Asking questions extends listening further. You ask for clarity or further thoughts from the person speaking with you in order to get a better grasp of the message. Not only will this encourage peak performance skill-wise, it will also inspire your team to put their best foot forward because you’re a leader who appreciates what they have to say.

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 Laura Barker.

As a senior HR professional turned Career Coach, Laura sees connection as the foundation to achieve clarity, impact, and growth in careers as well as life. By connecting to the inner self, her clients find solutions where problems formerly existed. That’s when clients can really lead with purpose.

Thank you for joining us to explore a critical inflection point in how we define leadership. 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?

Let’s break down Maxwell’s quotation:

  • Knows the Way — The leader has a specific, distinctive vision of a future state and has created a plan to support it by identifying what matters most.
  • Goes the Way — In other words, the leader practices what she preaches. Maxwell is talking about alignment here, which I argue starts from within. You get aligned by connecting your inner self to your outer self. It appears self-evident to those who witness it in the form of authenticity.
  • Shows the Way — Leaders orchestrate the execution of the vision. They communicate why it’s important to achieve and let everyone know how their contribution influences the achievement of the vision.

As a leader, I live Maxwell’s Way through my coaching, public speaking, book writing, podcasting, and YouTube videos. The underlying thread in my work is always connection. I want to connect people internally and externally, through collaboration not competition.

I remember when the pandemic happened. I was the head of People & Culture at a food manufacturer, and I was desperately trying to find guidance from government and public health on what to do to keep our team members safe in the workplace. By the time the guidance was issued, it was six months too late. Of course, I didn’t know it would take that long but I couldn’t afford to wait. It became a defining moment for me as a leader. I had to forge my own path, despite the uncertainty, using my connections to collaborate on best practices.

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

Manager Leaders typically adopt a top-down approach. From a workforce demographic perspective, manager leaders are represented by traditionalists, most of whom have completely exited the workforce, and boomers, who are leaving or have left the workforce as we speak. Imagine traditionalists as leaders who walk in front and boomers as leaders who steer from behind. Of course, there are manager leaders in all demographics, however, in my experience I have seen fewer of them in Gen X and millennials.

With manager leaders, the power rests with the manager who is seen as the primary source of information/knowledge. Younger workers and those in more junior positions look to their manager leader to tell them what to do. This includes goal setting, creating timelines, establishing accountability, and providing consequences for unwanted behaviours.

In contrast, Coach Leaders assume a side-by-side approach. Picture a coach leader walking alongside you, not in front or behind. Coach leaders work in partnership with their team members. As such, they share their knowledge and accept more junior workers have something to offer as well. Because they are always learning, coach leaders listen for new perspectives and may find themselves rewarded with a fresh take on a process, structure, or an entirely new idea that can propel the business forward.

Gen Xers and Millennials tend to fall into this category. The balance of power with Coach Leaders shifts to partnership as team members take ownership of their goal setting and career development and Coach Leaders adopt the role of facilitating and/or advocating on their behalf.

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 two most essential skills and competencies required for leaders to be better coaches are listening and collaborating.

  1. Listening

Listening is important. Yet leaders have such busy lives that listening often gets relegated to a transaction, as in “What are the key points this person is making?”

Coaches know listening forms the basis of connection. As social beings, we are wired to connect. Connection happens by listening to understand the other person’s point of view instead of listening with half an ear because we’re already formulating our reply to what the other has said.

You can build this competency by practicing active listening. This expanded definition means not just focusing on the words you hear but how they’re said and also what’s not said, that is, what you intuit from the discussion. And, if you’re unsure of what someone is saying, try “What I’m hearing you say is X. Is that what you mean?” This gives the other person the opportunity to agree, disagree, or explain further so there’s clarity.

2. Collaboration

When you choose to walk side-by-side instead in front or behind, you quickly realize how collaboration is the better way to lead. Coach leaders don’t need to have all the answers; they just need to facilitate a healthy workplace that allows others to do their best. This means the leader holds the vision while letting others contribute their talents to its success.

Develop this competency by encouraging coworkers, committee members, and your direct reports to participate in decision-making. You may have heard the phrase, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Listening to other perspectives and collaborating with others lets you see the same topic from many vantage points. Then, from that new place, you can integrate the best ideas to propel the team forward.

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?

Inspiration comes through words and actions.

Leaders create a vision that compel others to join them on the journey. The only way to do that is through inspiring — and eventually persuading — others to your point of view. The best visions demonstrate alignment between the leader and her desired outcome. When others feel that resonance, they are inspired to action.

The most inspiring actions involve role modelling as well as teaching. When my words are congruent with my actions, I become a role model for others. As I share my vision, I teach what’s important to me, what I think matters in the big picture.

Teaching in this way creates the intrinsic desire to upskill as a leader. By presenting my authentic self, I don’t need to mandate upskilling because I’ve created the conditions for individuals to want to do it on their own.

Consider that when something is externally driven (“mandated”), it only succeeds using the carrot or stick. Intrinsic motivation lasts longer and better because it comes from within.

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. Listen.

The Dalai Lama sums up the value of listening perfectly: When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. In other words, listening lets you learn what you don’t know. It keeps you humble and helps you grow. Not only that but listening strengthens social bonds by connecting you with the person with whom you’re conversing. This is because the person speaking feels witnessed when you truly listen with your heart and mind.

In a work context, you coach peak performance out of your team by listening to what they have to say. The truth is, you don’t have all the answers or all the knowledge. Your team members may present challenges or insights that you never considered but that you’ll only learn by listening intently to what they have to say.

2. Ask Questions.

Asking questions extends listening further. You ask for clarity or further thoughts from the person speaking with you in order to get a better grasp of the message. Not only will this encourage peak performance skill-wise, it will also inspire your team to put their best foot forward because you’re a leader who appreciates what they have to say.

When you ask questions, you show curiosity. This skill is much more valuable than knowledge. In fact, curiosity is the fuel that drives knowledge. Coaching with curiosity demonstrates to others that it’s permissible, even valuable, to ask questions.

For example, I was mediating a conflict in an HR role between a manager and her subordinate. The manager felt the team member was not committed to the job and insisted she needed to be in the office. The team member felt slighted because of the implication that she wasn’t doing her job properly. I sat them together and asked questions, exploring the facts (e.g. what was the manager’s expectation regarding tasks and timing?) and then digging down to the feelings behind them.

It turns out the team member was caring for an aging parent and could only visit the senior’s residence during the day because of visiting hours. Unfortunately, she didn’t communicate that to her manager, which led to the manager’s frustration when the manager couldn’t connect with her subordinate during regular business hours.

They reached a mutually-agreeable arrangement, ultimately by asking questions — and listening — to what the other had to say.

3. Challenge appropriately.

Each of us has strengths and weaknesses. As an HR professional, I have seen way too much time spent “improving” weaknesses and not enough time on accentuating strengths. I recommend challenging your team members for peak performance by focusing on their strengths. That’s what I mean by “appropriately.”

If someone enjoys public speaking, let them present a project update at the next meeting. If another enjoys researching, challenge them to creatively explore concepts or ways to do things better. If a third loves to organize, let them do so.

A few years ago, a group of us launched a new charitable initiative. In our steering committee, it quickly became apparent that each person had her own strengths. One was artistic — she designed the website. Another was a communicator — she wrote the email blasts. A third was resourceful — she had collateral printed for each meeting that aligned with our messaging. And so on and so forth.

Challenging appropriately means eliciting peak performance by focusing on strengths. Let others shine and, guess what, they will! Stretch them, not by asking them to improve a weakness, but by asking them to maximize their strengths.

4. Acknowledge the person, then the achievement.

The best coach leaders acknowledge when a team member does something well. When you focus primarily on the achievement instead of the team member, individual contribution gets lost.

The order of operations makes a big difference. Start with the acknowledgement, then the achievement.

The result is that you lift up that team member and encourage them to take another chance, to stretch themselves further, the next time. That’s what leadership is about.

One time when I was working in project management, I had a direct report with a graphic design background. She was early in her career, a recent grad. While she didn’t have much work experience, she had an eye for design. I asked her to look at my project work, particularly my presentations, and give me some design advice.

I ended up with presentations that flowed better and were more easily understood visually by using her strengths. She felt validated that her design skills were being used and that she could offer something new.

By acknowledging her design talent, I could then applaud her achievement — better-designed presentations. This made her want to get more involved in my other projects, naturally, no carrot or stick required.

5. Hold accountability through intrinsic motivation

In truth, coach leaders don’t hold their team members accountable. Team members hold themselves accountable. If, as a coach leader, I dangle a carrot or hold out a stick to keep a direct report accountable, then he/she will always require external motivation in order to achieve a goal.

The real shift? Moving team members from extrinsic motivation (carrot/stick) to intrinsic motivation (self-propelled). When that happens, the team member becomes self-motivated to accomplish his/her objectives.

Over time, intrinsic motivation proves a much healthier view of accountability. When team members own their own success, they don’t need a coach leader to push them to do the work.

Instead, a coach leader’s job becomes asking how team members plan to hold themselves accountable. Then the coach leader assumes the proper role — as a partner, not a parent.

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?

To effectively coach a multi-generational workforce, find the elements of each generation that make them excel and let them do it. Then, apply the steps for peak performance coaching in a workforce context: listen, ask questions, challenge appropriately, acknowledge the person then the achievement, hold accountability through intrinsic motivation.

Specifically, each generation has something valuable to contribute to activate the collective potential of a multi-generational workforce.

Boomers prefer to work using conversation(s) to advance ideas and create new ones. Ask your boomers to get involved as mentors to the younger generations, particularly Gen Zs, who could use their tips on having effective conversations and encouraging teams to build creatively in an in-person meeting.

Gen Xers focus on “time and tasks.” They are the kings and queens of PowerPoint. This means they like agendas for meetings and want team members to prepare beforehand by viewing the PowerPoint so everyone can make decisions at the meeting. At meetings, Gen Xers will use whiteboards to facilitate discussion. Coach your Gen Xers to share the value of whiteboarding in meetings. Ask them to be the meeting timekeepers and get them to write the agendas to keep the meeting on time and on task.

Millennials are contributors by nature. They are highly adaptive to complex workplaces as well as being handy with social media. You’ll find millennials “side barring” in meetings instead of standing at the front of the room or by the whiteboard. Involve your millennials by finding ways for them to collaborate within teams and cross-functionally. In many ways, this is the “glue” that holds a company together so use this natural gift of millennials to your best advantage.

Gen Zs are achievers. Busy bees, like they like to be “doing” whenever possible. Communicate with them using short messages if you want the best results. Coach your Gen Zs with sensitivity, not just by focusing on technical skills. As the most stressed generation since the Great Depression, they will thrive in workplaces that provide them a cushion mentally and emotionally. Using your coaching skills, described already, is the best way to activate their potential.

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?

  1. Ask, don’t assume.
  2. Be curious.

Leaders demonstrate a higher level of emotional intelligence by asking, not assuming, and by being curious. We convey so much information non-verbally and often make assumptions based on what people say, meaning “the facts” or taking a statement literally, instead of reading between the lines.

In addition, we interpret based on how we see things, not necessarily on how others see them. Miguel Ruiz explains in The Four Agreements that we make assumptions because we don’t have the courage to ask. Behind this is our fear of being wrong and desire to be right.

With an attitude of curiosity, you can approach situations with openness, knowing you don’t need to know the answer. That’s the main reason you ask questions, so you can understand better. Asking and curiosity go hand in hand. Together, these qualities make top-notch emotionally intelligent coach leaders.

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 most important words for leaders to use now are collaboration, balance, and values-based leadership.

Collaboration is where it’s at today. The younger generations have been raised to collaborate since the earliest days of schooling. This extends to the workplace as well. They enjoy working in teams. Finding ways to identify and reward collaboration is a recommended priority for today’s leadership.

Balance. Work-life balance doesn’t mean regimenting your time between 9 to 5 for work and everything else as before and after. It’s about putting in time when you want to finish a project and taking time off when you need to rest. Balance comes from feeling a sense of control in what, how, where, and when you’re doing work. The best leaders don’t demand; they trust. In that environment, balance happens naturally because leaders know the work will get done and team members know they have ownership for getting it done. Both parties do this successfully through direct, honest communication.

Today’s workforce wants values-based leadership. When leaders’ values don’t align with the company’s, team members feel the dissonance and tune out. I don’t recommend that leaders fake their values to create an artificial alignment. I’m arguing that leaders work in companies that reflect their values. That’s what team members want to experience, a company with a mission they can believe in. Those companies tend to be values-based and not in a simple way like putting a “Values Plaque” on a wall at the building’s entrance. I mean it in a way that recognizes and rewards team members who live their values. Leaders who align their values with their messaging will always be more effective and impactful than those who don’t because of the resonance felt behind their words.

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

Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” I like this life lesson because it’s not about a skill or attribute but a way of being. Knowledge is finite in that it is based on the amount of information I can acquire. Imagination is infinite because it can guide me anywhere.

Knowledge may eventually lead to wisdom if I’m willing to integrate all I have learned, discover patterns, make the connections, and find ways to share it in a new way for the next generation. However, it may just stay at “information” which is another way of saying, “what is” or “the facts.”

In contrast, imagination dwells in possibility and potential. It’s the land of what “could be.” Without imagination, we can’t create a vision, we can’t brainstorm, and we can’t create something entirely new. Imagination lets us see the world in a different way.

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?

Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn. You can also find me on my YouTube channel, my life fully loved podcast, and via my website. I would love to have you sign up for my weekly Life fully loved newsletter, focused on career topics, by clicking here. And if you’re newer to the workforce or are interested in making a career change, you can read my book, Career Advice: What I Wish I Knew When I was 24.

Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.