Today’s executive leader is faced with a wide variety of roles to play in their pursuit to transform the government and those they lead. Executives are frequently faced with situations that require them to leverage the skills of a counselor, consultant, and most importantly, a coach. The majority of leaders opt for the role of the consultant, due to their excellent problem-solving skills. This is often a trap and keeps the executive mired in transactional work that their staff could easily handle. This role feels natural to the executive since these are the skills that helped them ascend to the seat of greatness upon which they currently sit. Likewise, executives may also find themselves serving in a counselor role, and for many, it is uncomfortable but necessary. Until our workforce is fully comprised of robots, emotions and interpersonal challenges will fall at the feet of those who lead. Crisis has a way of inviting itself in, whether you open the door or not. It’s a fact of life that the problems your team members face will find their way into the work environment, and on occasion, negatively impact the mission.
While the role of consultant and counselor are identifiable and often necessary, I encourage you to focus your energies on coaching as you address your employees’ times of personal and professional crisis. Serving in this role will have created an environment of trust, which will make it easier to facilitate meaningful communication and build stronger interpersonal work relationships. An effective coach, by leveraging all of these skillsets, knows how to motivate the individual to perform their best. Success is accomplished by knowing your players, the game, and ultimately, the strategies to improve performance. Coaching seems to be an area that well-meaning executives continue to struggle with. They continue to report they are inundated with their own work and cannot seem to find the time to effectively focus on the next generation of leaders. Conceptually, they know that providing leadership is the primary focus of an executive. Yet, many continue to operate as technical experts, doing work and projects that are better suited as developmental opportunities for their staff.
Recently, I was coaching an executive and exploring the feedback they received on a leadership report filled out by peers, subordinates, and a superior. Tucked away neatly in the comments was a directive that every executive leader should aspire to achieve. The insightful advice powerfully declared, “Coach more and do less work.” I was excited when I saw this and could not wait to discover its meaning and the future possibilities for the executive. I asked her how she interpreted the comment and if this was an achievable goal. She understood the feedback and the need to do this at her level but seemed to struggle with how to accomplish it. I used this as an opportunity to say, “Give the people what they want, at least one of your employees is suggesting that they want you to stop being a player and become their coach.” This detail is often overlooked in the pursuit of mission accomplishment.
At the executive level of leadership, coaching is where the bulk of your time should be invested, since coaching skills will set you apart and make you a desired leader. You are shaping the workforce of tomorrow and when you adopt a coaching posture, you are ensuring that you leave a lasting leadership legacy. For example, during the hard times, are you gathering your team together and encouraging them, or are you hiding behind your emails? Coaching requires you to personally connect, to strategically prepare your employees to execute tactically. This will require focus and dedication. It will also require personal courage to push employees to achieve their full potential when they do not think they have it in them. Your time with the team members is the time to focus solely on them. You will find this a difficult task if you are overwhelmed with self-serving projects and tasks. Players know to look for and listen to the voice of the coach when the pressure is on, but what happens when you are not available?
As an executive, you have earned the distinction of a coach. You have amassed key organizational knowledge and wisdom that must be shared. Let me clarify; I am not suggesting that if you start coaching you will have less work, merely that you will have a different type of work. As all of us know from watching sports coaches on the sidelines, they are working incredibly hard and are actively engaged every second of the game. So, please do not misinterpret this directive as a means of literally doing less work in terms of quantity because you will be sorely disappointed.
Is it possible that you are stifling the growth of the people beneath you by keeping technical tasks for yourself? Your technical expertise was the equivalent of being a standout player, to possibly include being named the most valuable player (MVP) on your team. However, being a coach has little to nothing to do with being a player. Some of the best coaches were never standout or MVP players who graduated to the position of coach. It is critical for you to determine if you are behaving as a player or a coach, as you aspire to lead your team to victory. When I pointedly ask executives this question, the majority of them identify their behavior as that of a player.
Do not despair if you discover that you have been operating as a player or worst, trying to occupy both roles. You can turn in your jersey today and begin embracing the role of coach. For motivation, consider the message you are sending to your staff. You want them to trust you, but it may not appear that you trust them if you don’t delegate effectively. Often, executives forget that their work is to lead when their plates are piled high with tasks. Whether the executive prefers doing the work or has been given the work is immaterial; you have the responsibility to assign work and ensure its completion.
The journey of doing less transactional work begins with placing your focus on transforming employees and organizations. This transformation can begin with coaching and allowing employees to solve their own problems. Your comfort in solving problems should not overpower your desire to see your employees learn this skill themselves. Your most vital roles as an executive leader is to advise, comfort, nurture, and teach the players and that is the work of a coach. The truth is once you are known for your coaching skills, you will have more than enough work. As the word spreads, there will be employees who seek you out. If you want to pursue the role of a coach, consider these recommendations:
1. Dare to let others fail or succeed
Coaches are well aware that their players will not win every game, but they encourage them to make every game their best. You never see coaches telling players to quit when it is clear that they will not win. They learn from every win and loss and you can do the same with your employees. This perspective creates a level of corporate resilience in your team that can be drawn upon when the next crisis arises. Looking back on past failures and successes is one of the proven methods of increasing resilience.
Continuing with the sports analogy, there comes a point in each player’s mind when he/she has the ability to see a play that may work better than the one the coach has suggested. A good coach has prepared their players to take calculated risks when necessary. Leaders build confidence in their team members and encourage them to take shots when they are open. Great coaches prepare their teams for a change in strategy and empower them to make mid-game adjustments. Often, when the score is tight, players do not have time to get confirmation from the coach before they pass the ball or decide if they should take the risk to score. These are often split-second decisions that come from previous coaching, experience, and practice. Leaders who coach create an environment where employees know their value. They also create muscle memory that benefits the entire team when the stakes are high.
3. Ask powerful questions
The best coaches know that the answer their player seeks is inside of them. No one knows you better than yourself and while each of us need connection, we do not always need direction. Part of the growth experience comes from the struggling and being uncomfortable. Asking instead of telling is required if you want to be a valuable coach. Honestly, people do not want to be told what to do, they want to be the captains of their own ships. At best, they want someone to partner with them, and they ultimately want to be heard.
4. Delegate early, often, and effectively
Delegation is an invitation to your employees to get a glimpse of your world, your work, and sometimes your worries. When you empower others with the ability to act in your place or assist with an assignment or project, it creates a bridge that the leader can walk across to reach an underutilized team member. It also provides an established path that the employee can safely travel to bridge the hierarchal divide that exists in many organizations. These early developmental opportunities can serve as opportunities to clarify life purposes and potential next steps for employees.
Executives will greatly enhance their team dynamics by adding coaching to their list of leadership traits. As both a leader and a follower, I have seen the change coaching makes in the organizational culture and the benefits that can be gained in morale. I am officially firing a warning shot that the “Coach More” movement is coming to an office near you! The need for you to leverage your consulting and counseling skills will never go away, but they could be greatly reduced by mastering your coaching skills. Employees are looking for coaches. This is evident by the increased numbers of life coaches and requests for coaching services in the public and private sectors. This generation of employees are anticipating the change and are awaiting the results. The beauty of serving in this leadership role as a coach is that it is a year-round sport. No waiting for a particular season to arrive; the coach can begin recruiting any time and with any number of team members. Although taking on a new role can evoke fear in the best of us, I want to remind you that courage is not the absence of fear, it is moving forward in the face of it.