Today the value of coaching is widely appreciated. Books such as The Trillion Dollar Coach powerfully make the case for individuals that can give leaders the space and language to examine with fresh eyes the personal and professional challenges associated with their roles. But a more fundamental shift is the growing understanding that leadership itself is coaching. The best leaders act as coaches for their teams, creating the spaces, environments and cultures in which individuals can afford to ‘play all out’, to experiment and use breakdowns to achieve breakthroughs in pursuit of authentic commitment to declared future possibilities.
This is the essence of both coaching and leadership – but how can leaders be better coaches to their teams? We’ve distilled a set of eight questions from our work with leaders across sectors and organisations big and small. Each can be used to open conversations for possibility with direct reports. Each is also a valuable entry point for self-enquiry that can improve your own ability as a leader. Coaching is not about telling people how to win but creating the space in which players can perceive for themselves new ways to win. Over the next two blogs we’ll explore eight questions that open-up those vital clearings.
People self-limit all the time. Constrained by unseen contexts of their role, the organisation, expectations of the team and the leader, they opt for what they think they can have, rather than what they really want. This narrows their thinking and limits possibilities and creativity. Coaches may need to press several times to unearth deep commitments. Leaders are often scared of asking this question afraid of what they will hear. Yes, you may uncover hidden assumptions, background commitments and limitations – but ultimately that is the role of a coach.
All of these questions must be asked from a genuine interest in listening to the answers, both explicit and implied. Tuning into and probing for the little voices within coachee’s responses is fundamental to successful coaching and for this to happen it is essential to establish a safe environment in which honesty and authenticity are prized above all else.
A great follow-up to the first question, this one allows the leader/coach to fully unpack background commitments and assumptions that are preventing individuals from achieving their goals. Amidst concerns around resources, skills, expertise etc will lurk what we refer to as rackets. These are behaviours, assumptions or other commitments that have a present-day payoff for the individual that undermines commitment to future possibilities. For example, “I need a better plan,” may in fact be a racket; the payoff of which is security, but the cost is taking a risky step that could prove game-changing.
The skill in coaching this question is to NOT provide solutions, but to probe and lead the individual to spot their own rackets and perceive new opportunities to break free of them.
A coach is someone whose conversation has a direct impact on the team's performance. Their role is to encourage individuals to explore and grow – the journey is as important as the destination. Use this question to re-direct those who are overly wedded to a plan or a specific course of action. Use it to inspire, ignite imagination and a willingness to experiment. Deployed at the right points it can initiate new rounds of divergent rather than convergent thinking that instigate new searches for possibilities and opportunities that might otherwise be overlooked.
So far so good? Although seemingly straightforward and quite simple, these questions are powerful ways to create clearings for new thinking. Asking them can transform coaching conversations for both parties, and leaders do well to ask them of themselves as they examine their own context and assumptions. The next blog continues the theme with five more questions that may be less familiar.
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