Coaching – An Essential Leadership Tool

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By Lt. Colonel (Ret.) Thomas Bowen

Coaching your followers, whether they be US Army Soldiers, West Point cadets, or civilians, is an ideal way to cultivate their involvement in solving their own challenges, engage them relationally, and exercise your leadership.

Although the term “coaching” could connote athletic drilling by your football or softball coach, here we mean it to be impromptu, one-to-one interactions between a leader and his or her led. Alternatively, “coaching” could conjure up visions of a long-term mentor-protégé relationship; in this context, we will confine the term to mean preemptive, informal, in-the-moment interaction between a leader and a subordinate. A coaching interaction can take place on the side of a Stryker infantry vehicle, on the parade field, or in the aisle of a warehouse. As a leader, you take advantage of a coaching moment when you see a follower struggling, or potentially struggling, with a task. Out of pride or embarrassment your follower may not approach you with his or her problem, whereupon you approach that person to avoid a potentially disastrous situation.

As the leader, first consciously determine that you will, for the next several minutes, set all other tasks and responsibilities aside and deliberately coach one of your men or women on a task. You coach on purpose; although you don’t need to announce it, you are intentional in undertaking a coaching opportunity. You switch from directing and guiding to asking and prompting, pulling an acceptable solution out of your follower. You surrender a modicum of control and power through coaching, but, in the end, you and your follower will reap rewards and benefits. Again, your follower may be struggling, or you may anticipate his or her struggling: you coach in the moment while someone figures out how to approach a pending task, or is already in-stride with a task. And, you don’t necessarily prepare for your engagement with your follower: you create the opportunity on the spot.

As an example, perhaps one of your Soldiers is perplexed about how to quickly yet effectively disseminate an important message from the company First Sergeant to all 100 fellow Soldiers in his unit. The unit’s members are scattered about the barracks, the motor pool, and battalion headquarters on work details. Let’s say the Soldier does not have everyone’s smart phone number, email address, or Facebook account, but does have other means—both electronic and physical—at his disposal. How could or would you coach this man?

Seeing your Soldier struggling, yet wanting to accomplish his mission, you initiate coaching by asking your follower what he needs to accomplish. Use open-ended questions when coaching: start each question with “Who,” “What,” “Where,” “When,” or “How.” Be careful of asking, “Why,” as people may see this as judgmental and evaluative in nature. Asking open-ended questions causes your follower to have to think. Thinking causes your follower to consciously weigh variables, criteria, and options in accomplishing his task. Through these mental steps your Soldier—not you—comes to take ownership of his solution. You merely facilitated the process.

Start with broadening questions that engage the follower’s intellect. You may start out by asking, “What do you need to get done?” Wait for a response. Calibrate your next question based upon your follower’s previous answer. Posit leading questions WITHOUT offering solutions; let your follower struggle. Persuade your follower to THINK for himself. Persuading thinking engenders ownership in the solution: HE now owns the solution that slowly emerges from his own thinking, logic, and experience.

Perhaps you may next ask, “How do you think that you can accomplish the task?” Starting from a common point of understanding is key and essential. Go on: “So, what options do you have? What do you have at your disposal? What have you seen others do in undertaking a similar mission?” Guide your follower toward a logical solution, permitting him to surprise you with his innovation and ingenuity. After asking broadening questions, begin to narrow down your questions: “Where do you want to start?” “Who could you employ to help you?” “Who is responsible for what?” “What would that outcome look like?” You do need to emplace limits or guardrails, but as long as your follower’s solution falls within accepted parameters, permit him to execute it the way that he developed it. Occasionally have your subordinate review through paraphrasing what he has devised to ensure that both of you agree on his solution.

I liken coaching a follower to teaching a 1 year-old baby to walk: you crouch down to her level facing her and extending your arms and hands to her, almost but not quite making contact. Your baby stands on her own and takes a step toward you. She then takes another. And another. You back up, encouraging her with words and uplifting facial expressions, yet do not touch her hands. She follows your leading. With your persistence and encouragement she eventually masters walking and will soon start running on her own.

Coaching is a pure form of leadership: your follower assumes ownership of the solution that he has devised with your guidance. Instead of taking direct guidance from you (and potentially misinterpreting, or altogether forgetting or dismissing an aspect of that guidance), your subordinate is now fully engaged intellectually and emotionally in developing his own solution. Instead of drifting off thinking about personal issues while you (again) deliver direct guidance, your follower is fully present. You engender trust, faith, and confidence in your follower.

Coaching a follower eventually develops her to solve her own problems short of needing your intervention. She takes responsibility for asking herself logical questions in a methodical manner. She grows while you grow. She takes greater ownership of your organization while you devote your time and energy to taking on new responsibilities. Imagine what an entire organization of thinkers, solvers, and initiative-takers would look like. Consider what all of the untapped potential—the ideas, initiatives, and wisdom each of us and our subordinates hold—now brought to bear for the good of all would look like. Envision the engagement now activated. Consider how much you will sharpen your leadership quotient through habitually coaching your followers through solving their own problems.

Coaching potentially short-circuits a disastrous situation. True, we all learn through making mistakes, yet we don’t want all learning to come by trial and error!

Thomas Bowen is the father of Joshua. He is a West Point graduate and retired US Army Lt. Colonel who now develops leaders through corporate teaching and individual coaching based in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His opinions are his own and do not reflect that of the U.S Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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