Give employees autonomy. All humans want to be given autonomy to succeed on their own. I see many new leaders micromanage how the work is to be done. It’s far better to set the end goal with the person you are leading, discuss how success will be measured and monitored and then get out of the way. Employees will feel a far greater sense of ownership and satisfaction with their work, and you will consistently be blown away by what individuals can accomplish.
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 Larry English.
Larry is president and cofounder of Centric Consulting, an international management consulting firm with expertise in business transformation, hybrid workplace strategy, technology implementation and adoption. Larry is also author of Office Optional: How To Build a Connected Culture With Virtual Teams, a roadmap to successful remote culture and leadership. The book is based on his more than two decades leading Centric, which is a remote-first organization.
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?
During the first dot-com crisis in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was a relatively new leader working for a large dot-com company. As things began to deteriorate, upper management asked me to implement actions that would treat people unethically and poorly.
It was a breaking point that led me to start my own company, Centric Consulting, with a value system based on respect for the individual. That was more than 20 years ago, and we’ve since navigated multiple crises, all while continuing to treat employees with compassion and respect. I believe it’s possible to navigate any crisis while still being a great leader who always treats employees with integrity — and this is also the secret to earning long-term loyalty.
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?
My youngest son — a teenager — recently got in trouble in school for what both he and the school deemed a small issue. I explained that it was actually a big deal because as a leader, all of your actions reflect on you and the values you want everyone to follow.
When I asked him to define integrity, he rolled his eyes and said, “I know, I know, it is doing the right thing when no one is looking.” I may have had a stern look on my face, but on the inside, I was so proud. (I’ve apparently said this to him once before.)
This translates to how I operate as a leader. I know the vision for where we are heading. My job is to hold myself and everyone in the company accountable to execute on this vision while maintaining our core values in all things, big and small. Bottom line: You can’t be great if you aren’t adhering to your core values for everything. But if you do live this way, your team can achieve any vision.
How do you define the differences between a leader as a manager and a leader as a coach?
Leading as a manager is easier; it’s the more technical skill of breaking down work with finite resources and executing a plan.
It’s far harder to learn to lead as a coach, which is more about drawing out the full potential of every employee. Every human is different, with many factors that influence their performance, motivation, and growth. What works for one employee isn’t necessarily going to work for another. Learning how and when to provide feedback — and to vary feedback by personality type — is a never-perfected skill. Doing it well requires high emotional intelligence, taking the time to learn about employees as individuals, and gaining each person’s respect so they are willing to be coached by you.
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 most essential skill for leading as a coach is to master the art of feedback. Although everyone craves feedback for their development, most companies are not good at delivering this. It’s human nature to avoid having difficult conversations; many leaders avoid in-the-moment feedback, instead opting to save everything for a year-end review that is far less helpful to employees.
This is why I’ve committed myself to give immediate feedback whenever I encounter a learning moment — it may not always be comfortable, but it ends up being a far more productive conversation than addressing the issue months down the line. As a result, I believe we have happier employees and a higher performing organization.
And leaders shouldn’t be immune from feedback, either. While it may not be easy to hear about blind spots and areas that need improving, getting perspective from others on your performance is essential to improving — the ultimate goal of coaching as a leader.
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?
A little over a year ago, Centric launched a tailored leadership development program. We knew employees were hungry for learning opportunities and that we needed to take steps to preserve and pass down the organizational wisdom of our seasoned leaders, keep our culture and values intact, and prepare a new cohort to lead the company into the next decades.
In its first year alone, more than 300 employees took part in the program. Perhaps the biggest driver of the program’s success is we’ve focused on fostering a culture of learning. This means we celebrate learning and the fact that we can always improve — even (and maybe especially) leaders who have been in the trenches for years. When leaders participate fully in the culture of learning, they set an example for employees at all levels that it is okay to prioritize self-improvement training.
By recognizing that we all have skill gaps and blind spots, it makes it okay for everyone to admit when they don’t know an answer or need to work on something. This imbues the company with natural collaboration, vulnerability and trust, helping us all perform at our best and motivating everyone to take steps to continually improve. As a result, learning becomes something exciting, rather than an administrative chore.
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?”
1. Give employees autonomy. All humans want to be given autonomy to succeed on their own. I see many new leaders micromanage how the work is to be done. It’s far better to set the end goal with the person you are leading, discuss how success will be measured and monitored and then get out of the way. Employees will feel a far greater sense of ownership and satisfaction with their work, and you will consistently be blown away by what individuals can accomplish.
Recently, a senior leader at Centric didn’t feel comfortable with the results an employee was delivering and started to dig into the employee’s work. This made the employee feel demotivated — if their boss was just going to change their work to do it their way, why put out the effort? It’s so important to acknowledge to the employee what you’re doing and why so they don’t feel like they’re being micromanaged and that you will go back to a more hands-off approach once you are both comfortable the person has learned the core lesson.
2. Let employees feel you believe in them. When employees know you care about them as individuals and you’re doing everything possible to help them be successful, they’ll get the confidence needed to grow and persevere against challenges and failures.
When you do have to give feedback on what could be improved, balance it with immediate praise — especially when you see them actively working to make progress on a development goal. By doing this, you’ll give the employee a confidence boost and help them see the progress they’re making. I’ve seen many times when a manager gives off vibes of “you can’t please me to matter what,” their direct reports feel hopeless and either ask for a new manager or leave the company.
3. Always share the kind truth and communicate with transparency. All leaders at some point avoid giving hard feedback out of fear they will upset or demotivate the recipient. It’s important to remember that people crave feedback, and you’re only hurting that person’s development by holding back. Work on delivering even hard feedback kindly, and you’ll be able to leave the person motivated to improve rather than feeling defensive and penalized.
I learned this lesson years ago, when one of my employees was having performance issues. My co-leader and I had many discussions over many months on how to handle the situation. We fretted over what to do. What happened when we finally bucked up and decided to just have the conversation? No big scary confrontation or emotional conversation was needed, the employee corrected the issue and we all moved on.
4. Get to know employees as individuals. To be a coach, you need intimate knowledge of what makes your people tick. You need to have a strong personal relationship and know what is going on in their life. What struggles people have faced, defining moments (good and bad) in their personal life and career and even their outside hobbies and interests can all impact their performance. By knowing their history, you’re much better equipped to coach them on their journey and motivate them to greatness.
I’ve encountered many employee performance issues that, upon closer inspection, ended up being due to something stressful in their personal life. This is why it’s so important to encourage employees to bring their whole selves to work and create a safe environment for them to share what may be impacting their performance. If they know that you are there to help and not hinder their career, they’ll feel more comfortable being honest.
5. Be patient, always. Through coaching hundreds of people over the years, I’ve found that the hardest thing for a person to change is their big blind spots. They need constant reminders and reinforcement over a long period of time — you can’t just give feedback once and expect the blind spot to magically disappear. In other words, you need to be patient with people working on making big, hard changes. In some cases, they may never fully eliminate their blind spot, but they can learn to recognize it and develop strategies to avoid it.
For years I’ve been mentoring someone who is working on a blind spot. When their old issues resurfaced recently, I gave them immediate feedback. The person thanked me, told me their energy was low and that they knew in the moment it was happening but had trouble stopping the behavior. They said the feedback I’ve been giving over time has been immensely helpful in recognizing and addressing the problem.
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?
The Living, Learning, and Earning Longer Collaborative Initiative found that while upwards of 80% of leaders worldwide believe multigenerational workforces are necessary for growth, under 50% include age diversity in DEI strategies. Smart organizations will figure out how to build collaborative teams including members from all generations.
Broad generalizations can be made about the different generations. In my company’s work helping clients make the shift to hybrid or remote work, for example, we’ve found that Gen Z and Millennials are the most resistant to returning to the office. When they do come in, they have no need for personalized or private offices — they’re happy to just plug in and go. Gen X, on the other hand, equate success with being visible at the office, and they prefer the traditional office experience with a private or designated space they can personalize. Like the younger generations, Baby Boomers also prefer the flexibility of remote or hybrid work — but not so much they’re willing to rock the boat this late in their career.
But these broad generalizations aren’t useful when it comes to coaching. No two workers are truly the same. Everyone has different motivations, life histories, preferences, and perspectives. An individualized approach is key to a successful coaching relationship.
Companies can take a few steps, however, to foster strong relationships across the generations. Employee Resource Groups, or ERGs, for instance, can help employees connect with one another over shared interests. At Centric, we have ERGs dedicated to a variety of things, including veterans, runners and parents.
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?
It starts with you. Learning to recognize your emotions and how they trigger you and affect your decision-making is the crucial first step. If you don’t have command over your own emotions, you’ll have a hard time helping someone else. A great book on this topic is The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership by Jim Dethmer.
The second crucial step is to share with coachees what drives you. Vulnerability is key to a successful coaching relationship, and you must go first. If you are vulnerable about what triggers your emotions with a direct report, they will reciprocate. When both of you know the underlying emotions driving each of you, you’ll be able to work together more effectively on even the toughest issues.
Words matter. And we’re collectively creating a new leadership language right now. What are the most important words for leaders to use now?
The old leadership of command and control — the standard way of leading for the last 50-plus years — no longer applies. Especially in the world of remote work.
Leaders must be willing to be vulnerable. That means saying things like “I was wrong” or “I don’t know” and fully embracing your status as a full human at work.
Leaders must value transparency and intimacy in relationships. That means being open about what’s going on in your life, both inside and outside of work. It means asking employees “How are things going for you?” and really meaning it.
Gratitude is also important — it has always mattered, but employees more than ever want to feel like they aren’t just cogs in a machine. As a leader, saying “thank you” to the people who do the work that makes the company successful is a little phrase that can go a long way toward making people feel seen and valued.
I keep inspiring quotes on my desk. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote,” and why does it mean so much to you?
I keep a number of quotes on my desk, but the one that comes to mind as it relates to leading as a coach is from the movie Night at the Museum, when Robin Williams’s characters says the secret to life is to “Do the things you love with the people you love.” If you are living this way as a leader, that emotion will permeate everything you do and everyone you work with will feel it.
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?
Follow me on Twitter at @lkenglish or on LinkedIn. I also regularly publish articles on Forbes. You can find all my articles at forbes.com/sites/larryenglish/. Finally, more information about me can be found at larryenglish.net.
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!