21 Apr 2020


It is probably not a surprise when I say that the best leaders have a range of skills and tools that they can deploy at any one time.  The key to leadership is to have as many tools as then to know when to use each tool. If your management skills were a real toolbox, then there is one skill that is as essential as the engineer’s screwdriver. Every toolbox needs one, and no leader is complete without this skill at their disposal.

This essential leadership skill is coaching. In the 21st century, coaching is an indispensable leadership skill that enables your team around you to become confident and competent decision makers. It is an everyday behaviour in any modern leader, something built into their habits and management DNA.  As a leader, you are probably doing some of it without even realising.  But still many managers don’t realise what it is, when to use it and how useful it is as a leadership tool.

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Coaching is not new. Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard wrote about Situational Leadership in the 1960s and 1970s, which led to the best selling book, One Minute Manager, which is still the most valuable management book for any leader and my first ‘go to’ book if clients have not read it previously. 

Situational Leadership is based around four distinct styles of leadership that depend upon the experience and competence of the person, in relation to the task they are completing. Great leaders are intuitively flexible and will vary their style of leadership to match the situation in front of them. Two of these styles require a high level of Supportive Behaviour, where you are investing a relatively large amount of time and energy into your team member.  These two styles, called Coaching and Supporting styles, are where most of our teams spend most of their working lives. And from my observations, where most managers spend the least of theirs, thus creating a tension that often doesn’t get repaired.

Why is coaching so important to leaders.

A leader in the 21st century is not an instructor, or a director of people. They are not telling their staff what to do in minute detail. Great leaders know that they cannot do it alone and that they can only lead if they have people prepared to follow them.  They know that those people must be as empowered and capable as possible. Great leaders know it is their responsibility to develop that capability in their teams.  It is not an option. You are not a leader if you are not developing your team.

Coaching is the best way to develop your team and to get them to learn to think for themselves. Creating an environment where your team can contribute to their maximum effectiveness and reach their full potential. This is not the 1870s, or even the 1970s anymore. Modern leaders must strive to allow people to make decisions and take risks.  Their team members must feel confident enough to fail, so that they can do better next time and the time after that. They must learn new skills, new ways of thinking and learn to fly. Coaching skills allow this to happen and allow each team member to flourish.

What is ‘every day’ coaching?

To a professional coach, there are layers and complexity to coaching that help us be as effective as possible when working with a variety of clients. We usually sit down with our coachees for an hour or two, maybe once a month for a period of time, or weekly catch-up meetings.

If you want to go and learn to be a coach, great! Go and do a qualification and learn all the nuances and techniques. It will give you great skills and make you a better leader.  But you can be a better leader in five minutes. I can provide you with something simple that will move any manager forward instantly. I promise.

As leaders and manager, we are presented with the opportunity to coach our team multiple times during each working day (and we often do not see it). Every time they ask us a question, there is a chance to coach. This is ‘every day’ coaching. I can explain how you can make this work for you.

The one killer question that will make you into a coach (and a better leader)

If you ask only one question of your team every day it is this; “What do you think?”. Sounds simple and you probably think you do that already.  However, I know that most people, when asked  a question by a team member, will usually just give the answer to the question. “Boss, what colour shall I paint this product?”. “Red” you say.

If you always give the answer, how can anyone learn? How can they realise what is the right thinking process? How can you ever learn to trust them? How will they ever stop asking you for the answer? How can they ever be empowered and have self-belief?

When I work with managers and directors, this is an everyday scenario.  They say that team members keep coming and asking questions and that they have no time to do their own work.  They say, ‘I keep getting interrupted’ or ‘why can’t they sort it out themselves’.  If this is happening to you, then sorry to say, you are the problem.  Fortunately, because you are the problem, you can fix it.

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The Red-Blue Conundrum

Let us suppose that members of your team keep coming and asking you for advice and answers. Anything like “What price shall I quote this customer?”, “What work shall I start next”, “What shall I do with this report”, “What should I do about this guy who is not performing” or any one of another 1000 questions you might get asked every day. Does this sound familiar to you?

Suppose your team member arrives at your office with a product and says ‘Shall I paint it blue or red’. You know the answer is red.  Many leaders believe it is their job to give the answer.  ‘Red’, they say, and the team member happily trots off with the answer, leaving you to get on with ‘more important tasks’. That is the quickest way to deal with it and you are a busy person, after all.

If this happens to you, then you are missing a coaching opportunity.  I strongly recommend that, at least some times, you don’t give the answer.  Instead you ask the question ‘What do you think?’.  Your team member will probably be a bit surprised by your question, but will eventually answer one of three ways (1) “Red” (2) “Blue” (3) “I don’t know, that is why I am asking you”. 

Each answer tells us something about the team member, their capabilities, their attitude and their competence. We just have to be curious enough to find out.  For all three of these answers you respond with ‘Why?’. You are curious; you want to know how they reached that conclusion. You need to be more interested in the thought process than the answer.

Maybe they correctly answered ‘red’, so all is well with the world, isn’t it?  Maybe the team member is the rising star of your team and demonstrated their competence. If this is so, then it might be important to understand why they felt it necessary to ask you the question in the first place.  Does it indicate a lack of self-confidence? Or some other reason?

But maybe, they just guessed ‘red’, or flipped a coin on the way to the office, or think they remembered it was painted red last time. Maybe they just got lucky. Next time they may not be so lucky and a customer will be let down or there will be expensive rework to do.

Maybe they incorrectly answered ‘blue’. You think they have clearly failed and need to be told the right answer. But maybe the way they reached this conclusion was sound, they just missed one piece of vital information. Maybe no one ever trained them to look for that piece of information.  Or maybe they really did just guess badly, and a real training need is identified.

And what if the person answered ‘I don’t know, that’s why I am asking you’. This can tell us so much if we respond with ‘Why?’.  Do they know the answer but need you to verify it? Does this tell you something about the confidence of the person to make decisions? Does it highlight a clear training need? Does it tell you something about your own management style that means they need to come and see you each time? Maybe, they just can’t be bothered to do the work to find the answer and it is easier to ask you? Unless you ask ‘Why?’ you will not be able to answer these questions and lead your team member effectively.

Each of these three answers presents us with a check on the competence and attitude of the team member.  Each of these is a training opportunity for them, a chance for them be empowered and take responsibility.   Each is a chance to show your team you can start to trust them, be pleased at their success and deal in a positive, encouraging way with the situations when they fall short.  Each of these is a chance to coach and lead.

One thing is certain, if you keep giving the answer and they will keep coming back with questions. Coach them and they will come back less and less. Let them fly.

My challenge to you

So, my challenge to you is to ask, “What do you think?” the next time one of your team members asks you for an answer to something. Trust the process and see what happens. You will learn so much more about your team members, and yourself I’m sure.