Learning to be a leader coach

Management futurists are fond of predicting a “War for Talent.” They foresee a time in the near future when organizations will be battling for their very survival in the competition for top performers. Organizations will increasingly face debilitating shortages of talent; however, I believe that this war can be fought and won primarily within the organization itself.

Look around your organization right now – in cubicles, meeting rooms, labs, the factory floor – and you will find enormous, untapped potential waiting to be developed. Unleashing this potential is the job of the Leader Coach. This is your job.

Coaching has received a great deal of attention over the last several years. As today’s fastest growing human development process, it is quickly becoming an essential competency for leaders at every organizational level. Why? Quite simply because coaching produces such impressive results. Yet, despite the growing popularity of coaching, there are precious few managers who actually make it a significant part of their day-to-day activities. In fact, many organization leaders are unable to distinguish true coaching from ordinary conversations. As a result, they find themselves ill-equipped to do what is now being asked.

It’s not that they lack the requisite interpersonal and leadership capabilities. It’s simply that high-performance coaching demands more than relating well to others and providing constructive feedback.

Remember your own coaches

We can all recognize great coaching because, without giving it a name, we have each been the recipient of it at some point in our careers. Consider for a moment your own career successes. Who were those few special people instrumental in you becoming the person you are today? Perhaps your mother, your high school math teacher or your first boss come to mind. These people were your coaches.

As you reflect upon these unique individuals, can you identify what it was that earned them the title of coach in your life? I have asked this question of hundreds of senior managers and I routinely hear the following in response. My best coach: • Was honest and straight-forward (Authenticity) • Was fully aware of and confident in his/her unique gifts and talents (Self-esteem) • Had a genuine interest in me and my success (Noble Intention) When I ask these managers what their coaches did to help them reach significantly higher levels of performance, I usually hear at least one of the following responses: • They expressed a belief in my gifts, talents and potential (Appreciation) • They challenged me to find or create opportunities to more significantly deploy my gifts and talents (Confrontation) • They expected great things from me and held me responsible for living up to my own highest standards (Accountability)

The two things I never hear? Gave me advice or told me their war stories. Incidentally, these are the two things we most often do and label as “coaching” in organizations.

Coaching is not simply giving that great piece of advice or telling another how we did it. It is a way of interacting with others that sees them at their very best; confronts them with all their gifts, talent and potential; and then holds them accountable in becoming the very best version of themselves.

The truth is we already know what great coaching is; we know it because we have at one time been the recipient of it (or have experienced its opposite and so know what is ineffective). Managers do not need to learn coaching skills as much as they need to be more intentional about being the kind of person their own best coaches were, and discipline themselves to be that person more frequently in the lives of others.

Dangerous conversations

Leaders at all organizational levels are being asked to be more coach-like with their team members, colleagues, and even their customers. Unfortunately, many leaders find themselves ill-equipped to provide such coaching. It’s not that they lack the requisite interpersonal and leadership competencies, but that coaching requires more. It challenges us to engage in ‘dangerous conversations’ – conversations that confront real topics of performance discrepancies, aspirations, values, disappointments, and passions – topics that are often uncertain, uncomfortable and emotionally charged.

When we engage in a dangerous conversation we walk away empty; everything that needed to be said was said directly and honestly. We know immediately when we have done this because we feel a release. The burden we carried is transformed into a gift for another. Even if the message was difficult for the other person to hear, we can take comfort in knowing that it was delivered with that person’s interests at heart. We did not hold back; we cared enough about the person’s success to take the risk and be uncomfortable for his benefit.

We also know immediately when we haven’t given everything to a conversation. We held back, not wanting to hurt, challenge or even affirm the other person, believing that our words would be too much for him to handle. We lacked the courage to share our unvarnished perspective. As a result, we leave the interaction feeling unsettled, still filled with our real concerns. Sometimes we even seek out a third party with whom to confide the truth. Communication experts call this “triangulation”, but to most of us it’s simply gossip.

Are you a Leader Coach? Are you willing to have the dangerous conversation? Try this: think of someone in your IT organization that you believe is very talented but underachieving. Then ask yourself, “What is the dangerous conversation I need to have with this person?” Make a promise to have that conversation today.

After the conversation, notice how you feel. Do you feel empty? Did you say everything that needed to be said? If you felt you held back, notice what you held back and why.

As the baby boomers increasingly leave our organizations, the need for qualified leaders who can attract and develop talent will continue to grow significantly. The war for talent will be fought and won by those unique and special individuals who can coach others to their highest level of performance. It is a war that can be won by you, the Leader Coach.

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