Coaching for peak performance is not just about talking to someone about the great things they’ve done. It’s talking about where they can improve. It’s challenging them.
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 Bill Partin.
Bill Partin is Founder and Chief Encouragement Officer of The Leadership Bet, LLC and former President and CEO of Sharonview Federal Credit Union. He has 40+ years of experience in the financial services industry and a passion for developing leaders, driving results and creating an energizing work culture. His passion for leadership led him to establish The Leadership Bet, a consultancy for leaders, and to write a book, “The Leadership Bet: Great Leadership Transforms Lives.”
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 started in the financial services business when I was 20. And for the first almost 10 years of my career as I was climbing the ladder in banking operations, I wasn’t a leader. I was a manager. Six or seven years in, I started thinking about what makes someone a leader. It’s a question I’ve been studying ever since.
I’m a big checklist guy, and I thought there’s got to be a checklist, a formula out there. I spent a couple of years looking for the formula, but I never found it. Ten years into my career, I hired a sales manager who was a totally leadership-minded individual. He introduced me to Jim Rohn, the business philosopher.
That sales manager — who’s still a friend 32 years later — told me about the theory that leadership means, among other things, working harder on yourself than you do on your job. That was a great bit of insight — and one I’ve taken to heart and shared over the years with my teams.
Leadership is a lifelong pursuit. It ties into that idea of trying to be the best version of me I can be — another adage I live by.
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’ve got more tread wear on my leadership tires now. I don’t have all the answers, but I feel equipped to share my ideas with others. I keep trying to improve my leadership game, and that’s one fitting reason I named my consulting business The Leadership Bet.
The thing leaders most often ask me about is failure. They want to know about the times I’ve fallen down and picked myself up. And if I can help someone avoid a mistake I made, I’m all for that.
I try to practice what I preach. That’s the “knowing” part. You can do that formally and informally. There’s a calling in me to help others discover their own leadership voice. And this goes back to my response to your first question. There is no leadership checklist. It’s an individualized thing, which is the “going the way” part.
Everybody’s got a different style, a different way of delivering information. Everybody’s got a different mindset, a different perspective.
As far as “showing the way,” I recently stepped into semi-retired life after leaving a wonderful team at Sharonview Federal Credit Union. When I began consulting — as I did right after retiring — I started a group just for small business owners in the Charlotte, North Carolina, and Columbia, South Carolina areas.
I call it LEADwell, and we meet in person once a month. We discuss the inherent struggles of running a small business and how to avoid common pitfalls. Sometimes, there’s a spiritual vein to our business learning portion of the meeting — but not always. They’re starting to make connections and develop their own relationships within the group, which I love to see. I’m not the only one speaking; I’ve brought in speakers I admire. After a career spanning more than 40 years, I’m using that experience to show the way.
How do you define the differences between a leader as a manager and a leader as a coach?
For me, this question ties to the idea Ken Blanchard talks about in “Servant Leadership in Action.” I deeply believe in Ken’s idea that being a good leader involves developing relationships and getting results.
I think managers focus too much on just the results side — getting things done, making things happen. But building relationships? That’s part of what a coach does. That’s where I’m getting to know you as an individual, what makes you tick, what’s going on in your family, what you enjoy doing outside work, those types of things. My job as a coach is to help you improve your skills so we can reach the objectives we have as an organization.
We’ve all worked with people who are super results-oriented but don’t seem to care much about anybody. They won’t let anything stand in their way of getting results. They’re going to roll over people, if necessary. I call it “leaving people in your wake.” Those are the people who may appear successful, but there’s never going to be anyone who shows up to their victory party.
On the other end of that spectrum, you could be the nicest guy or gal at the office but unable to get anything done. And that’s not helping the business. That’s why I say leaders who are also coaches are concerned about both results and relationships. You’ve got to strike that balance. You can’t be all relationships, no results. Neither can you be all results, no relationships. Leaders must be both.
In my consulting practice, I’m seeing that business leaders are no longer willing to sacrifice people for results. You’ve got to help create engaged employees today if you hope to retain them in an environment where many employees say they’re currently looking for a new job.
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?
My answer goes back to looking at the individuals on your team as whole people and acknowledging that they’ve got a life outside the company. Leaders who aspire to be coaches need the emotional intelligence to have empathy for their employees and understand who they are as people.
As a coach, I’ve also got to be self-aware and open to feedback around my own blind spots and the impact I have on others.
But the most essential skill a coach/leader needs, if I had to pick just one, is collaboration. As humans, we’re built to work with other folks.
Leaders have to be open to new ideas while embracing proven leadership theories and practices. Patrick Lencioni talks about that in his new book, “The 6 Types of Working Genius: A Better Way to Understand Your Gifts, Your Frustrations and Your Team.” It’s fantastic, straightforward and easy to understand.
There’s a lot of work involved in becoming a better coach. I often say: If leadership was easy, everybody would be doing it. Bottom line: You can’t just mail it in. You’ve got to be prepared.
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?
As far as providing feedback — which is preferable to issuing a mandate — I’ve always used the situation/behavior/impact model from the Center for Creative Leadership. It’s one I’ve taught for years, and it’s research based. The premise is you want to catch folks doing things right. And you try to go for the 4:1 ratio.
A good leader will provide you four pieces of positive feedback for every one piece of constructive feedback. You can see how that model takes the judgment out of providing feedback. It’s really about helping someone understand they had a great moment or did a great thing, and they should keep it up. You still have to address the moments that need improving, but it’s accepted so much more readily when there’s a 4:1 ratio.
Feedback should always be specific. Leaders have to give concrete examples of behavior that’s commendable and things that need improvement. By the way, the ratio for giving feedback within families is 9:1. Parents should be giving nine pieces of positive feedback for every one constructive. If my child brought home five A’s and one C, I shouldn’t focus on the C. And that’s too often what happens.
Feedback should help and inspire somebody to improve. For it to do that, you’ve got to establish trust. In other words, give assignments and provide some guardrails, but after that, let the person go to work. Give them coaching along the way and suggest course corrections, if needed.
When somebody’s doing something right, good leaders reinforce that. When an employee makes a mistake — and we all do — discuss it without belaboring it.
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?”
First, let me say that meeting frequency is important. I used to meet individually with each member of my executive leadership team every week for 30 minutes. We had it down to a science. We’d share what was going on in our own lives as well as addressing projects and how their people were doing.
Coaching for peak performance is not just about talking to someone about the great things they’ve done. It’s talking about where they can improve. It’s challenging them.
As for five ways to be an effective coach, my first one is to ask great questions. I’m a talker by trade. I mean, I’m an off-the-charts E on the Myers-Briggs scale. When I was coaching folks, I realized I was talking more than they were talking. My executive coach said, “Hey, Bill. You need to work on asking great questions. You need to prepare, in advance, two or three questions specific to the person you’re meeting with.” She helped me get out of my own way.
John Maxwell wrote “Good Leaders Ask Great Questions.” After reading it, I started prepping questions in advance of my meetings. And then, I forced myself to shut up and listen. I began talking for around 15% to 20% of the time, so the person I was meeting with could talk 80% of the time. I started taking copious notes, asking clarifying questions.
Suddenly, I started hearing what people were passionate about. We could brainstorm, but I wasn’t going to solve their problem. I’d help them think about how they could solve it and get around the obstacle. It allowed them to feel empowered. They knew I trusted them to solve the problem. “If you need my help, I’m here,” I’d say. An effective coach doesn’t prescribe. They listen.
The second concept: Listen intently. In this new world of Zoom and Microsoft Teams, it’s gotten harder. There are so many distractions. It’s hard to “read the room” over Zoom. I’ve found that taking notes keeps me focused. It’s said that Bill Clinton is such an active listener that he’s, in fact, an aerobic listener. People have reported that, when they’re in conversation with him, they feel like the only person in the room. His total focus and attention are on the person speaking. I love the idea that, when you’re talking to somebody, it’s 100% eye contact. They feel like the most important person in the world at that moment.
The third thing for me is to challenge appropriately. As a coach, I often want to push someone beyond what’s comfortable for them — not in a destructive way, but to expand their belief boundaries. You know, you may not believe you can do more than you’re currently doing. But what if someone told you were capable of more?
When I was a sophomore in high school, our football team was running 40s. The coach would blow the whistle, and off we’d go. A guy on the team, Joey Parga, tells me in a whisper he thinks I can beat the fastest guy on the team. And guess what? I did beat him in the 40, and I’ll never forget that feeling of: Oh, my gosh. I can’t believe what I just did. Today, at almost 63, I’m still pretty quick. And it all started because Joey blew up my belief boundary.
That’s the power of challenging appropriately. Sometimes, we can see something in someone else that they’re not seeing in themselves. Joey planted that seed, and, within two minutes, I was able to test it. Even if I had lost the race, I think I’d have still come close because someone had told me I could do it.
When I got hired at Partners Credit Union when I was 45, my mentor put me in charge of the contact center. I told him I’d never done that before, so he gave me a book on call center management by Brad Cleveland. He told me, “I won’t let you get yourself into trouble. If you start feeling wobbly, come talk to me.”
It turned out to be a lot of fun, and I learned a ton from the smart people working for me. I was challenged appropriately and succeeded at something I wasn’t sure I could do.
Fourth component: Praise often. Catch people doing things right. Give someone an assignment, keep an eye out, but don’t keep your hands in it. Let them know you’ve got their back. Then, praise them for a job well done. If you’re catching people doing things right, people feel seen and appreciated.
Last one: Be present. How many times have you been in a meeting with your boss where your boss is looking at the computer monitor or down at their phone? Meetings should really be as interruption-free as possible. No phones, no computer monitors. I used to leave my desk for meetings. I would get up from my desk and sit in the chair facing the person I was meeting with. Or we’d go to a conference room. I never brought my phone. I had my iPad purely for notetaking. I tried to be 100% there.
Being present is imperative. It sounds simple, but the busier we get, the harder it is to be present. Your undivided attention is one of the best gifts you can give someone.
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?
You’re right. An ability to manage a multi-generational workforce has become essential. Today, we have traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Millennials, Gen X and Gen Z all on the same team. And they all have different work preferences, different needs.
For me, as someone on the tail end of the Baby Boomers, I notice we had a few traditionalists working at Sharonview as well as young Millennials and people even younger. We had five generations at Sharonview, and we — as management — wanted to learn how each one wanted to be treated. We did pulse surveys to give us some demographic trending. We could slice the data based on age, gender or race. And we got a high-level feel for how folks felt we were treating them. That’s one kind of understanding.
Another part goes back to relationships and results. On the relationship side, it’s good to understand what motivates the people on your team, and maybe more importantly, what de-motivates them. I wanted to be in tune to the individual as much as possible.
The third thing I’ll say is that I thought it was crucial to have thought leaders of different generations around me. We were fortunate to have a Millennial on our executive leadership team. He sometimes felt like the contrarian in the room, but his perspective was invaluable.
Emotional intelligence plays a big part in coaching diverse teams. COVID was a great petri dish for us to learn about work style preferences. We were able to shape the culture of the company to give people what they needed. Before the pandemic, I used to say we’d never be a work-from-home shop. I ended up eating those words when we moved to a hybrid environment.
The younger folks love working from home a few days each week, and they adapted to Zoom right away. In this hybrid environment, we allowed folks to work where they felt most productive. For folks who wanted to be in the office five days a week, we said, “Come on in. We’re taking extra cleaning precautions, and we’re going to spread you out.” Others wanted to work from home, and we supported that as long as the work got done and our members were being served.
Throughout this cultural shift, we never lost sight of our mission. We remained intent on helping members make their financial dreams come true.
While any company’s most important asset is truly its people, I’ve never liked that phrase. A chair is an asset. A computer’s an asset. People aren’t things. And in a people-first culture, you have to show employees they come first. We really sought to understand the motivations of different age groups and tried to honor those to the best of our ability. The work we did helped us from a hiring perspective. It helped keep turnover at a lower than market rate.
I call it the “brick wall theory.” I think employees who feel valued and cared for would run through a brick wall for you. If you’re doing it right, people will go above and beyond for you, your customers, your members. “I see you. I hear you. I care about you.” That’s the message leaders deliver through great coaching. And it takes a certain amount of self-awareness to be in tune with others and their needs.
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?
One is: Have empathy. Leaders have to understand that things happen in employees’ lives — some for the better, some for the worse. A good leader will allow employees the grace to get through those times.
The second one is self-awareness. As a leader, I need to understand my strengths and weaknesses and how they impact my team. Leaders have to ask themselves: Am I really open to getting feedback? Am I open to hearing about my blind spots?
As a CEO, I had a couple of people I could count on to pull me aside and say, “That went well,” or “Hey, you probably shouldn’t have said such-and-such.” I was able to get the gift of feedback and act on it. Having people around you who can be entirely candid with you is essential.
Words matter. And we’re collectively creating a new leadership language right now. What are the most important words for leaders to use now?
You’ve heard me say one already: Collaborate. I think leaders need to stop and think before we speak. There’s that emotional intelligence again.
At Sharonview, we built relationships with our members and with each other by really caring about others. I went public with the idea of “love, the verb” — and love is not a word you often hear in the workplace. Love, the verb means actions speak louder than words. It means treating each other with kindness, putting others first — which is servant leadership, forgiving each other, respecting each other. I think those are words we ought to be using more and more.
I keep inspiring quotes on my desk. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote,” and why does it mean so much to you?
I have a lot of quotes that inspire me, but if I had to pick one, it’s this one by John Wooden: “It takes 10 hands to make a basket.” I love it because it embodies the idea that you can’t do it all on your own.
As a senior in high school, I played on the basketball team. What I loved about our team was that, except for one guy who was 6’8”, we weren’t overly tall, but we worked together really well. That’s what got us to the top eight in our division. I got as much pleasure out of a good pass to someone who would score a basket as I did from making a basket myself.
Our team didn’t have any superstars. We had a bunch of people who worked really hard. We knew it took 10 hands to make a basket. We all got really good at passing the ball. We were good at finding the open guy to take the shot. I was 5’11” and was not bound for the NBA or even college ball. But I loved passing the ball to a teammate who made the shot.
Our coach was forever having us do passing drills. I’ve thought a lot about Coach Bailey and those drills over the years. That’s where I first learned that it takes a team to win. It’s never an individual effort.
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 love to connect with folks on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/bill-partin or linkedin.com/company/the-leadership-bet/. And my website for my consultancy, The Leadership Bet, which is also the title of my book, is theleadershipbet.com. On the “Services’’ page, you’ll find a couple of ways to get in touch with me. I hope to connect with lots of people. I love discussing leadership.
Thank you for sharing your insights. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.