Leading Through Coaching

Next week, I return to San Antonio for the second of three visits this year, attending the Texas Connection Consortium conference. If you’ll be in attendance, I hope you join me on Thursday morning. I am leading a session where we will explore how being more coach-like can improve your relationships as a leader and a human.

Here’s a preview of what you can expect.

What is Coaching?

When we coach, we recognize that the coachee is whole, creative, and resourceful. We are a confidential thought partner, creating a safe, high-trust space. We ask thought-provoking questions to support the coachee’s reflection and growth.

Coaching is often contrasted with mentoring. When we mentor, we pass our knowledge and advice on to the mentee, offering advice and drawing on our past experiences. Both skills are crucial for a leader (and for a coach, in my opinion), and part of the dance is knowing when to shift and making sure the coachee is always in the driver’s seat for where you go next.

See my Coaching Discovery post for more details about coaching, mentoring, and other adjacent services.

Be Confidential

One of the most crucial aspects of any coaching relationship is confidentiality. Coachees will not bring their whole, transparent selves to the conversation if they suspect the coach will share with someone else.

In a formal coaching relationship, this confidentiality is made explicit in the coaching agreement. Both the coach and coachee commit to maintaining confidentiality. As a leader looking to coach your employees, this confidentiality is usually not explicit. If anything, there is an assumption that the leader can and will share what is discussed with their boss or human resources if they think it’s for the good of the company.

To be more coach-like, you will need to invest in trust actively. Be explicit about confidentiality, and be sure you actively demonstrate that commitment to confidentiality. If actively demonstrating confidentiality seems like an oxymoron to you, consider the people in your life prone to gossip. The ones who assure you that your secret is safe with them, and then in the next breath share something about someone else that you are pretty sure that person would not have wanted shared. When sharing someone else’s story, always pause to consider whether this is your story to share.

You will undoubtedly find yourself in situations where, in a coaching conversation, the coachee shares something in confidence that you think is in their best interest for you to share with someone else. This situation is more straightforward to solve than you may think.

Ask permission.

Sometimes, a coachee has shared a story, and I felt I could support them by discussing it with someone else. Whenever I find myself in this situation, I explain what I have in mind and ask if they are comfortable with me sharing. Usually, they are fully supportive. When they are uncomfortable, I put the idea out of my mind.

Be Curious

Curiosity is an essential ingredient in a fulfilled life. It is a powerful tool for cultivating wonder.

Within coaching, curiosity enables us to shift our focus from ourselves to others.

Think back to a heated debate you had with someone in the past. What was going through your mind as you tried to win the argument? What did you think was going through the other person’s mind? If your recollection is similar to mine, this wasn’t a space of curiosity. This was a space of being right.

When we want to be right, we do not listen well. We think about what we will say next and how we will counter their argument. When we do this, we spend time in our own brain, with our own thoughts. We already know what’s in there.

We learn what’s in the other person’s mind when we are curious. We expand our understanding of the situation, make new connections, and extend our minds.

When mentoring someone, it can be easy to map what they say to your past experience, searching for the solution. It isn’t about being right but tapping into your expertise to solve their problem.

When you coach, you bring curiosity. You are given the exquisite gift of exploring someone else’s mind and learning what wisdom they hold that enables them to craft their own solution.

I often help leaders adopt a simple practice to support their curiosity. Before a discussion, they take a minute to consciously commit to curiosity. When they find their mind drifting in the conversation, away from the coachee and towards their own inner thoughts, they remind themselves to be curious, drawing their attention back to the coachee.

Being curious may not feel comfortable at first, but it gets easier with practice. Avoid questions that can be answered with a yes or no. These do not create a space for exploration. Ask open-ended questions that engage real reflection.

Here’s my shortlist for curiosity as a coach:

  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Ask one question at a time.
  • Be comfortable with silence.
  • Channel your inner Sherlock Holmes.

Be Present

As I wrote about last month, I am passionate about presence. This is another essential ingredient in the recipe for a fulfilled life. I’ll defer to that article for some finer points on building presence, but I’ll share a few coaching-specific observations here.

Whether coaching, mentoring, or just a friendly catch-up, I believe any human interaction is worthy of your full presence. One strategy to support this is to remove the distractions. Close the laptop. Turn off the phone. If you’re in an office, shut the door.*

I also encourage you to prepare. One of the many gifts of my BEabove Leadership learning was a coaching invocation. It’s taped to my wall, and I recite it aloud before each session. This practice connects me with my care for the other person. It shifts me out of “being right” into “being curious.”

Follow the Arc

The coaching conversation is a journey with lots of space for exploration and discovery. We can make it more effective by applying a touch of structure, using the Arc of Coaching. Plenty of resources are available on this subject, and I suspect each coaching school has its own unique flavor. At its essence, here is what the Arc means to me:

  1. Identify the coaching topic.
  2. Explore the topic to generate a shared understanding and identify the desired outcome of the conversation.
  3. Curiosity ensues as the coachee and coach embark upon discovery and exploration around the topic. Learning and growth occur.
  4. With the coach’s support, the coachee identifies learning, next steps, and any requests for accountability.
  5. Celebrate the learning.

I encourage you to focus on the bookends as you strengthen your coaching muscles. When your coachee shares their coaching topic, avoid the temptation to dive right into coaching. Be curious to understand why that topic is important and what success looks like to them.

As you wind down the conversation, encourage your coachee to share what they have learned. Work with them to co-create a practice that will enable them to reinforce their learning.

This last step is why my blogs have evolved to always include this final section😊:

Putting It Into Practice

I encourage you to look for opportunities to be more coach-like in every aspect of your life. Here are a few techniques:

  • Understand the distinction between coaching and mentoring and when each is appropriate.
  • Build a space of confidentiality and trust.
  • Be exquisitely curious.
  • Be fully present, committing your whole self to the conversation.
  • Create a coaching journey by following the Arc of Coaching.
  • Enlist a coach for yourself to experience coaching firsthand and learn from the experience.

I am an executive coach and life coach with software executive roots in higher education and EdTech. I coach because I love to help others accelerate their growth as leaders and humans. I frequently write about #management, #leadership, #coaching, #neuroscience, and #arete.

If you would like to learn more, schedule time with me.

Want to comment? Join the conversation on LinkedIn.

* Early in my leadership career, closing the door for 1:1s felt out of alignment with my commitment to an “open door policy.” I quickly realized how awkward it was to have to get up in the middle of a conversation and close the door. It shifted the energy. Having someone pop their head in and interrupt for a “quick” question was also distracting. So, I quickly adopted the practice of always closing the door for meetings.

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