Coaching someone to be their best at work can be done in a few ways that might seem simple but are actually quite complex.
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 Dr. Toni Best.
Dr. Toni Best is the Co-Founder and Chief Human Performance Officer at Aduro — a leading SaaS provider of corporate wellness solutions that drive Human Performance — existing at the intersection of well-being and performance. Dr. Best has over 20 years of experience in teaching and coaching and is a Certified Intrinsic Coach and Valuation Specialist, trained in Leadership Maturity Coaching, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Psychology of Leadership. Her passion lies with her people and her mission is to make the workplace more human.
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?
There are so many defining moments that have shaped me as a leader. In high school, for example, people saw me as a leader, and I didn’t actually realize I was one. One of my coaches helped me understand that my classmates were looking to me for how they, in turn, should show up. Later, I went through a time of my life where I had some mental health challenges, which I dealt with on my own with a smiling face on the outside. I knew that how I showed up impacted how others showed up. But then I realized that when I shared my mental health story at an all-company meeting, the impact of that was profound. Knowing that 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year, by offering my story and being vulnerable allowed others to understand that I held myself to the same standard that I was asking of them: to be human. Human moments happen and if we let each other in, we can better support one another. By being open and vulnerable, you build trust. Being a whole human with my team was a defining moment in my coaching and leadership journey.
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 both agree and disagree with John Maxwell’s statement. I agree that a leader shows up and moves with confidence, encouraging people to model that behavior. I disagree in that the people I lead are brilliant, and if I expect that I’m going to know, go, and show the way in every circumstance, I’m not fully taking into consideration their brilliance, strengths, perspectives, and better ways of doing things. I have to show up for people, understand the landscape, and move confidently in that direction, leading the way. However, I also use the coach approach when I lead, asking the right questions and leaving space for people to come up with their own new and best thinking. I love being surprised by what people come up with and creating the space for them to step into their own leadership and be more brilliant than me!
How do you define the differences between a leader as a manager and a leader as a coach?
As leaders, if we coach really well, we have to do less management. In the grand scheme of things, leadership is knowing that the work must be managed. Coaching is understanding that the work has to be done but that it’s also vital to set goals, have the right expectations, and work collaboratively with people to put processes in place. I’m a big advocate for bringing out the best thinking of our people and letting them find their best ways to get to that point. The more we do that, the more people feel alive in their work, feel trusted and empowered, and feel like they can take some liberties and not wait for leadership to always make the decisions. It allows people to move things forward on their own, requiring less management of the person. The difference is managing the business and coaching the person, allowing employees to find ways to meet and exceed the goals we’ve set together.
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?
What might seem like one of the most basic aspects of leadership but is oftentimes missing is the development of self-awareness, our presence with other people, and how that impacts the people around us. Some key coaching skills are asking powerful questions, self-managing our responses, and not talking, leaving the space for people to think and answer those questions on their own. Then, following up those questions with more questions, as opposed to our own responses or opinions.
As leaders, we’re often expected to be the person with the answers. When it comes to coaching as a leader, if you assume you always have the answers, you’re going to miss some of your employees’ best thinking. Coaching is asking thought-provoking questions and caring about the other person’s response. Challenge your employees on their thinking and then self-manage how you respond, leaving the unimportant things left unsaid. Then wait, until you hear more from the person you’re leading. The more we take this coach approach, the less work is required of the leader and manager. And yet it’s not necessarily more work on the individual. It’s trust, it’s helping employees feel alive in their work, and it’s stimulating creative thinking, problem solving, and collaborative skills.
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?
Inspiring leaders by coaching and teaching them how to replicate that coach approach with the individuals they lead. Then, in follow-up sessions, reflecting on how that experience went and what has changed in this person as they’re continuously coaching them. They’ll see a difference in how people show up and by sitting in uncomfortable silences while they’re waiting for that person to do the thinking and create their own ideas. Coaching is helping to bring out more of that new thinking and giving that employee the space to put that plan into action and learn from the outcome.
It’s part of our process at Aduro. Coaching leaders so they have the experience of what it’s like being coached. This is so they’ll do the work of coaching others and observe the outcomes and impacts of that coaching, seeing how that effort is upskilling and reskilling employees to get the opportunity to step into new responsibilities.
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?”
Coaching someone to be their best at work can be done in a few ways that might seem simple but are actually quite complex.
For instance, it’s as simple as asking a question, letting the person answer the question, and then asking them, “When you hear yourself say that, what’s coming up for you?” One way to better coach as a leader, is to ask your employees for how they’re thinking about their thinking. This consistently asks a person to reflect on their choices and tendencies, building the capacity for greater understanding and self-reflection. It sounds simple but it’s much more complex. Because when you start asking that question, the responses people share will surprise you. And it’s different than repeating back to somebody what you heard from them, like a lot of coaches tend to do.
Second, learning to be a better coach and leader means facilitating collaborative conversations. In these conversations, begin to ask more from your employees, encouraging them to create more of their own solutions. Another way that you can become a better coach as a leader, is to start the conversation and just get those thoughts rolling. Then, look to the other person for their ideas. This also establishes the space for a feedback loop and continuous communication between leaders and their people. Start with a leader bringing, allowing, and empowering an employee to come up with ideas, create the safe space for them to share, and then provide the appreciation, acknowledgement, and the constant empowerment of this ongoing cycle.
The third tip is to ask a question and then stop talking, which can be more difficult than it sounds. When you leave empty space while the other person’s thinking, it allows them the time to formulate thoughts, share their thought process, and conduct critical thinking. By taking a coach approach and not interrupting this process, employees are given more of a voice, bringing out some of their best thinking.
A fourth way in which leaders can bring out their people’s best work is by creating a flexible work environment. Now more than ever, it’s critical to take what we’ve learned from remote work over the last few years and optimize this flexibility. Flexible work arrangements meet people where they are, allowing each employee to create a schedule that acknowledges the unique needs of their life, empowering them to do their best work when it works best for them.
Lastly, my fifth tip for becoming a better coach as a leader, is to not get caught up in the assumption that you may know the best way to approach a situation. As leaders, we oftentimes think we know the right way to do something, so when someone approaches the situation differently, many leaders will default to their own approach, inadvertently shutting down the employee’s idea. This is due to a lack of self-management — as humans, we often can’t help but share our expertise and advice. A critical part of coaching is managing this response and, instead, asking your employee to elaborate on their idea. Challenge them a bit and give the opportunity to act on their idea — maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. What’s important, is to give an employee the space to share their idea, act on it, experience the outcome, and then you can coach them through their successes and areas for growth.
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?
Today’s multi-generational workforce presents an excellent opportunity to take a coach approach to leadership. The primary job of a coach is to elicit new thinking and decision-making that matters to the individual. Powerful questions should come without an expectation of what the answer will be, so you are always meeting the person where they are, regardless of age. This allows the conversation, goals, and action plan to reveal the needs of the person who is receiving coaching. The most important thing is to see the person in front of you as capable, creative, and complete. Seeking to understand the person, and tailoring your approach, resources, and style to the individual, is key to great coaching.
Different generations have so much to learn from and contribute to one another. As a leader, recognize the strengths of each individual, identify their unique experiences and contributions, and become a connector of people. In this, you can incorporate the strengths and experiences of each person and draw from multiple perspectives (and generations), in service of a whole that is greater than its parts.
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?
To unlock a higher level of emotional intelligence, establish an active presence with people. Practicing mindfulness is helpful here, developing the capability to observe and identify the subtleties in the environment around you. In doing this, you can be more present with the people around you and better understand the people you’re leading. Some steps a leader can take to achieve this, are as follows:
- Listen beyond the words — notice the tone, pace, and quality of the interaction. Be aware of your own feelings and what you may be picking up from someone else.
- Let go of your preconceived ideas about a person — see the human in front of you and all their potential and listen to them.
- Leave the unimportant things unsaid — practice self-management and try to ask more questions and give less answers, looking to those around you for their perspective.
Words matter. And we’re collectively creating a new leadership language right now. What are the most important words for leaders to use now?
With the coach approach, it’s important to use inclusive and approachable language. Look for opportunities to use “both” or “and” rather than “either” and “or,” as this is ripe for connection and expansion. A leader can also elicit better thinking by asking more “what” questions and fewer “why” questions, as it is often perceived as less accusatory and more open to conversation. For instance, rather than asking, “Why did you do this?” ask your employee, “What made you choose this approach?” This leads to a more open-ended discussion of the person’s thought process and avoids making them feel defensive.
Another way in which language can play a critical role is through honest transparency. As a leader, don’t shy away from saying, “I messed that up,” “I don’t know,” or “I’m not sure.” Showing vulnerability, humility, confidence, and openness is human and will open the door for others to share their insights. And don’t forget the impact of gratitude, saying a simple “Thank you” and recognizing the work and value that people offer is foundational.
In the world we currently live in, a focus on perspectives and polarity thinking can bring much to a conversation in the way of opening minds and stimulating vibrant interactions. As a leader and coach, it’s crucial to focus on asking at least as much as telling. Gone are the days of the leader who has all the answers and gives endless directions to their people.
I keep inspiring quotes on my desk. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote,” and why does it mean so much to you?
A quote that has always inspired me comes from Anaïs Nin — a French novelist and diarist — which is, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
This reminds me that the world I experience is determined by the way I think, and that is always within my control. It reminds me that how we show up in the world influences the world we see, revealing the great impact we have on those around us.
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?
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.