Empower your team: Carving out clear roles and responsibilities helps your team take ownership of their work and lead themselves. Fostering this self-starter mentality by setting guideline and guardrails helps your team to develop the skills and confidence needed to succeed.

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 Gary Scharf.

Gary Scharf serves as Leader, North American Client Engagement at Project Management Institute (PMI). In his role, Gary is responsible for leading the Client Engagement team, growing PMI’s impact in the North America region through organizational relationships, education and sales.

Prior to this role, Gary has served as a Client Engagement Leader for the North America region since joining PMI in April 2021. Prior to joining PMI, Gary served in various business development and sales leadership positions at IT services firms, including Eliassen Group, where he launched and helped build an agile transformation practice.

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?

Thank you for having me — this is an important conversation. Prior to my current role as a Leader of North American Client Engagement at Project Management Institute (PMI), I served in various business development and sales and operational leadership positions in the IT services sector. At one firm, I had the opportunity to launch and build an agile transformation practice. This experience, building and implementing a practice like this from the ground up, was transformative for me as a leader. It was a defining moment and reinforced the value of prioritizing coaching and fostering talent — not allowing that to be lost in a larger effort. It takes time, but coaching pays dividends for the team and advances the goals of any project or undertaking.

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?

This is a great quote and, frankly, a good roadmap for leaders who also want to excel in coaching their teams. When I am leading, I have a clear vision of where I want to take my team. And I don’t keep that vision to myself. I make sure I communicate this vision and plan to my team — demonstrating through my own actions how to properly execute while also clearly communicating expectations, providing guidance, and supporting the team along the way to ensure we achieve our shared goal.

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

A leader as a manager ensures quality work is done at the highest level in a timely manner through proper planning, organizing, and allocation of team resources. A leader as a coach does that while also developing the skills and abilities of their team, empowering them to reach their full potential, and helping them to navigate any professional pitfalls.

A leader who embraces their role as a coach, is one who provides timely feedback, guidance, support, and mentorship to help their team grow as professionals and people. A coaching mentality will allow leaders to harness every individual’s unique talent and skillsets, helping them to hone and improve their performance, achieving their professional goals and benefiting the team broadly.

And leaders do not have to do this all themselves either — a leader who is a good coach knows when to seek outside resources to provide the best professional development opportunities possible for their teams. For example, my organization, Project Management Institute (PMI), offers leaders a variety of professional development opportunities to consider for their teams, including professional certifications and memberships. These types of opportunities provide professionals the chances to become leaders and coaches themselves — expanding their skillsets and learning from or becoming mentors in a community that a professional membership provides.

Improved coaching is a priority leadership initiative in many organizations today. What are some essential skills and competencies that leaders must have now to be better coaches?

To become a better coach, some essential skills and competencies that leaders must embody are communication, problem-solving, collaborative leadership, and strategic thinking. While some may call these soft skills, we call them “power skills,” because they are skills that empower people to succeed and to deliver results that contribute value to the organization and its customers.

These skills are crucial to good coaches, but they’re also integral to any project’s success. My organization’s annual report, Pulse of the Profession, explores and analyzes major trends in project management. The 2023 edition examined the correlation between power skills and project success and found that organizations that prioritize power skills experience better project outcomes — 72% of their projects successfully met business goals and only 28% of projects experienced scope creep. Fostering power skills will help leaders become better coaches and achieve greater business outcomes.

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?

Passion is a necessary ingredient for any effort. To be successful, team members must be invested and have an element of passion for their work — but that does not just fall on the employee. It is also the responsibility of leaders to foster that passion in their teams. One way to do so is by providing personalized development opportunities. According to a recent survey, 58% of workers say they will leave their employer for another if they do not receive the development opportunities they believe they need. This makes it important to offer the right upskilling and reskilling opportunities, tailored to fit the needs of individual employees. Not only will it foster employee satisfaction, but you will help your team to feel inspired in their current role and position them for future growth and advancement within 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 leaders and managers can be effective coaches?”

There are many ways leaders can coach for peak performance, and every leader who prioritizes mentorship and coaching likely has their own style that works for them. But here are my top five tips for leaders and managers looking to become more effective coaches that I think are applicable for anyone who manages people:

  • Connect with your team as people first: Start all check ins or coaching sessions by first connecting as people and colleagues. Even a few minutes of asking about their families, their weekend plans, their hobbies — and opening up about yours — goes a long way. This will help create a good rapport and open communication, which is foundational for effective coaching and to help your team members achieve peak performance.
  • Empower your team: Carving out clear roles and responsibilities helps your team take ownership of their work and lead themselves. Fostering this self-starter mentality by setting guideline and guardrails helps your team to develop the skills and confidence needed to succeed.
  • Encourage reflection and learning: After we finish a task or project, we often forget to look back or look within to reflect. Always advise your team to take time for self-reflection and assessment, analyze successes and areas for improvement, and help them take those insights to create a plan to progress and reach new levels of performance.
  • Set achievable goals and create roadmaps but be willing to pivot as needed: Have your team set clear, achievable goals, and provide the resources and support they need to reach those goals. Part of this support is making a change when needed. For example, every leader must be vigilant for signs of burnout in their teams. A good coach will make small pivots and tweaks to make sure their team is not over extended and is taking opportunities to rest and reset.
  • Be a role model: I’d like to call back the quote from earlier in our conversation. “A leader is someone who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way,” or even more simply: practice what you preach!

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 agree this is increasingly important, and I see this with my teams every day. It’s worth mentioning that we’re not all products of our generation across the board, but there are typically common threads and trends in a generation, and leaders should be aware. For leaders working with generationally diverse teams, I have four additional ways to effectively coach:

  • Recognize and meet generational differences head on: Each generation has unique experiences, values, and expectations. Taking time to understand these differences, and how they may be affecting your team, can help leaders better connect with each generation and provide more relevant coaching.
  • Adapt your coaching style: Leaders who seek to be good coaches should exercise an element of flexibility in their coaching styles to get the best possible results. For example, if communication with a team member could use improvement, consider that there might be a preference of that team member, generational or otherwise, to consider. Another consideration is feedback — how do your team members prefer to receive feedback? This is another consideration a good team leader should be consider.
  • Encourage collaboration: Leaders should create opportunities for members across generations to work together, leveraging their diverse experiences and perspectives for greater project success. A shared project is a great vehicle to bring a team together, foster creativity, and provide opportunities for everyone to get involved.
  • Emphasize common goals: While it is important to be aware of possible generational factors, leaders should also emphasize commonality, including shared goals and objectives, that all team members can work towards. This will foster a sense of unity and collaboration.

By recognizing and embracing the differences between generations, leaders can create a supportive and inclusive coaching environment that helps activate the collective potential of a multi-generational workforce.

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?

Empathetic leadership is all about making the extra effort to understand the unique perspectives and experiences of your team members and incorporating them into your communication and decision making. Two steps that a leader can take today to begin demonstrating a higher level of emotional intelligence and become an empathetic leader are:

  • Foster parity: When considering the personal experiences of your team, be mindful of potential inequities. Be vigilant of all team members’ needs and foster parity for everyone in your speech and actions.
  • Create opportunities for open dialogue: When making business decisions that affect employees, ensure you are creating opportunities to facilitate an open dialogue and solicit opinions from your team. This will create greater team buy-in and establish trust and connection.

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

In our conversation today, we have used a lot of those important words! As we discussed, “empathetic leadership,” “emotional intelligence,” and “power skills,” are all important words for leaders to use, and more importantly, ideas to consider and act on.

Additionally, another word and leadership idea that is important is “co-creation.” Gone are the days when leaders would make decisions, pass those decisions onto their teams, and say “get to work.” Co-creation is crucial in today’s workforce. Leaders must ensure their people understand and are aligned with team goals, objectives, and strategy. Furthermore, by investing in your team members’ professional development, leaders can empower them to take even larger roles in creating strategic plans, becoming leaders themselves.

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

One of my personal favorites is a quote from director Steven Spielberg, someone who knows a thing or two about leading and coaching teams: “The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.” Sometimes as leaders, it can be challenging to remove ourselves and our own experiences from the equation when coaching and mentoring. What I take from this quote is a reminder to look for the diverse set of perspectives and skill sets across my teams, harnessing them to achieve our larger goals and ensuring opportunities for others to lead too. Remember, the goal of coaching is not to create a carbon copy of yourself, but to give opportunities for your team to grow and develop their own unique strengths and talents.

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?

Visit our website, pmi.org to learn more about my organization, Project Management Institute (PMI) and check out one of our 300 local chapters across the world. To connect and stay current with me, follow me on LinkedIn.

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