Lead With a Coaching Mindset

When employees serve in multiple roles, leaders are under pressure to manage better—which calls for a more questioning, encouraging management style.

In associations, we tend to think about those familiar “many hats” through one perspective: the people who have to wear them. And though just about everybody I’ve ever talked to about the phenomenon has a smirking sense of humor about it—OK, guess I’m VP of global operations now on top of running membership—there’s no question that it’s a challenging position to be in, not just for the people who have to do the job but for those who have to manage them.

For leaders, that means supervising a team may have to evolve beyond the familiar command-and-control role that typically involves enforcing job responsibilities and making sure everybody hits their targets and deadlines. In that context, management shifts into more of a coaching role, to help employees stay flexible in a workplace that’s consistently asking them to do new things.

Ask employees what their goals are. Ask what impediments they’re facing in getting work done.

In “The Leader as Coach,” published recently in Harvard Business Review, London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra explores the new skill sets that managers need to acquire to do this kind of work. Ibarra’s model is one in which “managers give support and guidance rather than instructions, and employees learn to adapt to constantly changing environments.”

Which isn’t simple, of course. But Ibarra suggests that managers can do much of this by finding a sweet spot between old-fashioned command-and-control oversight (what Ibarra calls “tell” mode) and laissez-faire attitudes. Too much of the former and you’re seen as a taskmaster; too much of the latter and you risk being perceived as oblivious to the challenges your employees face.

Between those poles, Ibarra writes, is “nondirective coaching,” in which a leader focuses more on listening to employees rather than prescribing solutions, “helping them learn to resolve problems and cope with challenging situations on their own.” In a more perfect world, leaders are what she calls “situational” coaches, providing general guidance to employees in new situations, but generally trusting those employees to have the ability to manage new tasks on their own.

Though Ibarra doesn’t state it explicitly, the keys to becoming a good situational coach all circle around one basic recommendation: Be a person who asks questions. Ask employees what their goals are. Ask what impediments they’re facing in getting work done. Ask what you, as a leader, need to know about the challenges inherent in a project. And ask them what they’ll do to get the job done—rather than tell them how to do it.

“To broaden the conversation, sometimes it’s enough to ask something as simple as ‘If you had a magic wand, what would you do?’” she writes. “You’d be surprised how freeing many people find that question to be—and how quickly they then start thinking in fresh, productive ways.”

I’m a little skeptical about how far that magic-wand question will get you, especially at first. The answer might be: “I’d hire two more staffers to get us through this project.” But I have no doubt that there’s a value to leading with questions to get through challenges. Earlier this year, Associations Now’s Allison Torres Burtka wrote about how the healthcare association CareSource implemented a coaching program for its leaders as the organization began rapidly expanding. In that coaching environment, one staffer explained, participants were asked to address questions: “What are the specific kinds of things that we can be doing to impact this topic or area? And what are we open to committing to each other around behavior change, or sometimes process change?”

The coaching approach had a bottom-line impact at CareSource, which says it saved more than $3 million thanks to employee retention, increased efficiency, and avoiding the need for overtime and consultants. Smaller associations will always face the “many hats” problem. But a more empathetic, questioning approach can help you better lead your employees through it.

(fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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