Creating psychological safety is a buzzword these days, but it is a fundamental concept. It means that people feel comfortable and are willing to share their ideas, make suggestions, and be innovative and creative. It means that as the leader, you listen to people and embrace their recommendations, especially when they differ from what you currently think.

The number one leadership initiative in any organization today is improved coaching. Coaching empowers employees, empowerment drives engagement, and engagement drives performance. At its core, coaching is about transformation. Leading distributed teams requires transforming how we coach and changing our play calls and playbooks to get things done. As a part of our interview series called “Moving From Command & Control to Coaching & Collaboration; How Leaders and Managers Can Become Better Coaches,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Alan Zucker.Alan Zucker has over 25 years of experience leading project organizations in Fortune 100 companies. Currently, he is an agile instructor and coach, helping others build high-performing teams. In addition, he teaches at leading universities and professional development organizations, is a keynote speaker, and is regularly quoted in the industry press.

Thank you for joining us to explore a critical inflection point in how we define leadership. Our readers would like to get to know you better. What was a defining moment that shaped who you are as a leader?I was privileged to work for the United States Treasury Department early in my career. My boss was amazing. He was young, inspirational, and had just received a master’s degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.Tom Peters In Search of Excellence was a leading business book. My boss embraced these ideals and applied them to our work as an internal management consulting team. I was given opportunities to play a leadership role in impactful, major projects. My responsibilities and influence were well beyond my years. Nevertheless, I embraced these challenges and made significant contributions to the organization.The principles of being value-driven, empowerment, simplicity, and a bias for action have stayed with me throughout my career.John C. Maxwell is credited with saying, “A leader is someone who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” How do you embody that quote as a leader?The Maxwell quote is new to me. However, I have lived by a similar Drucker quote, “effectiveness is doing the right things.”The most important thing a leader can do is create the right culture for their organization. To do that, they need to articulate a set of values, display integrity, and live by them. Employees can spot a phony a mile away.For me, an important value has always been empowerment. Leaders display empowerment by letting their teams make critical decisions. And then, when things go wrong, which they sometimes do, treating these as “teachable moments” rather than an opportunity for criticism.How do you define the differences between a leader as a manager and a leader as a coach?The classic definition of leadership and management is that managers “do things right” and leaders “do the right thing.” In other words, managers primarily carry out strategies set by leaders.In the knowledge economy, these roles begin to morph. Managers should be leaders of their teams. They need to create an environment and culture where their teams will thrive and succeed.Research shows that employees’ relationship with their manager is their most important connection to the organization. In high-performing companies, these relationships are strong.The primary difference between a leader and a coach is their level of engagement. Coaches need to be leaders, but not all leaders are coaches. Coaches are close to their teams. They provide guidance and insight. They ask a lot of questions. They help the teams perform.We started our conversation by noting that improved coaching is the number one leadership initiative in any organization today. What are some essential skills and competencies that leaders must have now to be better coaches?It’s simple. Stop telling people what to do and how to do it.Good leaders and coaches establish goals and objectives. Then they help or guide the team to finding the best solutions.Often I will be asked, “I have a problem with my team. What should I do?” My answer is, “ask the team.” Change the dynamic. Have the team be responsible for solving the problem. They will have greater ownership of the solution and know the details better than you as the manager or leader.We’re all familiar with the adage, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” How are you inspiring — rather than mandating — leaders to invest in upskilling and reskilling?Mandating training never works! Particularly if the training is on soft skills. For training to be effective, people need to be motivated or inspired by it. When leaders model the desired behaviors and the staff perceives them as positive, they will also want to learn those skills.Having whole team training is also helpful. The team is a social network. And when everyone goes through the training together, everyone feels part of the experience. Everyone speaks the same language.Several years ago, I took a class about applying DISC profiles to communications. It was transformative for me. So, I brought the company to provide training for my entire team. It was great. Everyone was “all in.” People posted their profiles on their cube walls, which became this inside thing for my organization.Let’s get more specific. How do you coach someone to do their best work? How can leaders coach for peak performance in our current context? What are your “Top 5 Ways That Leaders and Managers Can Be Effective Coaches?”I have spent much time thinking about how to create high-performing teams. Recently, I wrote an article about applying simple rules to this very complex question.The rules I defined were:

  • Empower the team (no micromanagement),Create psychological safety (no jerks), andOrganize for simplicity (make it easy).
  • The most tangible way of creating empowerment is pushing decision-making down to the lowest responsible level. Of course, this is much easier said than done. Because not only does it mean that you allow people to make decisions and figure out how to get things done. It also means that when things go wrong — which they invariably do — you don’t jump in to fix it. You can be there to support or coach. But you do not take it back over.Creating psychological safety is a buzzword these days, but it is a fundamental concept. It means that people feel comfortable and are willing to share their ideas, make suggestions, and be innovative and creative. It means that as the leader, you listen to people and embrace their recommendations, especially when they differ from what you currently think.Organizing for simplicity means embracing Lean thinking and eliminating the things that make it difficult for people to succeed. It can be bureaucratic procedures, segregation of duties, hand-offs of work from one team to the next, unnecessary meetings, or approvals. All of these things make it hard. So if we want people to do amazing things…make it easy!We’re leading and coaching in increasingly diverse organizations. And one aspect of workforce diversity on the rise is generational diversity. What advice would you offer about how to effectively coach a multi-generational workforce? And how do you activate the collective potential of a multi-generational workforce?Too much is being made about the differences between the Boomers, Gen Xers, and Gen Zers and Millennials. I remember the supposed friction between the Boomers and Gen Xers when they entered the workforce.When people graduate from college and start working, they want to feel they matter. That their voice is heard. I remember bumping up against (and that is a nice way of putting it) the older people at my first job. And they were probably only 10 years older than me.My wife and I have four children, ages 25 to 34. They have all entered the workforce, have good jobs, and are succeeding. Of course, there are obvious differences from when we started working. But they have the same aspirations and frustrations we had at their age.If you follow the simple rules, empower people and create psychological safety. Then, everyone will feel that they matter, that they are heard, and that their ideas matter.You’re referring to emotional intelligence, in a sense. What are two steps every leader can take to demonstrate a higher level of emotional intelligence?The first two emotional intelligence steps are self-awareness and managing your feelings, particularly your disruptive impulses.We work in stressful environments. Being triggered by a mistake, your boss, or a deadline is easy. Not letting our anger or fear drive us in those situations is hard. But that is what we need to do.I saw a statistic that managers with low self-awareness create negative environments. And managers that have high-self-awareness have high-performing teams.I’ve been practicing Tai Chi and meditating for over 20 years. After a few years, I noticed I was less reactive at work. The pressures were all there, if not more so. But the way I responded to them changed. And I became much more successful because I had greater emotional self-control.Words matter. And we’re collectively creating a new leadership language right now. What are the most important words for leaders to use now?“What do you think?”Rather than telling people what to do and how to do it, ask them what they think. It’s seemingly small and simple, but it’s powerful. It shifts the entire power dynamic.If you want people to be empowered. Be creative. Bring their whole-selves to work. Invest in them by listening to them. Nine times out of ten, they know what is broken or how to make things better.As a leader, empowering your organization is incredibly liberating. You don’t need to worry about everything. All you need to do is trust, which is not easy.I keep inspiring quotes on my desk. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote,” and why does it mean so much to you?I go back to the management classics.Drucker said, “Leadership is the lifting of a man’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a man’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a man’s personality beyond its normal limitations.”And, Deming said, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.”Leaders. Good leaders create an environment where people can succeed and thrive. Where people feel good about themselves and what they do. When we create that environment, we unlock enormous potential. And that is the most rewarding aspect of being a good leader.Our readers often like to continue the conversation. What’s the best way for readers to connect with you and to stay current on what you’re discovering?The easiest way to connect with me directly is to send an email. I love receiving them and always respond. My email address is [email protected]. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn, write monthly articles on project management and leadership. I publish them on my website,, and on LinkedIn. If you want to subscribe to my monthly email or attend an upcoming class, that information is available on my website.Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.