This is part 6 of the 3×5 Leader Development Handbook. I encourage you to start with the introduction here if you have not yet.
I have two whiteboards in my office; a 4×3 ft. one for big subjects and a 2×1.5 ft. “lap-sized” board for smaller scale ones. I’m using one of those whiteboards, if not both, every single day. I use them while counseling my Cadets, for teaching moments to help them make sense of new ways of thinking, and of course, to post the weekly #whiteboardwednesday quote. In fact, I just used my lap-board to draw out the first diagram below for one of my Cadets learning how to create developmental experiences for his subordinate.
I share this to communicate a key leader-developer lesson I’ve learned over the last year: every interaction I have with one of my Cadets is a “developmental communication” opportunity. I view every conversation I have with them, at an individual or collective level, through a developmental lens where I can teach, coach, mentor, or counsel. This applies to discussions in my office, passing a Cadet in the barracks hallway, during room inspections, training, meetings, a formal leader development session, or even running into them outside of the barracks on the way to/from class. Leaders can apply this same lens to their own people and organizational context.
I view leaders’ developmental communication in this way:
Leaders are always interacting with their people through one of the four communication styles: counseling, teaching, coaching, or mentoring. Counseling, specifically attends to the developmental needs of establishing expectations and providing feedback. These types of communication can occur in a formal setting, such as scheduled counseling sessions or a formal block of instruction on a topic in a classroom environment. They can also occur more informally, where leaders develop through unscheduled opportunities while “on-the-job.”
When considering developmental communication, it is also important to emphasize the word communication. Based on my singular experiences in the U.S. Army, I feel that many have lost the art and candor of counseling and giving quality, constructive feedback. Too many leaders view counseling merely as a form that must be signed to meet a routine “check-the-block” requirement. Further, many see feedback as a number and a few sentences on an evaluation form for our subordinate to read and merely sign. Development is so much more than a piece of paper. It is conversation, requiring two-way dialog; development is collaborative.
Leader development is most complete and effective when leaders leverage all four communication styles. All four have varying impacts on our emerging leaders’ development. They also address different aspects of our peoples’ developmental spectrums: their past, present, and future.
Below, we discuss developmental communication, focused on teaching and coaching, which tend to concentrate around “on-the-job training.” This is our first developmental method within the Leader Development Matrix.
Leader Developers as Teachers
Leader developers are teachers; we educate, train, and inspire our people in order to accomplish organizational goals and missions. Leaders train, certify, empower, and trust their people – in that order. Teaching and training are critical foundations to equipping our emerging leaders, empowering them, and establishing mutual trust across the organization.
Moreover, new knowledge & capacities is one of the three components within the leader development process model introduced in the previous part to this Handbook. This component supports the process of leader development by shaping, adjusting, and adding to our peoples’ attitudes, behaviors, and skills. Leaders often enact this developmental process component through teaching.
Teaching can occur formally or informally. Formally, it can be instruction in a classroom setting with opportunities such as:
- Teaching new technical skills: as an Army engineer leader, I’d teach my subordinate engineer leaders how to plan and prepare obstacles in the defense, how to plan and execute as a breach commander, and other necessary skills like direct fires planning. Further, units can create teaching events around their unique planning processes, management systems, and more.
- Teaching the science of thinking in new ways: leaders can develop their young leaders by teaching specific new ways of thinking. This is less about what to think or do (a new technical skill, planning process, etc.), but how to think. For example, we can improve our subordinate leaders’ abilities to make better, more informed decisions by teaching them the SWOT Analysis model as a way to think through necessary factors tied to a decision. As another example, I recently taught my Cadets about Edgar Schein’s 3 levels of an organization’s culture. This helped them think of our company culture through a new lens to better enable them to target areas within our existing culture to improve or change.
- Finally, sessions centered on character, morals, and many of the essential intangible requirements to being a profession. Often the best way to shape attitudes and behaviors in complex, yet highly important, topics like those require multiple, deliberate conversations around them.
Teaching can also occur informally. In the U.S. Army, we tend to call this “hip pocket training.” Consider opportunities where you may have a few free minutes with one person or a small group where you can educate them on a topic relevant to their roles, our organization, and our current mission or goals. Impactful teaching doesn’t require extensive resources or time.
Never underestimate or ignore the power of teaching in leader development. It is the foundation of the developmental process and the primary way we help our people think and act in new ways.
Leader Developers as Coaches
Leader developers are also coaches. As a coach, we help emerging leaders unlock their own potential. Coaching helps teams become more self-sufficient, prevents them from being over-reliant on their leaders, and to be more focused. It also leads them to reconnect to the work that has the most impact and meaning with a renewed ownership of it.
Leaders who are coaches deliberately delay giving guidance and advice, spending more time guiding their people through decisions, thoughts, feelings, and ideas for their people to ultimately achieve their own self-actualization and ownership of the issue or topic at hand. This is most often done through extensive series of questioning, paraphrasing, summarizing, and reflecting.
There are two different types of coaching that leaders can enact: what I call focused and unfocused.
- Focused coaching is when leaders coach subordinates through a specific task or decision that they can certainly make on their own level. It can also focus around targeted feedback. For example, one of my Cadets learned that his self-assessment survey data differed from others’ peer feedback data in his inter-personal tact abilities. So, I used a coaching session to have him explore what this meant to him and how he can work to start improving it. Coaching like that aims to improve targeted areas of reflection, self-awareness, and self-actualization. It is less about the leader telling their people want to do or to offer advice; the leader uses questions and guided reflection to help the other arrive at their own revelations.
- Un-focused coaching comes from unplanned opportunities to interact with your people, such as during your leadership by wandering around time. Leaders can initiate coaching-based conversations with simple questions like “what’s on your mind,” “what is your biggest challenge right now,” or “what are your thoughts on…” Not only do these questions and opportunities help develop our emerging leaders, they also help us by better expanding our understanding on specific issues across the organization, what’s relevant to our people, and to help us get a pulse on what is going on within the team.
Effective coaching takes considerable time and practice. Even after studying coaching for nine months during my graduate program, I needed another nine months of practice to finally feel I was clear in my personal coaching style and competencies. I recommend leaders do two notable things to learn more about and practice their coaching competencies:
- Spend some self-development effort studying the science of coaching. I recommend leaders start with The Coaching Habit, by Michael Bungay Stanier. You can also read two 3×5 Leadership articles on coaching: Coaching – An Essential Leadership Tool and You Need a Peer Coach to Become a Better Leader.
- As a means to help measure your ability to guide and coach (i.e. delaying giving guidance or advice as long as you can), set a goal to try and ask twice as many questions than statements you make in conversations with your emerging leaders. This can be a mechanism to encourage you to keep the responsibility on your people and delay your habit to solve the issue at hand for them.
On to Counseling and Feedback!
I encourage leaders to begin practicing a coaching habit and to be more deliberate in their role as teachers. Beyond teaching and coaching, leaders are also mentors and “counselors.”
The next part of the Leader Development Handbook looks at the second developmental method within the Matrix: counseling, especially exploring the complex topic of feedback. In later parts, within the Matrix’s method four, we discuss mentoring as the last means of developmental communication.
Lead well, friends!
The content and thoughts within this article are my personal views only. They do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Army or the United States Military Academy.
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