The second method is to ask questions you already know the answer to. This follows on from the first step, where you’re inviting team members into a conversation for them to figure out the best way forward. And that’s the crux of what coaching is about: it’s them figuring out a solution, not you simply giving out all the answers.

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 Dan Crompton.

He is a sought-after Leadership Coach, helping to build teams that take ownership through his work with both leaders and their teams. He and the team at ActionCOACH have been awarded the best group coaching program in the world for two years running, out of over 1,000 coaching practices. He has coached teams from across the UK, Europe, the US and India, and worked with individuals from some of the biggest tech companies on the planet.

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?

Anyone who remembers that first day of managing a team might resonate with this. I was working at the UK broadcaster ITV, and from one day to the next, I had made the shift from being a member of the team to managing that team. I’m sure that’s a familiar recollection for many leaders.

Coming into work that morning over a decade ago, it felt like nothing had changed, of course. I was still sitting in the same seat and still working on the same TV shows and with the same clients that I had the day before. The one thing that did change, however, was how the team dealt with me. I’d barely sat down when the first question came from the colleague who sat next to me: ‘One of our shows has come off air. What on earth do I tell the sponsors?’

It was an interesting moment for me, because I wouldn’t have necessarily been expected to help her with that problem a day ago, and here she was with big eyes and awaiting an answer. And that was the lightbulb for me really. There I was, thinking that I needed to know all the answers because I was now ‘the boss’. But that’s rubbish. Nothing changes in your knowledge or experience overnight, and I realized that a leader is there to help the team figure out what to do next rather than just doling out the answers.

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?

There’s plenty of truth in that quote, but I’d exercise some caution with how you define it. I’ve had many managers in the past, and some have felt the need to ‘know the way and show the way’, even if they weren’t best placed to do so. One manager from the start of my career springs to mind, who I now recognize was promoted too quickly. She felt she needed to have all the answers, and the fact that she didn’t was a challenge for her. She lashed out in all sorts of ways that could be described as bullying, because of the discomfort of being out of her depth.

Another manager I had in a role a few years later took a completely different approach. She was the marketing director in charge of several teams, and straight away fessed up on the areas of marketing she had no clue about. Instead of feeling like she had to know it all, she leapt on the teams whose area of marketing she had less experience in and asked them to teach her everything about it: how it works, all the challenges, all the opportunities.

Now, which one of those two leaders comes across as more confident, stronger and someone you want to get behind? The one who pretends she knows the way, or the one that is honest about her strengths and publicly seeks out the learning? I know which leader I’d rather follow.

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

A leader as a manager cares about getting the thing done. A leader as a coach cares about how the team will get better at getting the thing done. It’s choosing not to be the hero, but to build a team of heroes. Great leaders create more leaders, not more followers, after all.

So, your absolute obsession needs to be the team. You need to be singular in your focus on how you can facilitate the team to constantly learn, get better, take ownership over projects, and to take on more responsibility with confidence. That’s what it means to be a leader that coaches your team.

The alternative is only focusing on getting the work done more quickly. Jumping in to fix things and remaining the bottleneck at the top that must make all the decisions. It’s so tempting to be that kind of leader, but you really must be deliberate every day in switching who the hero is on your team. It can’t be you if you’re obsessed with building a great team that is proud of the work they do.

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?

The one skill to becoming a better coach as a leader is to ask questions rather than answer them. Even when you know the answer to your own questions. In fact, especially when you know the answer to your own questions! Because that’s when you know that your focus has shifted from you having the answer and being the hero, to making your team members and their learning the hero. By asking questions, you’re helping them to figure out the best solutions themselves, which will give them independence and ownership over delivering those actions.

In my workshops, for example, I could rattle through a list of leadership strategies in 10 minutes if I were just telling people what I know. But it’s not about me — I already know the stuff. So instead, I spend time challenging a team, asking them questions that get them thinking differently, and facilitating them in having those lightbulb moments that mean they will go back to their desks and start working in new ways.

The skill isn’t in the knowledge you have, it’s in how you can get someone else’s brain to think about the challenge until something clicks. It takes far longer, but therefore it stays with them forever.

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?

Learning is totally optional. You can never force someone to do it or to invest in it — they must want to engage and must be personally interested in it.

The business leaders I work with are obviously on board with the workshops and programs they come to, but when I run team away days and group sessions, not everyone in the room has chosen to be there. So, rather than just telling them that new skills and learning are important, it works much better to let teams experience a new way of thinking for themselves. It’s those lightbulb moments that can only come from being coached rather than being told. They need to go through a journey themselves, and to personally choose actions that they want to go away and take. That’s the only way to inspire people to learn more — by letting them feel the difference of a new way of viewing an area of their work or personal life.

Other than that, the one thing that comes up in almost every workshop and away day I run is a series of recommended books. Regardless of what training or upskilling you’re doing, you will learn exponentially more if you read one book a month. There are books on every conceivable topic out there, so there’s no excuse to not find something you are personally super-interested in. Regardless of how unique your situation might be, someone has written a book that will help. I wouldn’t be half the coach or half the manager I am without getting into the habit of reading every day.

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?”

Being a coach is often seen as a communication style, especially in the context of how leaders can ‘be the coach’ for their teams. But it needs to run deeper than that. It’s about switching your focus from yourself onto your team, and constantly seeking out how you can facilitate them to become better in their roles and to become proud of the work they do. Here are my top 5 ways that managers can be better coaches for their teams.

The first method is never to answer a question. It sounds counterintuitive — we get questions all the time from our teams and we want to help them. It feels good to be the quick support that a team member needs when they’re not sure how to proceed. But what happens the next time that team member has a similar challenge? They’re more likely to come back to you again to check in on what to do. By giving them all the answers, you take away their agency. You take away their ownership of dealing with that challenge, and so the thinking behind it only really happens in your brain rather than in your team members’ brains.

So, what do you do instead? The policy I’ve used with teams is to ask that everyone brings two possible solutions to any question they come to me with. It’s not about ignoring your team or letting them get on with it — it’s actually about taking even more time to help them figure out the answer. By asking them to bring two possible solutions or answers to a question, a couple of things happen. Firstly, they’re much more likely to have figured it out and not need your help. Secondly, it’s so much easier as a manager to then have a conversation with your team member about which solution they think they should go for. Get their brains working on the challenge if you want them to take ownership over the outcome.

The second method is to ask questions you already know the answer to. This follows on from the first step, where you’re inviting team members into a conversation for them to figure out the best way forward. And that’s the crux of what coaching is about: it’s them figuring out a solution, not you simply giving out all the answers.

Asking questions you know the answer to can feel super-strange, and that’s your signal that you’re doing it right! I promise that it won’t feel weird to the team member on the receiving end. To them it will feel like you’ve supported them without telling them what to do. One business leader that I coach had a salesperson that was selling considerably less than the others on the same team. Delving into the numbers, it became clear that there was a particular part of the sales process that person wasn’t doing. The company offered their own financing solution, so small business clients of theirs could afford the machinery they were selling. The one salesperson who was underperforming wasn’t offering that financing solution, and so was missing out on all the smaller sales that others were building up quickly.

It feels like the quickest way to help that salesperson is just to tell them to sell more of the financing offer. But just telling someone isn’t anywhere near as effective as coaching them to come up with the answer themselves. This is where the leader had to ask questions that he knew the answers to.

What do you think is going on with your sales? Looking at the numbers, what types of clients are the others selling better to? Why do you think that is? Who is the best salesperson on the team? What are they doing differently do you think? What are they offering that you might not be? What impact do you think that will have? How could you change your approach? What do you think you need to do first?

Of course the leader knows the answers to all of these questions, but that is not the point. By getting that salesperson to really think about the challenge, he came up with the solution himself. His sales aren’t yet up to the level of the others, but he’s made a massive improvement that is still moving quickly in the right direction to match his teammates in the next few months.

The third method is to move the thought bubble from your head. Here’s what I mean by that. When you’re leading a team, it can often feel like everyone’s looking to you for every decision. Whether you’re in a team meeting, in a 121 with a team member or have people asking questions throughout the day, most of us only think about the thought bubble over our own heads. We’re thinking what the answer should be, what we would do in that situation ourselves, what we’ve tried in the past, what we might say next. The focus is fully on ourselves as the hero of whatever conversation we’re in. But if you move your focus to the thought bubble over your team member’s head, you shift into a coaching mode versus a managing mode.

By only concerning yourself with the thought bubble over your team member’s head, your role becomes one of facilitating their thought process to find their best solution. It’s the only way that true learning happens, and the only way you can help them take ownership over whatever way forward they deem best following your support.

The fourth way to be a better coach to your teams is to take more time. Especially when we’re busy, and when our teams are busy, the easiest route is to jump in with quick solutions. It makes us feel needed, useful and helpful when we can fire out solutions left, right and center as everyone rushes about their day. But as I’ve said, that’s not how you build a team that takes more ownership.

When I was being trained up as a new manager in my early career, one of the meatiest tasks I had to do was to come up with the annual sales budget. It was about £130 million of revenue that had to be split across 600 TV shows that we had to monetize. The spreadsheet was a beast! The easiest thing for my own manager to do would have been to run through it himself. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the previous decade of sales won and lost, and could bash out the document in a couple of hours. But where would that have left me?

Another option could have been for him to do it while I looked over his shoulder — this is how most managers think they’re doing on-the-job training. But how well would I have known to do the task again 12 months later? I’d still be clueless. What my manager did instead was the perfect example of the leader as a coach. He asked me to hook my laptop up to the screen in a meeting room, and asked me: ‘So, what number are you putting against item number one?’

We went through all 600 lines in the same why. What number was I going to put against it, and why? He was there to challenge me, question my thinking and watch me look up the data I needed. It took several long sessions to get through that. It certainly would have been faster, easier and more accurate if he’d just done it himself. But did I know how to do that budget myself the following year? Absolutely! Coaching takes time, but you earn that time back again and again in the future, each time you no longer need to be involved with a task or decision.

The fifth and final method to becoming a better coach for your teams is to plan the pause. I’ve talked a lot about giving ownership to your team, and while that all sounds very nice, it can bring up some doubt. If you give more ownership to your team, won’t the quality drop? That’s why the best leaders not only coach their teams to have autonomy over their work, but they’re also rigorous with their teams about the quality of the output and decision-making.

That’s where planning the pause comes in. It’s an idea developed in L. David Marquet’s book Leadership Is Language. He tells of the tragic sinking of the container ship El Faro in 2015, which sailed head-on into a hurricane despite the dangers that various senior crew members were aware of. Marquet analyzed the language of the recordings that were recovered from the ship’s log, and discovered that the deadly error was brought about by the captain’s default assumptions that everything would be ok.

Humans are hardwired to surrender to hierarchy. No matter how friendly you are with your team, they will still say different things to you than they will to each other in the pub after work. If you use phrases like: ‘Is everything ok?’, ‘Let me know if you need anything,’ or ‘Speak out if anything’s wrong,’ you’re putting the onus on your team member to speak up. Again, regardless of how friendly you are with them, they will defer to the default answer of nodding that everything’s fine. This is the error that was repeatedly made onboard El Faro.

To counter the hierarchy trap, you need to plan the pause. That means coaching your team on their way forward, giving them autonomy and space to go off and do it, but pre-planning a point when they will pause and review progress with you. It’s how you catch any deviations as well as ensuring that there is a guaranteed time that they will get your guidance. So, instead of saying, ‘Let me know if you need anything,’ you change it to: ‘Go off and do that plan, and let’s meet tomorrow at 12pm to see how you’re getting on.’ By planning the pause, it allows you to be the coach in how much ownership you give to your team, but that you are there as a support — without them needing to stand up and ask for it.

Each of these five methods of becoming the coach to your teams takes practice, and each of them should feel slightly unnatural to you. The default is to want to be the hero, and to quickly solve problems and move on, but that won’t build a team of self-starters. By putting your sole focus on spending the time to coach your team to constantly improve, you’ll see how quickly they take ownership and take pride in the work they do.

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?

Whatever industry you’re in, every business needs creative thinking. It might be coming up with new ways to attract clients, or new ways of tackling a project, or finding new ways of doing a particular process as a team. And the most creative ideas have only ever come from getting brains together. Using the collective experience of a diverse range of people can only ever lead to ideas bigger than what any one person can come up with while staring at their screen.

Diversity in the workplace is often seen as one of those boxes you’ve got to tick during recruitment, but it’s so much more than that. The world is diverse. Your clients are diverse. And you can only really meet their needs if you use diverse experiences in how you tackle them.

So, use the team in solving your business challenges, and encourage people from different departments, ages, genders, races, backgrounds, abilities and sexualities to contribute. It’s the only way you’ll generate the most innovative ideas.

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?

Most people have a misunderstanding of what emotional intelligence is. It’s usually described as being the ability to understand what other people are going through or how they’re feeling.

But that’s only half the story. The real measure of emotional intelligence is understanding your own emotional responses, and being able to control or shift them, depending on what’s going to get the best out of a particular person or situation. That’s when you really come across as a calm and confident leader, who people actually want to follow.

I’d really just boil it down to one step that leaders can take to be more emotionally intelligent, and that is to be consistent. That means being level-headed during drama, treating everyone with the same respect and high expectations, and consistently modelling the behavior you want the team to mirror.

Work is busy, challenging and frustrating at times. We’re all human, and the default is that those emotions come to the surface straight away. But who would you rather follow — the person whose emotions you can never predict, or the person who remains calm in the face of uncertainty and wants to figure out a way forward? Consistency is the only way you can model to the team how you want them to react, behave and make decisions in your absence, and it is the missing piece to how many people define emotional intelligence.

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

For any leaders who want a team that takes more ownership and really cares about the work they do, the only words they should use with their team are: ‘What would you do if I wasn’t here?’

Managers who want to be the hero and to have all the answers end up getting all the questions. They end up being bottlenecks for work, who have to approve — and correct — everything that leaves the building. They end up being the only person who truly takes ownership for decisions, for mistakes, for fixing poor work. It leaves the team feeling disconnected and demotivated.

By constantly asking questions back to your team rather than answering their questions, you get them to think about the challenge they’ve brought to you. You get their braincells firing off to find a solution, rather than your own. If you ask that question, ‘What would you do if I wasn’t here?’ you can then support them and coach them to figure out an answer. As soon as you make that a habit for yourself — and your team members — you’ll start to build a team of self-starters who are proud of the work they do.

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

The inspiring quotes that resonate with me are the practical ones that lead to action. One that I keep returning to is: ‘Leadership is having a presence, even when you’re not in the room.’ I can’t attribute it to any one person, as I’ve heard it from a number of sources.

But it’s the idea that great leadership is setting up a team that knows how to make the right decisions, how to behave, and how to do great work — even when you’re not there to tell them. That’s when you know you’ve really set up something amazing and bigger than yourself.

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’m always sharing strategies and having conversations on LinkedIn about leadership and building a team that takes more ownership. Please connect with me there — I’d love to hear what others make of these ideas. Connect with me at

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!