Leader as Coach: Using Coaching Techniques to Develop Talent

Empower employees with your words and actions.

Use coaching techniques to develop talent within your organization and frame-up the learning opportunities for employees.

If you’ve hired reasonably well, then you have smart, capable employees who are eager to do great work. Leveraging coaching-oriented questions as managers allows our teams to generate fresh ideas and diverse perspectives, enables us to use more of our right-brain (creativity), and moves us away from the old talent management philosophy that “more of the same is better” when it comes to our employees’ approaches to work.

I once personally struggled with this as a business leader.

Holding the Reins Too Tightly

Several years ago, I created a workplace coaching and training program. This was meaningful work and a rare opportunity to create a program that would impact the work lives of many individuals and subsequently also the countless employees they touched for years to come. There aren’t words to accurately depict the amount of effort (mental, emotional and other) that went into creating and delivering it. I felt close to it. When it came time to expand the program and hire new employees, I held the reins tightly. It had been such a risky endeavor initially that I wanted to make sure we were careful to safeguard how we delivered it and that the program remained repeatable for years to come. I came to understand that in “protecting” the program I missed out on some early opportunities to innovate it. I took the approach of “telling” and “mentoring” the new employees I hired. It took me a few months to get clarity that I needed to be using more of the coaching techniques this very program instilled across the organization. Oh, the irony, right?!

Leader as Coach

There is commonly confusion as to what it means to coach in the workplace. Leaders often approach a situation intending to coach but end up mentoring instead.

Short comparison: Coaching involves challenging the perceptions, limitation and ideas an employee has as a method to enable them to arrive at their own idea or solution. Mentoring involves giving an employee the answers and informing them of the best path to the desired result.

Don’t get me wrong, as a leader you need to provide some of the answers, but using coaching language allows the employee some creative license and immediately moves them from their left-brain “doing” and following instructions to their right-brain “creating”. Fresh ideas and diverse perspectives are the result of employees working with both sides of the brain.

Characteristics of Leader as Coach

Characteristic: The leader empowers the employee in word and action.

“This is an important project. That’s why I’ve asked you to tackle it. I’m also working on lightening your workload a bit so you can focus on this immediately.”

Characteristic: They tie work assignments to employee development plan (low hanging fruit when it comes to employee satisfaction). As leaders, we often give our employees projects to help them develop, but we fail to frame them as such!

“In your review, you expressed interest in having your hands in more strategic work.” OR “I’m intentionally not going to give you all the answers for this project. As much as possible, I will coach you into finding your own.”

Characteristic: The leader asks open ended questions to help the employee expand their thinking, but doesn’t give them all the answers.

“When you envision yourself putting together a presentation of the solutions, what else might you need to ensure you put your best foot forward on this project? What information do you think our clients will want to hear about?”

Characteristic: They create feedback channels and opportunities for more coaching.

“What is another way to look at this problem/solution?” OR “Put yourself in our customers’ shoes. How will they react to this?” OR “What can you do to take this to the next level?” OR “Where else can you draw inspiration from for this?”

Things to Keep in Mind

When you introduce coaching conversations into any relationship, both sides will need practice. As a leader, the practice is not only in asking coaching questions, but also in providing just the right amount of guidance (which will vary by employee). Perhaps the greatest challenge for leaders who take a coaching approach is that they must also be open to allowing employees to deliver a work product that is uniquely theirs. Often, there is more than one way to provide solutions, services and experiences for our clients. It is often difficult for leaders to accept anything that doesn’t “look and feel” exactly like their own work product.

What’s in It for the Leader

When, in the scenario I referenced earlier, I made the shift to coaching mode, the program blossomed. My employees started to shine in ways I hadn’t allowed them to. (As a Talent Development professional, that is so hard for me to cop to, but it is true.)

As leaders, we have ample burden and responsibility. Ironically, our employees would LOVE to have some of it. When we coach, we gain greater trust in our team. We relinquish some control. We start to trust that the results will be there. Everybody wins.

Don’t be selfish with the learning opportunities you may be sitting on and unwittingly withholding from your team!

If you are new to coaching, make sure you give yourself enough lead time to work through iterations together. You’ll get better at this type of communication over time and will quickly develop your go-to coaching questions and techniques. These are phenomenal additions to your leadership toolbox!

Originally published at

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