To be a better coach, ask better questions. Managers tend to feel the pressure to know the answers and constantly to be seen “adding value” everywhere from meetings to Google Docs. But great leadership is more than that, and the most effective coaches learn how to break the habit of needing to be right or prove their intelligence — not just for their teams, but for their own well-being and ongoing excellence as a manager. This kind of authenticity is a critical piece in building psychological safety, which is a key element in building effective teams.

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 to interview Amy Lavoie.

Amy Lavoie is Chief People Officer at people development platform Torch. As an internal HR practitioner and an external consultant, Amy has spent her career studying and practicing the science of happiness and success at work — guiding some of the world’s biggest brands on how to engage their people for outsized performance. She has also helped lead the development and integration of People Science into products, messaging, and services for Glint, LinkedIn, and Microsoft’s most important HR solutions.

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?

Early in my career, I was in a role where I was the only one on the team that did not have a PhD. This triggered feelings of imposter syndrome in me. It made me feel like an outsider, constantly worrying that I wasn’t as smart as everyone else.

I was very fortunate to have a manager who told me that my particular background was actually a significant strength. They explained that my prior experience meant that I thought about things in different ways and offered a unique perspective that the rest of the team couldn’t.

This revelation had a profound impact on me, helping me recognize the fallacy of solely relying on resumes and credentials. So often we get fixated on pre-defined skills or experiences, but that can potentially limit one’s ability to build a great team. As a result, I am fully transparent in my own career search about the strengths I bring to a role, but also about what I am not. And as a hiring manager, I focus on finding the right fit for each person that I hire, seeking individuals whose qualities and contributions complement and balance the team dynamics. After all, many of the skills we seek from credentials are things that can be taught. But what is harder to discern from a resume are the values and the unique and fresh perspective that someone can bring to a project.

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?

I understand John’s statement as emphasizing that the leader sets the vision, the True North, but also actively hires exceptional people who are inspired by that vision. A leader also needs to be in the trenches with the team when necessary, but able to lift up, stay calm, and know what’s ahead when things are hard.

Ultimately, I think “showing the way” is about giving people the tools, guiding principles and values to be able to make decisions on their own without constant supervision. It involves letting them really be the star of the show. A metaphor I use to illustrate this concept is that I’ll guide you to the door and hold it open for you — but you’ll be the one who walks through it first.

How do you define the differences between a leader as a manager and a leader as a coach?

When I think of the word “manage,” it conveys the idea of a higher-ranking person controlling and directing people below them. Coaching, on the other hand, revolves around unlocking the potential inside each person, enabling them to take control and direct themselves.

I think part of leadership is knowing how to navigate between these two approaches. There are times when acting as a manager is important, especially for individuals who are new to the role, or during tough moments, like dealing with an unhappy customer. In such cases, they may need more of that guidance and direction, and stepping in and taking control can signal that you have their back and are willing to be there when things are hard.

A skilled leader knows how to oscillate between these roles and recognizes which approach the situation calls for. The ultimate goal is to hire the right people and then set them up for success so they can reach their full potential. This is a delicate balance of leading from the front, guiding from the back, and helping each person realize that they have the resources within them.

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?

I think it’s now beyond dispute that relational skills, such as connecting to people and understanding what they need to do their best work, are definitional for good leaders. These skills need to be nourished and strengthened by openness to empathy, good communication, and finding ways to deliver lasting motivation. Maybe all that could boil down to not always giving the right answer, but consistently asking the right questions.

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?

First of all, the limitations imposed by resource constraints in a tight economy create an opportunity to think creatively about investing in the talent that’s already in place. We have all seen changes as we move into a more resource-constrained economy. That can be really hard as a leader when there are hiring freezes or tight budgets, but such circumstances often spark a lot of innovation as well. Constraints can help us think creatively about maximizing what we already have.

At the same time, one of the most important things that I think we as leaders often forget is the significance of prioritization. How do we focus on the most important work and put our energy into that work most effectively? And then what do we need to stop doing to make space for that? Improving our ability to prioritize effectively would undoubtedly unlock the potential of our people in new ways.

Another thing I would point to is finding those success stories in your organization where people have successfully reskilled, upskilled, risen up the ranks from individual contributors to a managerial or leadership role, or had an outsized impact shifting between functions.

We need to publicly celebrate these success stories. It’s especially important to highlight the leaders who invested in helping their direct report find a new play or took a chance on hiring someone who did not fit the typical profile. Managerial mindset or resource hoarding can be some of the biggest barriers to internal mobility and a growth culture. So recognizing the employees and the managers who paved the way serves as inspiration for other managers and leaders across the 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?”

Make leaders aware that employees might need more explicit support during the “moments that matter’’ in the employee’s journey. These include onboarding, promotion, times of personal grief, returning from parental leave and other life milestones. During this time, coaching on topics such as communicating effectively, prioritization, and boundaries can be especially helpful and ensure a smoother transition.

Make online coaching available to as many leaders as possible. A pivot to 1:1 professional coaching via a video meeting removes many location, time, language, and neurodiversity barriers. Think of all the parents, carers, and people who need to be in specific environments 24/7, but could now become part of your next generation of leaders! Leaders who have experienced and gotten value out of coaching themselves can then use these new skills to coach their own teams.

Create a coaching culture, where employees and managers all take a similar “coaching” approach to develop and interact with others. A first step in creating a coaching culture is to expose as many leaders as possible to a high-quality experience with a professional coach. By improving their own self-awareness and other interpersonal skills, leaders are then in a strong position to develop these skills within their own team and across the organization in a positive ripple effect. Research from the Human Capital Institute and International Coaching Federation reports that organizations with strong coaching cultures are more than twice as likely to be classified as high-performing organizations (61% to 27%).

Employ active listening to be a better coach. Listening is a skill that seems easy, but there’s a crucial difference between passive listening, which is what many of us imagine listening to be, and active listening, which is more complex. The father of modern psychotherapy, Carl Rogers, says that we must convey to our interlocutors that we are seeing things from their point of view. Active listeners avoid interrupting, postpone judgment, show our conversational partner we’re interested, and help organize/summarize information.

To be a better coach, ask better questions. Managers tend to feel the pressure to know the answers and constantly to be seen “adding value” everywhere from meetings to Google Docs. But great leadership is more than that, and the most effective coaches learn how to break the habit of needing to be right or prove their intelligence — not just for their teams, but for their own well-being and ongoing excellence as a manager. This kind of authenticity is a critical piece in building psychological safety, which is a key element in building effective teams.

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?

I have to be honest, I’m not a huge fan of talk about generational groups. I believe that kind of thinking, which tries to blanket norms across a diverse spread of people with varying experiences, cultures, and expectations, is unhelpful. Adopting a one-size-fits-all approach like “This is what we do for our Millennials versus Boomers” oversimplifies individuals’ unique needs and experiences.

In my working life I’ve observed that differences between employees are often more closely associated with life stage than the generational label assigned to them. Factors such as whether individuals are new to the workforce, single, buying their first home, having kids, nearing retirement or caring for elderly relatives can have a more significant impact on employees’ needs and perspectives.

I think a more effective approach is to enable each manager to get to know their team members as individuals, acknowledging their own unique stories and aspirations. My advice applies not only to generational differences but also to any aspect of diversity. Taking the time to really get to know the person as an individual with their own unique needs is key.

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?

I think so often emotional intelligence, much like relational skills and the other leadership skills we need, comes down to genuine human connection and fostering meaningful relationships with each other.

To facilitate emotional intelligence and establish a deeper connection, I find it helpful to ask two specific questions:

One question is requesting individuals share two to three people or moments that had the biggest impact on shaping who they are today. This question delves into key, meaningful episodes within someone’s life, allowing them to share their own story. It helps shift the focus beyond their generation, gender, race or ethnicity, enabling a more holistic understanding of their identity.

Another question that is a bit more tactical (and is best for teammates who are ramped in their role) is, “When do you feel like this is the best job for you, and when do you feel like it’s the worst?” This question aims to uncover what energizes someone and taps into their intrinsic motivations. It can shed light on their ambitions, aspirations, and the factors that contribute to their sense of fulfillment and thriving at work. I find the question helps people break away from some of the more simplistic measures like job titles, salary, or career paths and encourages individuals to focus on the specific actions and behaviors that enable them to thrive at work, as well as identifying the obstacles that may impede their engagement and ability to thrive. And I should note: the purpose of this dialogue is not to convey that our job as managers is to craft the perfect job for an employee. This approach surfaces really rich data and an opportunity to be clear about what could evolve and what will not change in the role. This level of connection and transparency can surface a lot of “unlocks,” including whether or not this is the right role for them.

Words matter, and we’re collectively creating a new leadership language right now. What are the most important words for leaders to use now?

Some words that seem so important right now are vulnerability, experimentation, curiosity, and connection.

I keep inspiring quotes on my desk. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote,” and why does it mean so much to you?

I don’t know exactly who to attribute this to, but it’s a quote that I think about all the time and it’s this: “Life isn’t happening to me, it’s happening for me. What is the universe trying to teach me?”

To me, this quote connects directly to some of the principles of conscious leadership I try to practice. I also think it helps us to get out of a victim mindset and into more of a curious, learner mindset. By adopting this perspective, individuals become more solutions-oriented, collaborative, and open to learning from every experience.

I think when people can reframe their experiences from “this is happening to me” to “what can I learn from this experience” it can be incredibly foundational and transformational.

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?

I’d be delighted to connect through LinkedIn–my profile is here.

Thank you for sharing your insights. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.