Note: This article was originally published by Forbes.com.
In a world where time seems compressed and competition is fierce, leaders often feel the need to move quickly. To do so, we tell and we sell our ideas, our solutions and our game plans; we solve problems, create strategies and direct action. This approach works — winning us approval, accolades and even bonuses — until it doesn’t. At some point, we realize that the “tell and sell” approach to leadership isn’t getting us any further. We begin to feel the burden of being the expert. We desperately want our team members to take more ownership and accountability for results. We invest time and energy to improve engagement and trust. But we fail to realize that our tendency to fix is the very thing that hurts trust, engagement and, ultimately, execution. We become a bottleneck.
Many leaders find themselves at the intersection of telling and the abyss of not knowing how else to lead. How do you lead without telling? How do you go far in addition to going fast? How do you grow a team that is intrinsically engaged and empowered by their own experience and expertise? In my experience — backed by great research — leaders unleash potential not by telling, solving or advising, but rather by coaching. Yet despite its proven ROI, the leader-as-coach framework is slow to spread. Why? The greatest barrier to coaching isn’t time or skill, it’s the leap of faith that’s required.
Jump, and a net will appear.
The transition to leader-as-coach is a true leap of faith. When I ask leaders if some of their team members are capable of growing and succeeding without their direction, nearly 100% raise their hands. When I ask if all of their team members are capable of growing and succeeding without their direction, the number of hands inevitably drops to zero. Not one hand, ever.
As leaders, we often struggle to see how our less skillful, motivated or experienced team members will do anything but crash and burn unless we answer their questions and give them direction. This is where the journey begins. To coach, we must adopt the belief that everyone is capable of growing and succeeding. Consider this for a moment: what would it feel like to approach a team member — even one who is struggling — with a deep-seated belief that they are capable of more than the results they’re producing? Might this mindset free you to try new things? How long could you trust the process before you start imagining a freefall that will end badly?
If you’re able to take this leap of faith, you will find that a net appears. The net comes in the form of unforeseen insights — not your own, but those of your team members. Most leaders can’t jump because they don’t trust that this net will materialize. But once they see insights emerge, coaching isn’t such a great leap after all.
Let’s assume that you’re willing to take a risk on the coaching approach. How do you begin?
1. Get curious. The next time you have a conversation with a team member, start to wonder, what else? What else could be done? What else have they tried? What have they not considered?
2. Explore possibilities. With curiosity activated, use powerful questions to spark divergent thinking. Powerful questions invite others to think differently or more deeply. Take care to ask questions that serve your team member, not just your own sense of curiosity. Try open-ended questions, and be careful to avoid leading questions. If your team member doesn’t know the answer, resist the temptation to move on or jump in. Give them the time to reflect and trust that the answer is within. A few common powerful questions include: What does success look like? What’s stopping you? What have you tried? What do you need to be different? What’s within your realm of control?
3. Present new perspectives. Most of the time, insights come when we’re challenged to look at something from a new perspective. Great leader-coaches leverage their own insights and experiences to help team members see things through new eyes. When you present perspectives, frame them as just that: your perspective. You can do this by saying things like, “From my perspective…,” “One thing I’ve noticed is…,” or even “Can I share an observation? I’ve noticed that you often….I wonder…”
4. Elicit commitment. A strong coaching conversation ends with clear commitments. Ideally, you can elicit commitments from your team member by asking, “What’s your next step?” or “Where would you like to start?” Don’t expect your team members to commit to a long-term, ultimate solution. Commitments often represent small, incremental steps forward: trying something new, having a conversation, considering a new perspective, noticing their tendency to do something, or even giving something more thought. You’ll come to learn that this is enough — the ball is rolling, so to speak.
5. Follow up. Following up on commitments is absolutely essential. Each conversation is a chance to kick the ball a little further down the field. Your job as a leader-coach is to notice each kick and how far it gets them, to support and challenge them when they stall out or get turned around and, ultimately, to celebrate their wins. Following up on commitments is an act of relationship building. It shows that you care, and gives you the opportunity to ensure the ball isn’t dropped.
By shifting into coaching conversations, you can make sure that you go far and go fast. Coaching accelerates the performance of your team members so that you can move fast without leaving others in the dust. And, by the way, allow yourself to be stunned by how little time coaching takes. You can go further in a 10-minute coaching conversation than in an hour-long meeting. Don’t trust me; trust yourself, trust your team members, and take the leap.