Forming the Coaching Habit in 2019

Somewhere between telling your direct reports what to do and taking the action item yourself is the territory of the leader as coach. It’s a hot topic these days. Coaching builds independence, judgment and management depth. It may be the most effective leadership development practice an organization can cultivate.

But it’s time-consuming and often hard to do. Coaching means letting people make their own decisions. It means staying out of the weeds, allowing them to struggle and even to fail. Since their deliverables are undoubtedly important to the organization, the idea of risking failure can seem counterintuitive and even silly. But like all worthwhile investments, getting a measurable and positive return requires some tolerance for risk.

An organization that wants to create leadership depth and judgment needs to provide opportunities for that kind of risk. Solving problems for a more junior manager may be expedient, but it does not provide a learning opportunity — except in the simplest of situations. So how does a leader balance between using challenge to build capacity and just solving the issue and getting on with it?

Start with some basic “leader as coach” training. Coaching is a skill. Like most skills, success is a combination of instinct, training, desire and practice. The coaching role is often counterintuitive to the leader who is more focused on near-term efficiency than longer term development. Developing a coaching culture requires understanding how to balance these two important organizational needs. Training for executives who want to have access to a more coaching-oriented style — especially those in direct reporting lines — is very different from training for inside staff coaches or external executive coaches. A good place to get a sense of how coaching your directs and staff would work is Michael Bungay Stanier’s very practical book “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More and Change the Way You Lead Forever.”

Stanier models a simple structure for coaching that can become a regular, informal way of working with staff to develop judgment and leadership depth and yet remain in touch with enough detail to sleep at night.

Ease into it slowly. Creating a coaching culture and sometimes trading the efficiency of simply providing an answer is often a radical departure. Most companies thrive on efficiency, and a desire to move quickly will generally overpower the concept of coaching over direction. And yet a coaching approach may be the very best preventive to what William Onken called “collecting monkeys” in his Harvard Business Review article “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey.”

A coaching approach leaves the accountability for getting a task or project done with the original owner.

One of the biggest challenges organizations have in making this transition is helping their more senior leaders recognize a coaching opportunity and show a willingness to make developing the next generation of leadership at least as important as getting the project done.

This is not the kind of developmental program to throw a lot of money and internal PR at. Getting senior leaders, including the one in the mirror, to start adopting a coaching stance more often allows the changes to be more organic, more powerful and more specific.

Provide support to leaders who are learning to coach. Coaching is more art than science — even coaching direct reports. Having a resource who can coach the coach provides a platform for developing skill.

A qualified external coach can work shoulder to shoulder with executives, modeling a coaching style and helping the leader to develop his own capacity to coach. Internal coaches and leaders are not held to the standard that a credentialed external coach is; however, the ability to apply coaching skills is a learned behavior. Like any other skill, practice and coaching can help with the transition.

This is the time of year when we personally as well as organizationally are setting goals for next year and making promises to ourselves about personal changes in habit. Want one with leverage on the organization that can simplify your life? Consider forming a coaching habit in 2019.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, December 24, 2018.