How Leaders Can Be More Coach-Like

Who are we really serving when we give advice and solve problems for other people? Them? Or maybe ourselves? As managers we often become so adept at problem-solving for others that we risk missing the profoundly effective tool of coaching. What’s the difference?

Coaching is the art of asking thought-provoking, open-ended questions that facilitate self-discovery so the person being coached comes to their own conclusions. While coaching as a leadership skill continues to gain interest and efficacy, many managers don’t want to be coaches. They just want to be more effective managers and team leaders.

The Coaching Habit: How to Say Less, Ask More and Change the Way You Lead Forever”, by Michael Bungay Stanier, lifts the burden of training managers to be coaches and shifts the attention to something we can all do: be more coach-like. We can be more coach-like in a variety of settings simply by practicing the habit of staying curious a little longer and rushing to action or advice-giving a little more slowly.

Why Not Give Advice

Sometimes asking a coaching question is not the answer. Providing a solution may very well be appropriate. However, Stanier asserts that several problems exist with advice-giving as our default.

First, our advice is rarely as great we think it is. When we rush to action and fixing we may not have all of the pertinent information. Plus, we are only viewing the issue from one perspective: our own.

Secondly, the first issue is almost never the real issue. When someone presents a challenge and asks for input, the root cause must be uncovered through questions that prompt reflection. Jumping on the presenting issue as “the” issue typically leads to trouble-shooting the wrong problem.

Finally, fixing the problem for the other person robs them of a growth opportunity. If you want people to grow, to be more autonomous and self-sufficient, you have to be a teacher. To be a teacher you have to understand how people learn and they don’t learn when you tell them things, they learn when they have a chance to reflect.

We are so wired to action, we often risk working flat out on the wrong problems, with limited information while missing teachable moments.


How to Ask Rather than Advise

Here are seven questions in “The Coaching Habit” to have ready in your toolkit when an advice-giving opportunity presents itself:

  1. What’s on your mind? (a.k.a. “The Kickstart” question) – This simple question helps catalyze the conversation and move from small talk to uncovering the challenge.
  2. And what else? (a.k.a. “The AWE-some” question) – The A.W.E. acronym provides an easy-to-remember self management tool to practice staying curious longer. The first answer is never the only one and rarely the best, so this keeps the conversation probing. 3. What’s the real challenge here for you? (a.k.a. “The Focus” question)
  3. What do you want? (a.k.a. “The Foundation” question)

The focus and foundation questions work together to quickly get to the heart of the challenge so everyone’s attention is on the true issue.

  1. How can I help? (a.k.a. “The Lazy” question) – Pausing in this way creates a finish-line of sorts to the conversation and helps replace solution-telling with exploring.
  2. If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to? (a.k.a. “The Strategic” question) – Acknowledging the trade-offs of any decision or commitment saves time in the long-run by recognizing potential distractions before they take hold.
  3. What was most useful for you? (a.k.a. “The Learning” question)

This provides a placeholder for reflection, where the person learns and grows. Coupled with the kickstart question it also builds bookends into the exchange.

Building a coaching habit gives us options as a leader beyond solving problems and giving advice. Doing so will help our team make better decisions, solve problems that are holding them back, learn new skills, and otherwise progress their careers. The best part is that the skill can be learned with a little practice.

How can you develop a Coaching Habit?

  1. Practice. Simply remembering the goal to stay curious longer and give advice more slowly will help. Pick a couple questions from the list of seven and start there. Make them your own by adjusting the wording to fit you. Experiment.
  1. Watch this quick video book summary on “The Coaching Habit”
  1. Listen to this podcast episode for an interview with the author and deeper dive on the seven questions.