Memo from your employees: Stop managing and start coaching

The March Madness NCAA basketball championship is about to start and it got me thinking about the dynamics and transformations that happen when individuals come together to accomplish something extraordinary. Think right now about a time you’ve been on a team that’s done something great. You’re probably smiling at this moment. When I do this exercise in my workshops and ask people to describe that experience, the word that comes up most often is “magical.” So where does that magic come from?

Perhaps the greatest college basketball coach ever was John Wooden. His unparalleled winning record came from the relationships he fostered with his players. Former player Bill Walton credits his time playing under Wooden as life-changing: “He was a masterful psychologist…. He knew how to get people to play better than they could actually play.”

It starts with mindset

Successful leaders in business also achieve great things with their teams by re-framing their view of their role from managing to coaching. This is done in two steps, the first of which is the mindset of the leader.

Mindset starts with understanding the difference between managing and coaching. Managing (or supervising) is short term and transactional, with a focus on problems, and is directive in nature. In contrast, coaching has a long-term and strategic view, with a focus on people, and is developmental in nature. Managers keep things moving. Coaches help others unlock their potential. Most of us are doing both, all the time but often without intention or separation.

A coaching mindset is also about being present and connected with the people you coach. For this I suggest pondering the four most important questions that no one asks but everyone wants answered, from psychotherapist Katherine Schafler:

1. Do you see me?

2. Do you care that I’m here?

3. Am I enough for you, or do you need me to be better in some way?

4. Can I tell that I’m special to you by the way that you look at me?

Touchy-feely psychobabble? Consider this: Just now perhaps you can’t help but think about how you have been answering these unasked questions for someone special in your life. Or perhaps you’re thinking about how these questions are being answered for you, in one of your relationships.

This is heavy stuff. And I believe it’s totally appropriate to apply to work, if you’re really serious about engaging and developing people so that you achieve better results. Why do dog lovers love dogs so much? Because dogs answer these four questions for us with a resounding “Hell Yes!” almost every day, don’t they? How would your direct reports answer these questions about their relationship with you as their boss?

The second step in rethinking your role from manager to coach is to learn to be truly curious. The challenge here is that our society rewards having answers. In most organizations the people who have the answers are usually the ones who rise to the top. Combine this with the ego boost that naturally comes from being sought out for answers and advice, it’s easy to see how learning to be truly curious while coaching employees is one of the hardest behavior changes to make for most of the leaders I work with.

The least used tool in the toolbox

The best curiosity-based coaching happens in a one-to-one meeting between the boss and the employee. I first learned about the secret powers of one-to-ones when I worked at P&G. In my work today I consistently find that regular one-to-ones is the most overlooked and underestimated tool in most leaders’ toolbox.

There are four key ingredients to great one-to-ones with your direct reports that will help you to stop managing and start coaching. First, they are scheduled and kept, at least monthly and for 30-45 minutes per employee. If you don’t have time for this, you might want to re-examine your priorities.

Second, they’re focused the employee’s needs and agenda, not yours. Good one-to-ones are about long-term growth of the person, not short-term solving of problems. Some of that is bound to bubble up sometimes, for sure—it’s your job as the leader to get it back on track.

Third, good one-to-ones are inquiry-based. You can strengthen your inquiry/curiosity muscle by asking more questions and giving fewer answers. Then tame your Advice Monster. Translation: Shut. Your. Mouth. Especially when it’s obvious to you what the “right” answer is. Let the silence to the heavy lifting. You’ll have a remarkably different outcome to your one-to-ones with more asking and less telling.

Finally, good one-to-ones conclude with locking in the growth, which comes from reflection, learning, and accountability. You do this by simply ending each one-to-one with a simple question: “What was most useful for you, from our conversation today?”

Research published in Harvard Business Review in 2000 by Daniel Goleman suggested that there are six essential leadership styles. Coaching was one of them and was shown to have significant impact on business results. If improving your business is important to you, then stop managing and start coaching. You’ll be glad you did.

Thanks for reading!

Hi, I'm Kurt Greene, owner of Arrow G Consulting. I also lead CEO/executive peer groups in Knoxville for Vistage.

When I’m not helping CEOs and senior leaders to improve themselves and their companies, you can find me re-arranging the stack of unread books on my nightstand, daydreaming about airplanes, and seriously thinking about getting the ol' college rock band back together. Learn more about the exciting work we're doing here at Arrow G Consulting HERE.