it is comfortable to experiment, where people feel equally good about discussing what went well and what could go better. They also build coaching into their team interactions by asking more questions than prescribing solutions.”
The temptation for many is to assemble a team of superstars to deliver the vision, selecting for skills and experience, and then delegating ongoing development to dedicated learning and development functions. However, the future that breakthrough teams are trying to deliver looks nothing like the past – so success depends more on a learning, agile culture than on previous success or perfection of existing skills.
The collective coaching that leaders must inspire is a mindset of experimentation, a willingness and the safety to try new things and fail only to learn and try again. Creating this environment is too important to delegate – it is crucial to delivering the boldly declared commitments to a new vision. Of course, superstar performers can help, but they need to continue to grow and develop as the game changes. The leader needs to encourage, support and facilitate this learning at every step, it is not a question of lining up a few training courses or development opportunities, however good they are. It is about continually investing in the alignment and culture of the team to ensure that it constantly moves forward.
One key tool in realising this constant coaching is to create and reiterate a ‘tripod of accomplishment.’ Too often accomplishment is narrowly defined by results, financial or organisational. However, this can lead to sterile monocultures that provide few opportunities for development. Like all monocultures they are fragile and susceptible to sudden change. Just as a sports team that has developed a winning style of play finds its success suddenly disappears as others learn or leapfrog that playing style, successful teams can hit a wall. The tripod of accomplishment broadens this narrow focus by adding two equally important aspects of success – growth and fulfilment.
The leader as coach must constantly be checking in, and actively balancing the three legs of the tripod so that teams can learn, grow and build on accomplishments to move forward. A good coach will always be asking – is the team learning, is it looking for new ways to expand its experience and take on new challenges? Are the goals and results it is achieving meaningful to those in the team, is there a high degree of cohesion between goals and values, and are those values meaningfully shared and exhibited?
Being fully responsible and present to all of these elements is the heart of leadership in high performance teams. It cannot be delegated, nor ‘ticked-off’ with a series of courses or away-days. It is the constant focus of leadership. And it requires energy. Catalysing the energy to keep these agile, successful, learning teams developing is a crucial role for leadership, and one we’ll cover in the next blog.
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