Using a coach approach: the counterintuitive leadership super power

Of all the foundational skills that cultivate high-performance leadership, perhaps no single trait is as powerful and under-utilized, as using a coach approach. In simple terms, using a coach approach means creating space for the perspective and feedback of others. An effective coach uses expansive questions that start with ‘what’ or ‘how’ and then listens to the thoughts, feelings and ideas of others. 

A coach approach a deeply-ingrained aspect of several core techniques of our High-Performance Leader framework:

  • Offering effective 1-on-1s
  • Providing development feedback
  • Involving people in planning
  • Running focused goal review meetings 
  • Holding people accountable

Without using a coach approach, these five critical techniques miss the mark entirely. Take a moment to think about how each of these elements would be undermined by a coercive, directive style of leadership where people are told what to do with limited opportunity to provide input. 1-on-1s are rendered ineffective. Feedback may seem harsh or unfair. Challenges and issues are not surfaced in goal reviews due to a lack of psychological safety. People are held accountable without sharing their side of the story. 

Conversely, if a leader uses a coach approach in these situations they will likely be perceived as more collaborative, inclusive and supportive. The very act of asking ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions creates a safe space for people to share their perspective and feedback. In fact, using a coach approach improves every dimension of the High-Performance Index, having the biggest impact on Teamwork, Psychological Safety, Support, Communication, Flexibility, Fairness, Values, Growth. 

Most leaders find this concept counterintuitive. Our research makes it clear that the majority of leaders are not using a coach approach. Leaders often find it challenging to implement a coach approach. Some people find a coach approach counterintuitive for several reason:

  • No time. In his foundational paper on leadership styles, Daniel Goleman noted that many leaders thought it took too much time to use a coaching style. These leaders wanted near term results. Ironically, the coaching style has been shown to help people grow and rapidly improve performance.
  • Too soft. Other leaders believe a coaching style is too soft and lacks authority. It is easier and more comfortable to use a directive style. They do not realize how much this undermines the performance environment due to an erosion of psychological safety.
  • Not in my nature. I have had clients who avoid using a coach approach because it’s not in their nature. Research on personality type shows a leader of any personality type can be effective. Using a coach approach is one way for these leaders to make a rapid leadership transformation.
  • I need to have the answers. Many leaders have ego tied up in needing to always have the answers. In my experience the most strategic leaders recognize that people closer to the customer or the ‘front lines’ have valuable information. These leaders gather valuable input from others using powerful questions that leverage their deep experience and expertise. Even the Navy Seals, which you might expect to be very directive, delegate mission planning to team members to improve the plan and increase buy-in

How to start using a coach approach. The key to growing as a leader is identifying your development opportunities and leveraging a proven framework to help you accelerate progress. If a coach approach is not your default mode, it is a key style to add to your leadership toolkit. We have three simple ways you can begin to use a coach approach:

  • Avoid giving advice before asking questions. When a colleague or team members presents a challenge, try to ask them three questions that start with ‘what’ and ‘how’ before you jump to the rescue with your well-intentioned advice. A coach approach empowers others to find their own solutions.
  • Use our question list. We offer leaders a list of powerful questions they can use to learn more about a situation, explore possible solutions and co-create immediate actions to move forward. This list is helpful if you cannot think of the next question to ask.
  • Maintain composure when feeling reactive. In situations where you are frustrated or angry, you will find it powerful to maintain composure and lead with a coach approach. I recommend taking 10 deep breaths (to activate the parasympathetic nervous system) and then leading with ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions to explore the situation before making a statement. 

In summary, using a coach approach drives results and can be a catalyst for rapid leadership transformation. It is a simple technique that may be challenging to put into practice. The key is trying it out, perhaps leveraging our three tips above. Perhaps the next time you are in a situation where you are tempted to be directive or have all the answers, you’ll try using  a coach approach. I think the results will surprise you. 

My coaching questions for you are:

  • What do you need to let go of as a leader to embrace and respect the ideas of others?
  • What would enable you to be vulnerable enough to ask your team for feedback? 

Put this into practice

To help leaders rapidly become more effective, we have created The Playbook, our free guide to the foundations of high-performance leadership. If you would like to pinpoint your personal development priorities, take our free High-Performance Leader Self-Assessment or we can help you get a 360° review. 

We empower leaders to make common sense, common practice. How can we help you?