We all know the command-and-control style when we see it.
The boss orders around their reports but cannot trust the initiative of their team to get the job done — let alone creatively or more productively. Work assignments are dictated, and the team is expected to follow through, no questions asked.
The shortcomings of the command-and-control style — limited employee ownership over their role, stunted opportunities for skill development, lacking practical feedback — contribute to lower-performing cultures. It increases employee churn, undercutting the formation of long-term working relationships that are so critical to employee engagement and effective collaboration.
A coach, on the other hand, leverages the expertise of their team to broaden their understanding of business problems and to inform their decisions, taking the individual strengths of their team to heart. Valuing the individual strengths of their team, and welcoming input, this spirit of open exchange brings the work environment as a collaborative place into focus — and action.
Research on the effectiveness of coaching is telling. Gallup found that a third of US employees report being actively engaged in their jobs, with about 70 percent of the variation in engagement outcomes attributable to an employee’s manager.
Coaching is focused squarely on the employee experience, understanding that the success of the team and the business at large is ultimately tied to individual performance. Getting the best out of people requires their buy-in and the alignment of team responsibilities with individual strengths, while also providing opportunities for growth.
After more than 20 years of managing teams, and watching various leadership styles in action, I’ve come to appreciate these three practical ways to support a coaching mentality.
The Power of a Question
It took me a few years into my first job to have the confidence in a work setting to openly ask questions. Over the course of my career, I have come to realize the power of doing so, especially as a coach encouraging employees to bring new ideas to the table.
It also works both ways. There are few things more valuable as a leader than when my team asks probing questions that may uncover a more productive way of working or an easier way for our customers to use the software. Simon Sinek, an author, and motivational speaker referred to this openness as feeling “okay being the idiot” in the room — having the confidence to commit to mutual understanding and team-building. Having that expressive curiosity is just one way to lead by example.
Hiring and Developing People You Would Work For
Building a culture where employees feel empowered to take ownership over their work involves considerable trust. Leaders who step in too often or in an overbearing way can backfire and undermine employee confidence, as can half-hearted delegation. It takes some plain-dealing on the part of the manager to surround themselves with people they can trust with independent decision-making. For a coach, that starts at the very onset of the relationship.
One hiring principle practiced by Mark Zuckerberg, in which I have found significant value as well, is building and developing teams of people whom you would work for. It’s a good gut check for understanding whether you can find confidence in the expertise of your team. And if your team is not made up of those people today, how can you lead them to the point where they would be?
It’s an Art, Not a Science
Businesses now run on data, and there is a clear line of sight between decisions made and bottom-line impact. All the while, managers who are true coaches have a responsibility to their team to be open-minded, even in ways that the available data (which may not be comprehensive) might not suggest.
For a boss, there is only discipline, whether data-backed or their own fixed mindset. No such openness exists. They are unwilling, threatened, or unable to change when called upon. By contrast, coaches are agile, particularly as a manager of people. They are receptive to the admirable qualities in their peers which reveal better ways to lead, and they jump on opportunities to iterate and improve.
Both the practices and processes of coaching reflect the need for employee engagement and creativity, and they call on leaders to exercise discretion wisely, striking the right balance between business objectives, team productivity, and personal development. In an era marked by job-hopping, and now distributed workforces, it takes time to cultivate these relationships and communicate shared goals. Anybody can be a boss from day one. It takes patience and confidence to coach a team.