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Leader as a Coach

If you are a leader, manager, director, or head - please think first about your typical week at work. How many times have you helped your direct reports by trying to solve their problem? With high probability, the answer is almost as many times as you met them.


Is this the optimal approach? How much energy and effort does it require from you? What hidden needs does this approach satisfy? How are your unconscious beliefs the source of this automatic approach? Do you help your team members grow by doing this, or do you do the opposite?


In this article, we will explain why managers fall into the problem-solving trap. We will also show an alternative approach "manager as a coach", and we will explain its benefits and delve into the basics of coaching.


You will learn four practical tools that you can start using right away using the "leader as coach"  management style.


All this will be based on concrete examples and adapted to the everyday life of every leader in today's VUCA world, especially working remotely.

We will also provide precise guidelines on when NOT to use the "leader as a coach" style of management.

1. Problem-solving leaders

Too often, managers feel that the best way to deliver so-called value is to solve someone else's problem. However, over-focusing on problem-solving limits our ability to lead and deprives our team members of opportunities to develop and grow. Not to mention the emotional costs that the manager pays himself.


As a result of this approach, many managers become overwhelmed with responsibilities and burn out. Inadvertently, they also create a culture in which they are expected to respond. And their immediate reports - instead of using their talents and developing problem-solving skills - become dependent on them.


Managers are not really paid to answer every question.

Great managers know they need to invest in the medium to long term: they build a team that is constantly evolving, feels empowered to pursue goals, and systematically achieves a higher level of effectiveness. And personal satisfaction as well. It is very important.


In addition, large, well-organized companies have well-designed career succession programs. A good manager knows that he will not be able to move to a new position until he has raised or identified his successor. So many managers say today that they are oriented towards people and their development.

But how many are really free from the prestige and status that their position gives them? How many at any time would be able to part with their position - without regret or jealousy? (I will not mention parting with the company car).


On the other hand, in the startup environment, the training of managers is often insufficient (if it exists at all) and managers simply lack adequate knowledge in the field of people management. Most managers have not been taught how to identify and evaluate their management style and, if necessary, to change attitudes. Many of them have the best intentions, but to be honest, they are just doing what they do best.

What is the recipe for being an outstanding leader and manager?

Each manager has a specific set of skills, styles, and competencies that he can draw on. The recipe is relatively simple, but it's not easy to implement:


  1. Collect and develop the most diverse set of tools at your disposal,

  2. Wisely and flexibly choose the tool that will be most useful in a given situation.


Default leader's approach: problem solving

We will now look at the approach that takes place in most cases.

Imagine this situation please: You are just starting your morning regular 1: 1 call with a direct report whom you value very much. Before you even started talking about the business, your subordinate started expressing frustration about his role:


“Honestly, I don't feel motivated at work. I am stuck in the details and do not have enough exposure to the strategy. I look around and see my colleagues working on strategic projects that are taking their careers forward. "


How would you approach it?


Most managers will start looking for the source of the problem. And after the (often apparent) problem has been identified, he will go straight to its solution.

The alleged source of the problem will be strongly related to the manager's assumptions and his personal experience to date.


By starting the process of solving the (supposed) problem, the manager will start a really frustrating game that neither side can win. In this game, the manager proposes a solution, and the subordinate, more or less openly, counteracts this solution.

A manager leaves such a conversation thinking that his immediate reporting is difficult, stubborn, and not focused enough on his primary role. Perhaps he even felt his head roll.

And the subordinate will remain with the feeling of being misunderstood and unheard. Maybe even with a sense of rejection and fear for your future.


And as Maya Angelou said wisely: People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how they felt because of you.


Situations like the example above are common in manager-subordinate relationships. When a manager takes a problem-solving approach, he assumes that:


  1. His own experiences are relevant to the other person's situation.

  2. He knows the other person's problem well enough to give him a recipe for a solution right away


But this approach has the following risks:


  1. adopting a wrong solution that makes the real problem even worse,

  2. using a solution that temporarily relieves the pain, but does not resolve a deeper problem

  3. the emergence of a subordinate's long-term dependence on the manager in the field of problem-solving, which deprives the subordinate of development opportunities and the ability to independently overcome their own challenges.

Why are leaders prone to problem solving?

There are two main reasons:


We think we know

After all, we were promoted to the current position because of our experience and skills. After all, we were great at building our knowledge and quickly using it to solve problems. We are programmed to think, "I know the answer, I can add value quickly here" and rush into action without reflection.


We think we should know

Many managers (especially those at the beginning of their adventure in managing people) experience Imposter Syndrome. They may think, “I should know the right answer. Otherwise, if I don't, I'm a bad manager. " In order to protect our own credibility, we give in to pressure and take to solving the problem.


We want to be a hero

And on top of the above two main reasons, there is also the temptation to become a hero. It's a great feeling to be a hero who steps in and relieves someone's problems, and it's hard not to succumb to this temptation.


Manager as a Coach

2. Alternative approach - Leader as a Coach

In fact, in many situations, using the style of a manager as a coach is the most effective approach. Coaching allows managers to shift their attention from themselves to the person they are coaching.


We define coaching as bringing someone from where they are to the place they want to go to by using their own knowledge and resources and supporting that person in achieving their goals.

The key element for a manager acting as a coach is to use his own wisdom, not his own knowledge. When we continuously support our teams with our expertise, we are overly focused on solving the problem based on our past experiences.

Leader as a Coach - when we use coaching to discover someone's wisdom, two important things happen


We invest in their inner teacher

that is, you are not just solving a one-time problem. You help them become aware of patterns and behaviors. This, in turn, helps you to develop your own resources in the future and apply best practices to deal with challenges.


We build self-confidence in them

this means that you will quickly notice a change in your team members' ability to take more clearly and confidently on their own to solve a problem or achieve their goals.

Leader as a Coach - empathic listening + open and honest questions

Before we share some specific coaching tools, let's first pay attention to two basic skills that are necessary to start coaching your direct reports:


  1. Empathetic listening

  2. Open and honest questions


To define empathic listening, let's use observing what is the opposite of empathic listening. It is self-centered listening. We've all been there, or maybe we still do sometimes. Whether it's a 1: 1 meeting with a direct report or a team meeting, we often listen to other people to answer one question:


What does this mean for me?


We listen to react and answer: what should I say next? What conclusion should I draw? How should I interpret it? What does this person need from me? How can I help them figure it out?


This is a natural human reaction because our brains are designed to match patterns and solve problems - which can be very useful in many aspects of our lives.


As we mentioned before: the trick is to choose the right tools for the situation. Therefore, try to develop empathic listening.


Empathetic listening means moving away from "What does this mean for me?" and going to "What's is going on with this person?"

Leader as a Coach - at the core of empathic listening is a very specific intention

It is listening to understand another person's experience: What is happening to him? What does he think, what he feels, and what does he experience?


It's also about being curious and open to options - including things that may surprise us or change our minds.


Thanks to this insight, we unlock previously hidden information that allows us to look at the other person from a much wider perspective.


At this point, it is also worth explaining that empathic listening IS NOT:


  • Trying to feel the same feelings as someone else, because it can lead to taking over other people's anxiety and be a significant cause of burnout among managers,

  • Comparing the experience of the other person with your own,

  • Showing compassion to the other person

Leader as a Coach - asking open questions

The second basic skill of a coach manager is asking open-ended questions. You surely know that we can divide questions into closed and open questions. A closed-ended question limits the way the other person can answer.


For example:


  • Do you agree with this new process we are introducing?

  • Have you thought about doing an X to fix the problem?

  • Do you want to collect data through a survey or interviews with users?


Sometimes this approach can be useful. For example, if we need to quickly decide on an urgent matter. We may not then have time to explore the full range of possibilities.


However, when we are not under time pressure, open-ended questions help the other person gain their own insight and come up with the best ideas for themselves. An open-ended question widens the range of possible answers.

In today's business world, I think everyone knows what open-ended questions are. So I will not devote a place here to define them. For the record, let me just say that these are questions that begin with:

  • What?

  • How?

  • When?

including very powerful questions like What if...? What do you really want? What will it do for you? What are you ready to commit to? When do you want to do this? How will you know that you have achieved your goal?

3. Four practical coaching tools for Managers

Practicing coaching is a lifetime journey. But every journey begins with the first step. We will start it by sharing four practical tools that you can start using right away as a manager. For each tool:


  1. we will present an example of a work situation,

  2. we will show you what the habitual approach to problem solving looks like,

  3. we will share specific tips on how it can be done better using a coaching approach

Coaching Leadership Style - Tool #1 - Changing the expected result or goal

When to use

For example, in a situation where a team member is stuck with a problem - encountered an unexpected limitation in his project, he thinks about it but still does not know how to proceed.

A common approach to solving someone's problem
In this approach, you usually say, "Why is this? How do we usually solve this problem?"

This is why you should use coaching instead: when someone gets stuck in a problem they are struggling with, they usually don't think about what they want from the situation. It focuses on the problem.
And, not knowing what he wants, what he needs most, he is unable to go to it. It focuses on the problem. Coaching can help him move from the problem area to the solution area.

How to apply this tool

  • "What would you most like in this situation?" (repeat this question to make sure it is heard correctly)

  • "When you have it, what will it bring to you?" (this question helps to dig one level deeper and make sure what problem we are really solving)

Tips to keep in mind

Repeat the second question as many times as you need to until you get to the bottom of what your immediate reporting wants from this situation.


Use the exact wording of the questions. For example, saying "you will be" instead of "may" implies that​​ Your direct report will achieve this goal in the future and prompts him to do so.

If what your direct report wants isn't feasible - for example, he wants a difficult teammate to be removed from the team - you can explain why it isn't feasible, and then ask:


“Let's explore this further to see if there is any other possibility. Given the current state of affairs, what else would you like? "

Coaching Leadership Style - Tool #2 - Option exploration

When to use

As a manager, you understand the challenge of a member of your team. What he wants to achieve is clear to him and you. You want to work it out with him.


A common approach to solving someone's problem

If you've taken this approach, you can automatically say, " Have you tried doing X?"  or " I can step in and help you scale it" or "Send this mail to X and Y and copy me on it".


Why use business coaching and the "manager as a coach" style instead

Your direct report may know the context better and have ideas that you don't have. Rather than immediately suggesting what you would do, coaching enables team members to find their own solutions.

How to apply this tool

Ask clarifying questions to help make the options visible and more specific, such as:

  • "What options do you have available to achieve what you want?

  • "What are your options to make progress towards your goal?"

  • "What do you want to try first?"

  • "What other options do you have?" (this question is worth repeating often)

For example, suppose your direct reporting team is working with a creative team whose input is essential before you can move forward with your advertising campaign. The copywriter did not provide any text suggestions, and a member of your team is worried about the status of the entire project. You can then ask:


"What are your options?" and ask your direct report to come up with your own ideas before sharing your opinion.

Coaching Leadership Style -Tool #3 - Strengthening Strengths

When to use

A team member has Imposter Syndrome or feels insecure. He/she doesn't believe he/she can face the challenge.


A common approach to solving someone's problem

If you've chosen the corrective approach, you can say:

  • "Don't worry, you've got it!"

  • "I know you can do it!"

  • "Have more confidence in yourself!"


This is why you should use coaching instead: "patting the shoulder" often exacerbates the Imposter Syndrome and Uncertainty, as it widens the gulf between the expectations it perceives and where the person sees their own abilities. During coaching, we increase someone's self-confidence, making them aware of specific resources at their disposal. This helps the subordinate to understand how they can apply their current skills and strengths in a given situation.

How to apply this tool

Remind them of the strengths they've demonstrated in the past. And ask how they could apply them here. For example:


“I know you are put off by the tight schedule of this project. We both know that one of your strengths is designing under constraints. Earlier this year, you found a creative solution that allowed us to make an effective impact on a key user. What would it be like to take full advantage of your strength in this situation? "


Go beyond shoulder patting. Instead of saying thank you for "great job!" After a team member has made a good sales conversation, see if you can identify the strength he or she has just demonstrated. For example:

"Good job! I noticed that you have built a strong relationship with your client. You made him feel heard and understood. You have dispelled his concerns about the product. The ability to build real trust in interpersonal relationships is a real gift. "

An option to keep in mind

To identify the strengths of your team members in an orderly manner, it is best to get them to take the StrengthsFinder Test (otherwise known as the Gallup Test) and discuss the results together. This test usually yields remarkable findings.


Coaching Leadership Style - Tool #4 - Discovering Limiting Beliefs

When to use

A team member is based on assumptions that may hold him back or someone on his team. To notice when someone is stuck with a limiting belief, be alert to the following phrases:  

  • "I can not"

  • "It's not for me"

  • "I will never be able to ..."

or some other phrase that sounds both negative and constant.


A common approach to solving someone's problem

If you've taken this approach,  most often you will say:


  • "It's not true"

  • "Don't think of yourself that way"


Why use business coaching and the "manager as a coach" style instead

Limiting beliefs are often deeply ingrained and unconscious. Merely expressing disagreement with them does not help the other person to change permanently. Instead, coaching can be used so that, first, it becomes aware of the existence of such beliefs, and second, it voluntarily moves to the step of converting an existing belief into one that will serve it better.

How to apply this tool

Step 1; Start with naming

When you notice that your direct report has a limiting belief, ask him:


  • "What is the assumption behind this?"

  • "On what basis do you think so?"

  • "What makes you think that about yourself?"

Help them name it and even write it down. For example: "I'm too shy to be a leader."


Step 2: Help them separate facts from interpretations

Observations are things we see and hear or what we feel in our bodies. Interpretations are the meaning we give to these observations. We can break them apart and notice that our interpretations do not necessarily follow what we observe in the real world.

For example, your direct report says he gets frustrated when he has to speak up at team meetings. And when it finally does, it speaks quietly and uses a lot of "filler" words. This causes team members not to take his ideas seriously. And they interpret it in such a way that he will never be a great leader.

In this case, you can ask very simple, yet extremely effective questions from the NVC (Non-Violent Communication) method:

  • What do you see? What are you hearing?

  • What do you feel?

  • What do you need the most right now?

  • What would you like to ask for at this point? (also himself)

What is the undeniable fact and what is the interpretation you have added to the situation?

Often, the effective identification of a limiting belief, and above all its source (i.e. where it came from), is already an extremely liberating experience that unlocks new internal resources and radically changes the way you think about yourself and the outside world.

Step 3: Go to the reformulation

Brainstorm alternative narratives that are more positive and helpful. One way to do this is to switch from negative language to positive language.

For example, your direct report changes the original narrative from "I'm too shy to be a leader" to "Because of X, I want to practice my public speaking skills, so I feel better prepared, speak more and more at meetings, and get closer and closer to your purpose. "

Identifying your inner cause, and your true inner motivation plays a huge role here.​

4. When NOT to use business coaching

Of course, a manager who acts only as a Coach will not be very effective. Other skills are also important, such as goal-setting, delegation, and decision-making.

Coaching skills are tools - but NOT the ENTIRE toolkit

Imagine that your direct report wants to understand the organization's strategy and KPIs to know how their work contributes to the bigger picture. In this situation, it would be frustrating and frustrating to start coaching and putting the question back to a member of your team. A member of the team would probably think right away, “You ask  ME, what's the strategy ?! "

On the other hand, it would certainly be helpful if the manager, after explaining the strategy and indicators, would ask open-ended questions in order to obtain feedback from his direct subordinate:

  • "What else could I tell you to fully answer your question?"

  • "How do you feel about the team's goals in relation to strategy now?"

  • "From your point of view, what could be the biggest blind spots in our strategy?"

You are confronted with an urgent problem of high importance

If getting something good is crucial and urgent and the responsibility for a member of your team is too great, coaching is not appropriate. You need to jump in, make a decision, or show a clear direction and be precise about your expectations. Your team members can still learn by watching your instructions and how you handle an urgent situation.

It is imperative to provide your feedback

Coaching does not replace clear, practical feedback, but it can make the feedback more effective. And most of all, it can significantly affect the openness and readiness of your subordinate to receive feedback.

If you see opportunities for developing a member of your team, share your opinion directly. Then add an open and honest question to deepen your understanding of the opinion or brainstorm together the next steps.

For example: “I have noticed that in management meetings you blend in with others to answer questions about your area. I would like you to be the owner of these questions and to demonstrate your knowledge. What do you think would be needed for that? How can I support you in this? "

You train a less experienced team member

Coaching is most effective when a team member already has basic competencies in the task. If a member of your team does not have the basic skills - may be new or is undertaking a project beyond their area of expertise - start with instruction and mentoring.

For example, if a member of your team is giving a presentation to senior management for the first time, it's helpful to share advice on how to formulate your points and structure your slides. You can also add open-ended questions to help him reflect on this lesson:


  • How are you dealing with this new skill?

  • What did you like?

  • What was the challenge?

  • Where do you want to go deeper?


Once they understand the basics, you can spend more time coaching them to help them grow on their own.

You manage a person who has problems achieving the expected results

A direct report who does not meet the basic expectations of his role needs clear expectations about what is necessary in order for him to be considered as having improved. Empathy is important, but asking too many open-ended questions will not ensure success. In such situations, take a more directive approach.

5. How to begin practicing "Leader as a coach" style

Mastering new coaching tools will take time and has to be systematic and consistent. If you want to introduce new techniques to your manager tool repertoire, please keep the following guidelines in mind.


"Start small"

Start with small steps and at the beginning only think about one step you can take to integrate coaching into your management approach. It can be as simple as asking a few open and sincere questions in your meetings  1: 1 this week. Then, over the next two weeks, start rolling out the Expected Result Adjustment tool. And then in the weeks that follow, more caching tools we discussed above.

Make your intentions clear to the team

It can be shocking for team members to notice that you have suddenly radically changed your approach to management. So, explain the context for this change. Let them know that you want to develop yourself and are trying a new approach by introducing more coaching practices into your collaboration.

Ask for feedback and correct your approach

Create a feedback collection plan. Talk openly about what works well and what your coworkers would like to see more or less. Set up regular meetings in your calendars and don't give up on them for anything in the world.

Be understanding and patient with yourself

Everything we do for the first time is imperfect by definition. It's not even optimal. So, not always and not all will go well. After all, that's how experience is gained, and we learn the most from mistakes. Sometimes you ask a question that is missed. Or you will conduct an option exploration session that won't actually lead to a viable solution. All right. Be patient and keep trying. Good management is a practice that we should improve every day.

Ask a more experienced person for support

And once you catch the bug, think about inviting an experienced coach to cooperate with you. Let him become YOUR COACH. Experiencing the Coachee's perspective can prove invaluable in developing your skills as a Coach. Besides, by watching a professional in action, you can benefit a lot from his/her workshop and experience.

6. A final reflection on Coaching Leadership Style

Finally, I would like to invite you to reflect on the following sentence:


Coaching is a skill and being a manager is a role.

In other words, sometimes you become a manager. And once the coaching skill is constantly developed it becomes your asset, which you can use not only at work but in any area of your life.

We haven't mentioned it explicitly, but coaching starts with being able to listen well. And only when you listen you can learn something new.  

Manager as a Coach - 2


I also encourage you to download a free ebook entitled "Library of Questions of an Engaging Leader".

You can find it at the link below:

Engaging Leadership - The Engaging Leader Questions Library

There you will find very specific techniques and methods that ensure the psychological safety of the employee. This ebook in pdf format is getting very flattering reviews, especially from the middle and senior managers. There you will also find, among other things, a special section on leader self-development.

Manager as a Coach - 3
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