In the geopolitical uncertainty following the Cold War, U.S. military leaders found themselves in uncharted territories. The world had become volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous — or VUCA, as they called it. That same term has also been used to describe today’s business environment, and industry leaders find themselves in similarly new territory. In a VUCA world, traditional command-and-control management styles simply don’t cut it.By contrast, the best modern managers coach and empower their people to think critically and adapt fast, and it’s a learning process that takes significant time and trust. Still, it’s worth it. According to an ICF report from 2014, preparing managers to be good coaches boosts employee productivity and customer service by up to 39 percent.
Turning managers into coaches
Companies that are aware of even the most basic coaching principles recognize that adults do not respond well to being told outright what to do. Instead, as research has shown, people need to discover new ideas and practices for themselves; that is, they benefit from leadership coaching.
Through the act of asking questions, having targeted conversations, and engaging people in practice and discovery, leaders can motivate significant changes in attitude and behavior back on the job — changes that can improve job performance. Knowing this, companies have recognized the benefit of embedding a coaching culture in their organizations, undertaking countless initiatives to inspire their leaders to become better coaches.
But do these leader-as-coach initiatives work? Have they successfully created coaching cultures? The results are mixed. Almost all big businesses have some sort of coaching skills program or initiative, but very few can call their initiatives successful.
Why is this? Unfortunately, too many coaching programs are written as if business still existed in a linear world. For example, the preponderance of the GROW model (set Goals, recognize Reality, identify Options, and Will it forward) shows a predilection for structured tools. Valuable as they are, however, structured tools aren’t necessarily the key to the agile transformation that businesses need in today’s fast-moving VUCA world.
So what does work? These four concepts are central to building into your business a coaching culture that gets results.
- Make every minute count. In order to become effective at professional coaching in a time-pressured world, managers have to retrain themselves on how to be fully present in one-on-one situations. Your presence as a coach is the single most important factor in your relationships. If you are distracted, judging, or worried about the other person, then it won’t matter how good your coaching is. It is better to have fewer, shorter, totally present interactions than to spend a longer time together with a lower quality of focus.
- Emphasize everyday brilliance. Bring coaching to life at every opportunity by focusing on the everyday brilliance of your regular interactions rather than the occasional intimacy of long one-on-ones. Be sure to define and communicate which moments make a difference. What does it look like when someone starts a new task? How do they respond to making a mistake, and how could they respond differently? An overemphasis or reliance on processes such as the GROW model will cause you to miss those moments and miss the point of your relationships. Instead, stay engaged with daily activities — the ones that add up to new habits that improve performance.
- Avoid cookie-cutter training. Successful leaders encourage growth in others, but sometimes they express ideas in ways that aren’t easy to understand. It’s important to embrace that leadership that speaks to different ways of inspiring others. For this reason, you need to teach your leaders situational awareness: the ability to know when and how to adapt their instinctive approaches to fit others’ needs.A good leader should be able to fluidly switch between styles. You’ll need to determine when it is best to step back and trust, as opposed to when it is time to ask the probing questions. When is it appropriate to share your own experience, and when it is best to provide challenging feedback? Each of these strategies has its place, and great line manager coaches know how to use the right mix at the right time.
- Focus on conversations, not questions. Abandon the notion that all a coach needs is the ability to ask great questions. Good coaches should use their adaptability to turn thoughtful questions into great conversations. Sure, questions are at the core of great coaching. However, having analyzed our database of more than 120,000 coaching conversations shows that distinct conversations will drive distinct changes.
With a VUCA environment in business today, managers can no longer rely on linear, cookie-cutter techniques to inspire people. Managers can take inspiration from coaches and learn how to adapt, be present, engage in conversation, and celebrate daily brilliance. By doing so, managers and their teams will become adept at navigating a volatile, confusing world with confidence, resilience, and adaptability.