To be a constructive coach, your team members need to trust you and believe that you have their best interest at heart. If they don’t think you care about them and their needs, they are more likely to hide mistakes, issues or challenges, which will hurt performance.

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 Marie Unger.

As Chief Executive Officer, Marie Unger leads Emergenetics® International, which partners with leaders and organizations around the world to apply Emergenetics theories and cognitive diversity to build positive, productive workplace cultures. An expert in the ways people prefer to think and behave, Marie empowers others to navigate the future of work through optimized communication, enhanced team dynamics, increased inclusion and improved employee retention. Marie is a classically trained pianist and avid sports fan who enjoys spending time with her family including her husband, daughters and grand dogs.

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?

It’s great to connect with you again, Karen! I appreciate having an opportunity to discuss such a relevant and important topic. One defining moment that comes to mind is when I left my role as a director of human resources in a school district and joined Emergenetics International to lead its education division. While I certainly understood the needs of educators from my background as a principal, teacher and administrator, pivoting to the business world was a massive change for me.

I was honestly nervous about the transition because I was worried that being in a for-profit company might impact my mission-centric leadership style. What I realized in the process, however, is that no matter what organization or type of entity I am working in, my leadership will always be purpose-driven.

My goal is to make a difference in the lives of others, which is why this topic of coaching is so important to me. I try to always empower my employees to be the best versions of themselves, and I want the Emergenetics International organization to effect positive change for people across the world.

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 love this quote! To know the way requires vision and clarity. In guiding our organization, I was inspired by Simon Sinek’s The Infinite Game, which centers on the concept of having a Just Cause. Sinek defines a Just Cause as “a specific vision of a future state that does not yet exist.”

Having come out of the pandemic, I wanted to reset ‘the way’ for our organization, so I worked with others to establish our Just Cause. By staying aligned to our Just Cause, which is like a north star, I am very clear on how best to guide our way forward.

I believe I “go the way” by walking our talk. Emergenetics is in the business of helping people discover how they prefer to think and behave, to celebrate their inherent gifts and to honor the perspectives of others. I encourage our staff to use their strengths and lead by example by utilizing cognitive diversity to make decisions and drive results.

In terms of showing the way, I do my best to always adhere to my personal beliefs and our company’s values. If I’m going to attract, retain and grow the best talent, I believe it’s important that I embody our organization’s ethos.

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

From my perspective, management is connected to organizing and coordinating activities to achieve a desired outcome. A leader as a manager offers important support by prioritizing needs like time management or providing specific direction to fix a problem. These individuals are skilled and seasoned tacticians who play an important role in every organization.

When a leader is a coach, they emphasize building capacity in others, so that these individuals have the tools, resources and care they need to navigate challenges and achieve objectives. A leader who prioritizes coaching is likely to embrace empathy and collaboration by inviting staff to consider multiple perspectives and approaches. Leaders as coaches are true teachers, spending more time asking questions than giving answers.

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?

Constructive coaching starts with self-awareness. It’s important that a person can accurately recognize their strengths as well as their blind spots. It’s so vital that our business is centered around it — self -awareness is the cornerstone of Emergenetics. By helping executives and managers uncover their innate preferences and appreciate the fact that others see the world differently, it empowers them to become better coaches. With this self-insight, they are able to realize their way isn’t the only way to achieve a great outcome.

Once the foundation of self-awareness is set, other competencies that stand out to me are communication, curiosity, influence and empathy.

At its core, communication is about ensuring that both parties understand one another clearly. To coach someone, a leader must have the skills to listen, truly comprehend the obstacles and opportunities the other person is experiencing as well as provide information in a way that makes sense. If you are not able to effectively communicate, it will encroach on your ability to coach someone else.

Curiosity is also essential because coaches recognize that they do not have all the information or all the answers. They need to be open minded and ask great questions so their team members can uncover root challenges and potential solutions — on their own.

Coaching requires the ability to influence others by motivating and empowering them. Giving orders does not typically promote employee engagement. Instead, strong leaders take time to know their people. They help staff gain the knowledge and capabilities needed to be more productive and thrive in their careers. They also encourage their employees in a way that speaks to their individualized interests and aspirations.

At the heart of each of these capacities lies empathy, where leaders are compassionate and can put themselves in someone else’s shoes. The act of perspective taking and making an effort to understand others is what will enable leaders to create meaningful interpersonal relationships with their teams.

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?

One policy we instituted at Emergenetics International is creating self-directed professional development budgets. This funding encourages individuals to identify the pathways that will help them grow the capacities they feel they need to be successful. While staff are welcome to find the opportunities themselves, their department leaders are also available to guide them in finding relevant development programs.

Our company also believes in giving our people time to reflect on their interests and needs. For example, we hosted a session in December where employees were invited to think about the intentions they want to set in the new year and analyze what is holding them back from or propelling them toward those objectives. By making time, during working hours, for staff to consider what it is they want and how to get there, they can uncover upskilling opportunities or different growth avenues to achieve their goals.

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 for performance requires action on both the part of the leader and the employee. In terms of what executives and managers can do to amplify performance today and in the future of work, here are my top five recommendations:

#1 — Focus on Strengths

Often in performance conversations, there may be a focus on the deficit or what isn’t working. It’s important to be aware of opportunities for change and using strengths-based language is a much more productive way to achieve results. I completely believe in the quote attributed to Henry Ford that says: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” There are also many studies that highlight the impact of positive language.

From the lens of leadership, you will be much more effective at motivating and coaching a person by using affirmative vocabulary and helping them to utilize their strengths to effect positive change. Tools like the Emergenetics Profile or other assessments can help leaders understand each individual’s gifts and build on those capacities to reach important goals. For leaders who are in team-oriented environments, there’s also great value in understanding the collective capabilities of the group, so teammates can lean on and into each other to achieve their objectives.

#2 — Embrace and Encourage Empathy

To be a constructive coach, your team members need to trust you and believe that you have their best interest at heart. If they don’t think you care about them and their needs, they are more likely to hide mistakes, issues or challenges, which will hurt performance.

Building trust begins with embracing empathy. I encourage leaders to get to know their employees as people and learn about the ways they prefer to approach their work and the world. Pausing to ask how someone else might experience the same situation is a great way to build context and compassion for other perspectives. It’s also a useful coaching technique. When you and your workforce prioritize perspective-taking, it will expand empathy and allow staff to utilize cognitive diversity to drive outcomes.

#3 — Ask Questions

Often, managers and executives will simply give direction when an obstacle or opportunity arises. Great coaches, however, have a knack for inquiry. Providing an answer may solve the immediate need, and it may also prevent individuals from growing. To support development, I invite leaders to identify questions they will ask to inspire their staff to think holistically about a challenge.

Some questions to consider include:

  • “Why” questions to get to the root of the topic at hand,
  • “What if” questions to imagine possibilities and additional approaches,
  • “Who” questions to uncover impacts to people and opportunities for collaboration,
  • “How” questions to evaluate the implications and steps of a course of action as well as
  • “When” questions to determine a reasonable pace and plan for contingencies.

Inviting team members to consider all the possibilities will help them to think broadly about their work and come to a well-thought-out conclusion.

#4 — Celebrate Mistakes

Everyone wants to be successful, and yet some of the best lessons come from failures. One example is from Milton Hershey. He started several businesses that all failed before he launched the famous company that shares his name. Each of these initial disappointments taught him something about running a fruitful organization. Another famous example comes from the two mistakes that led to the creation of the Post-It Note.

Stopping to recognize and celebrate what we’ve learned from failure is an important part of the coaching process. Exploring the resulting lessons can help people uncover what they need to do differently next time. I recommend that leaders start by owning up to their own mistakes to make the process more comfortable. Then, in their coaching sessions, they can encourage staff members to celebrate one misstep from the month and what they discovered from the experience.

#5 — Provide Opportunities for Growth

It’s unlikely that any manager or executive will be able to directly support all the skill building that their team members need to perform in the future of work, and good coaches are aware of these limitations. With that in mind, leaders should invest in their employees’ growth through learning and development programs.

A simple first step is to ask an employee what new knowledge or ability would better equip them to thrive in their roles as well as achieve short- and long-term goals. Get specific about their career development targets and the capabilities needed to achieve them. Then, partner with Human Resources or Learning & Development teams to find resources, training and opportunities that support the employee’s objectives.

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?

Different generations often have distinct interests and expectations, so it can be helpful to spend time understanding what they are in your organization. One example that comes to mind from my experience is that younger generations tend to appreciate frequent check-ins to receive regular feedback, while more seasoned generations often prefer periodic, structured mechanisms. Understanding your population and its dynamic needs can be useful in preparing managers to deliver different types of coaching.

It’s also important to remember that generational diversity is just one way that people identify. It should never be assumed that every characteristic ascribed to one age group will apply to all of its members. Getting to know your team members and understanding their perspectives will help you formulate a tailored approach that is likely to be appreciated by everyone.

Having opportunities to learn about direct reports and colleagues as multi-faceted human beings also unlocks the potential of the workforce. To cultivate the collective talent of a multi-generational team, find ways to celebrate and showcase each employee’s gifts and the tendencies of the group.

Departments that use Emergenetics find that no matter the generation, team members do have a lot of things in common. Identifying where a group is both similar and different can set the tone for positive conversations and empower them to see how the distinctions contribute to stronger innovation, collaboration and performance.

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?

I must go back to the core tenants of self-awareness, empathy, perspective taking and motivation that I shared earlier. All of these elements are essential components of EQ. When a leader is emotionally intelligent, they are more likely to create an environment where employees are empowered and encouraged to contribute.

To demonstrate that you as a leader have a higher level of emotional intelligence, start by hiring people who are smarter than you and different from you. When you have a diverse group of individuals, who you value and listen to, it shows that you care about a variety of perspectives and backgrounds. It will also lead to better results as studies have shown that diversity improves outcomes.

I invite leaders to embrace the concept of flexing as well. At Emergenetics, we define flexing as stepping outside of your comfort zone and embracing ways of thinking and behaving that are outside of your innate preferences. This practice is incredibly useful in coaching because it allows you to consider a problem from another person’s lens and see the value others bring to the table. Flexing also supports EQ because it allows you to honor your colleagues’ preferences and build stronger working relationships.

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

I spoke about the value of positive language a little earlier, and I’ll reiterate just how important it is to embrace optimism and affirmation. Your direct reports will feel more empowered when they know you believe in them and have confidence that they can problem solve, learn new things and succeed. That starts with managers using positive words. Simple changes like replacing “This is a problem” with “This is an opportunity” can reframe mindsets. It’s a remarkable shift in my experience.

Another way to use language in today’s workplace is to make connections to purpose regularly. In the course of day-to-day work, it’s easy for managers and executives to focus solely on to dos and tasks, which can veer into more directive conversations with staff. When leaders speak to the vision and strategic direction of the company on an ongoing basis, it helps them to provide more guidance and less tactical direction. By aligning team members around purpose, employees are equipped to think more holistically about their decisions and how they can contribute in a way that helps the organization achieve its near- and long-term objectives.

That focus on purpose, coupled with positive psychology, will make a significant difference in any coaching conversation.

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

In one of his recent blog posts, Seth Godin said, “People with confidence, power and reserves are able to admit when they are wrong, when things aren’t working and when it doesn’t turn out the way they hoped”.

These words hit me, sunk in and stuck. I think it’s the perfect summation of the change we’re seeing in leadership. In the past, leaders were told to command the direction and avoid showing any doubt because it might be seen as a sign of weakness. In reality, acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers and are interested in continued growth and development demonstrates your strength.

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?

If you are interested in hearing more from me directly, please follow me on LinkedIn. I also periodically contribute to our blog, sharing some of my thoughts on leadership and in particular empathetic leadership. If you’re interested in learning more about those topics, I invite you to follow our company’s LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram account or visit our website!

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