Lead by Coaching

By: Anne E. Collier

Ask the right questions to get your team members' best thinking.

An effective leader inspires others by establishing a clear vision for the future, aligning people, and then motivating them to accomplish goals. She cannot accomplish this by merely providing direction. A leader achieves superior results by harnessing each team member's best thinking while building the member's skills and confidence.

How does a leader do this? The most effective leaders use coaching skills. In other words, all they do is ask.

There is nothing wrong with telling direct reports what to do. In some circumstances, telling is necessary to ensure that the purpose of a project or activity is clear. So when is adopting a coaching approach—that is, asking—more productive than telling? The best times to use a coaching approach include

  • when a direct report, peer, or even your boss comes to you with a problem
  • when you bring a concern to the attention of a direct report
  • when you need your teams' engagement and best thinking on a project
  • when you need to work with people who don't report to you.

Coaching is the structured process of asking insightful questions that support the person you are coaching in reaching a goal. The best questions are open ended. Since your goal is to elicit best thinking, the question must be designed to draw out more than a "yes" or "no" answer. The structured process has five steps.

Establish the focus. In this first step, you'll identify three things: the topic of the conversation, the goal regarding the topic, and the goal for the conversation. Suppose a direct report comes to you with a list of complaints. Instead of solving his problems, after listening for a few minutes, you establish the topic by asking, "Which of these issues would you like to focus on?" or "Of all these concerns, which has the highest priority?"

The direct report responds that he would like to focus on his relationship with a peer. Next, you establish the goal by asking, "What would you like to see happen with respect to the peer?" Suppose he says that he would like to have a good working relationship. You then ask, "What would you like to walk away from this conversation with?" He might say that he would like a plan for improving the relationship or even that he would just like to vent. You will never know unless you ask.

Brainstorm. Encourage your direct report to generate ideas for improving the relationship. Unless he is really stuck, don't offer your own suggestions until he has come up with a few of his own. When you do offer an idea, be sure he understands that it is one of many options rather than "the answer." This is particularly important if the direct report fails to take full responsibility for his circumstances, lacks confidence, or gives up easily.

Identify action steps. This is where the plan starts to take shape. Ask questions such as "Out of all of the options, which will work best?" or "What do you think the first step is?"

Identify and address potential barriers to success. This critical step is often forgotten. A plan can't succeed without anticipating trouble spots and necessary resources. Ask questions such as "What has gotten in the way of success in the past?" and "What resources do you need?"

Recap. In the final step, use questions to solidify the direct reports commitment to taking action, reiterate your support, and establish a time to follow up. Ask, "What will you do by when?" or "When would you like to meet to discuss next steps?"

On occasion, you may need to take a step back in the process. For example, you may hear something in the brainstorming phase that causes you to question what the direct report really wants from the conversation. If you do, clarify the focus by asking, for example, "What is really important to you: issue X or issue Y?"

This five-step coaching model is invaluable in conversations with individuals, but you also can use it—or parts of it—in team meetings to ensure that the purpose and desired result of the meeting are clear.

Anne E. Collier, MPP, JD, is a professional certified coach with the executive coaching firm Arudia in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Email: [email protected] © Arudia 2011