Co-create the future. Coaching is about helping the other person tap into what they want to create in the future. We can’t change the past, so co-creating the future is about asking questions that are future-oriented. Examples of good questions to ask are: “What’s your ideal outcome here?” and “What would you do if you could not fail?”

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 Marsha Acker.

Marsha Acker, CPF, CPCC, PCC, is the author of Build Your Model for Leading Change: A guided workbook to catalyze clarity and confidence in leading yourself and others, available now. She is the founder and CEO of TeamCatapult, a leadership development firm that equips leaders at all levels to facilitate and lead sustainable behavioral change. She is also the author of The Art and Science of Facilitation: How to Lead Effective Collaboration with Agile Teams and the host of the Defining Moments of Leadership podcast.

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?

I love this question. I actually host a whole podcast called “Defining Moments of Leadership” so that I can ask about leaders’ “aha” moments!

My own background and education are in software engineering and process improvement. Once upon a time, I was given the nickname of “process chick” because I was always looking for ways to capture what we were doing so we could make it more effective and efficient in the future. This set of skills served me well for a while — until it didn’t.

I was about 10 years into my career when I started to realize that processes and technologies were helpful for improvement, but where I lacked skills was in dealing with other humans — especially the skills necessary to lead others effectively. I quickly learned that telling people what to do and how to do it did not get me very far. Not at all. But I didn’t know any other way to go about working with people!

So, I joined a weekend coaching class to improve my skills as a leader. I remember sitting there all weekend being absolutely blown away by the skills I was learning. It was like someone had handed me a new pair of glasses. All the fuzzy, unclear edges I’d been living with crystallized into something new and incredibly clear. I could suddenly see that so many of my challenges in my leadership were directly related to how I was interacting with and communicating with others.

That weekend class changed my life and my work. It was humbling and mind-blowing in equal parts. I had no intention of becoming a professional coach. I went so I could learn better leadership skills. In the end, I not only got better as a leader, but I was inspired to continue to bring those skills to other leaders.

And that’s what I’ve been doing for almost thirty years.

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?

The way I translate this concept into my work is this: from a big picture vision perspective, I’m really clear about where my company (TeamCatapult) is going as an organization. It’s a vision that has been unfolding for years, and I’m not sure we will ever be done. I think that’s how you know you’ve tapped into a compelling vision and mission.

Part of that vision is for me to walk my talk. Things that I want for others, I also have to be willing to do for myself. And that includes diving right into the hard stuff alongside my team. I’ve come to really accept and appreciate that, in my leadership, there is no “perfect” version of doing this. But there is a committed practice and a willingness to be in the messy middle of human life, get it wrong, make a mess, and clean it up — and then commit to doing better the next time.

This is probably the most difficult and challenging aspect of anything that I do, and it’s absolutely worth it. I think (and hope) that practicing and walking my talk translates into modeling for others something that they too can put into practice, should they choose. I do not have all the answers. I will never get it fully right, and I will make mistakes along the way. But I have come to believe that the most important part of that journey is having the relationship container in our organization that allows us to have the deep and real conversations. And I’m grateful to work with a team of people who collectively co-create that space with me. It’s amazing!

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

When leading others, we often find ourselves stepping into different roles, depending on the situation. I think of it as wearing different hats, and it requires a lot of awareness in the moment — self-awareness, awareness of what’s going on for others (reading the room), and what the priorities for the conversation are.

For example, when someone comes to me with a challenge, or it seems like they are unclear or confused, I will probably step into the role of “leader as coach.” This means that I will get curious and start asking questions. In “leader as coach” mode, I’m really listening to how they are thinking, what their emotions are — what they are saying, and more importantly, what they are not saying. When I’m in this role, I tend to let go of my agenda or the task at hand and really focus on the person. I do this with the belief that when someone is listened to and can get clear about what’s concerning or confusing them, incredible things can happen. Not only will they be able to think through the challenge on their own more effectively, but they will also be able to re-engage in the work with more clarity, energy, and empowered choice. That’s the goal, in my book, of shifting into leader-as-coach mode.

When I step into the role of “leader as manager,” I have a different focus. My focus is usually on the task or the work at hand, and my primary concern is about what has to be accomplished. I may be offering communication, a direction, or asking for updates or status. With my manager hat on, sometimes the conversation is about a person’s performance in a role or with a certain task, and it will likely involve offering some feedback.

In short, I think the most helpful distinction between “leader as manager” and “leader as coach” is where the leader is placing their focus and attention. Is it fully on the other person as a human being? Are you letting go of the work or task in order to focus on them as a person? Or is the attention on the work and the outcomes that need to be accomplished? These are two different mindsets that correlate to the role you are embodying (or the hat you are wearing). Both are very useful hats for leaders to be able to wear according to the needs of the moment, but the key is for there to be clarity for both parties about which hat the leader is wearing at any given time.

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?

I think one of the greatest skills leaders can develop is what David Kantor calls “communicative competence.” What does this mean? It means that leaders need to have a model for being able to see communication and patterns of human dynamics in order to be able to identify how and why conversions are getting stuck — and what to do about it when they are.

One of the important facets of an effective model for seeing communication and its patterns is that it needs to use morally neutral language — a language without judgment — in order for both the leader and the team to be able to see these patterns collectively and change the nature of the conversation when they become unproductive.

Another critically important competency that leaders need to develop — and which is closely related to communicative competence — is deep self-awareness. Knowing your behavioral tendencies, like how you’re likely to react when the stakes rise for you or for others in a conversation, is key to self-management and your ability to facilitate a more productive conversation moving forward. Understanding why you believe certain things about yourself, about human behavior, and about the ways you think people “should” interact is the key to inviting more empathy and perspective into the room with you. Self-awareness is complex and ongoing, but it’s the cornerstone of effective leadership — especially when it comes to leading change. For those who are interested, my new workbook Build Your Model for Leading Change gets really into how to develop these competencies.

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?

Doing our own work as a leader is a personal choice. I believe really strongly in that choice being left up to each person. I think when you’re ready, you’re ready. I often say, “your mission, should you choose to accept it…” And everyone gets to say no! Until you’re ready to invest in your leadership, your growth (in your skills and competencies, your self-awareness, and your communicative competence) is going to be pretty minimal. Unsurprisingly, many people find themselves ready to explore leadership growth after they’ve been getting the same results over and over for a while. They can really see and feel the limits of what they’ve been doing and trying.

Even though I’m pretty active in my own leadership development, there are certainly times when I want a break from the personal work. I hit pause on the coaching, or I take a break from personal reflections and journaling. During these times, I integrate the learnings that I have. And then something will happen that will send me back into personal development. It’s a pretty typical cycle for leaders, and I think that’s just fine. I’ve even started to notice that each time this happens in my own cycle, my next development journey is that much deeper than the one before.

So, yes, when you’re ready, you’re ready. So part of my job in TeamCatapult is to let people know that the work is there waiting for them, whenever the time is right. And it’s all a journey, so best to enjoy the process!

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?”

Leaders as coaches show up for people with a specific mindset and stance. They are really clear about when they are coaching and when they are serving a different role. As coach, leaders believe that high performance is achieved when the other person is able to identify what matters to them most and take inspired action rather than action based on obligation or compliance. To be effective coaches and help people find the space of inspired action, here are the top five principles that leaders and managers can use:

  1. Focus on the person. It’s easy to say, and hard to do. We will naturally get hooked by the topic someone brings to the table, and we will likely want to be helpful and solve it for them. But that does not help someone learn. When you’re in the stance of “leader as coach,” place your focus on the person rather than the topic. Ask questions about the person, not the topic. Examples of questions to ask include, “What are you thinking?” “How are you feeling?” “What might be getting in your way?” The questions that you ask with this focus will be very different from ones you ask when you’re focusing on the task (the topic) or work to be done.
  2. High Interest and Low Attachment. It’s really easy to be overly attached to the suggestions we make or what we think someone else needs to do. But in a coaching conversation, this isn’t helpful to the other person. We can’t convince anyone of anything — but we can help them discover their own answers. So be deeply interested in how the other person is thinking and feeling, with low attachment to what actions they decide to take for themselves. In other words, when you focus on the person and ask them questions about them, the next step is to trust them to choose the path that’s best for them (even when it’s not the one you might advocate for).
  3. Co-create the future. Coaching is about helping the other person tap into what they want to create in the future. We can’t change the past, so co-creating the future is about asking questions that are future-oriented. Examples of good questions to ask are: “What’s your ideal outcome here?” and “What would you do if you could not fail?”
  4. Deep Curiosity and Not Knowing. This principle is about acknowledging that there are many right answers to any problem. When standing in the role of “leader as coach,” it’s our job to bring questions that surface exploration. This is about remaining deeply curious and holding onto the perspective that we cannot know all that can or needs to be voiced. This one can be challenging, since we have some deep-seated notions in our society about how leaders should always have the answer or be the one bringing solutions or direction to the team. But really, the most effective leaders are the ones who show up with deep curiosity and a willingness to facilitate conversations where other voices can be heard.
  5. People are Creative, Resourceful, and Complete. This principle holds that we are all capable, creative, and able to take action in our own lives. We are not broken, and we don’t need fixing. This principle is about believing that we can learn from our challenges, and that we are each experts in our own lives — that we are capable and resourceful in solving our own problems. When leaders invest in this principle, they are less likely to want to jump into action, solve someone else’s problems, or put on their “heroic rescuer” hat. This principle enables leaders to create space that empowers teams to access and draw on their collective intelligence — even when the conversations are hard, the stakes feel really high, or emotions crop up.

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?

One of the greatest challenges in relationships and communication is that we tend to think that everyone sees what we see. In fact, we will each see everything slightly differently. This is a superpower — it’s the hub of the collective intelligence that exists in every team — but it’s also a flash point for unproductive communication patterns and high-stakes interpersonal dynamics. The best way to navigate these differences — and benefit from them! — is to locate empathy for the other person and be curious. Share your perspective, but also pause and ask others to share their experience. What do they see? How did they get there? What’s important to them? Seeking to understand what someone else — and believing in the fundamental value of doing so — is helpful in navigating difference and crucial for ensuring that all voices are heard.

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?

Another way to think about emotional intelligence is being able to “read the room.” What are you hearing other people say? How are they speaking to one another? Who speaks first? Who sets the direction in a conversation? Who follows that direction, who opposes it, and who stays silent without voicing anything one way or the other?

These are all behavioral signals that can help us think really concretely about what emotional intelligence is and where facilitation and self-awareness is needed to ensure that all voices and perspectives can be heard.

So, these are the two things that leaders can do — starting today, starting now — to demonstrate a much higher degree of emotional intelligence: they can learn to read the room based on the very concrete observations I’ve indicated above, and they can cultivate the necessary self-awareness to recognize the role they are playing in the dynamics that they are observing.

Of course, like all things, this is easier said than done. My most recent book is actually all about how to cultivate the self-awareness to support this critical facet of leadership! So, clearly I have a lot to say. But I have found that, at the end of the day, cultivating emotional awareness — and demonstrating it as a leader — begins with these two things.

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

Yes, our words definitely matter. Every day, I work with leaders around communication, and I believe that the quality of our leadership is directly correlated with our ability to communicate in ways that engage others and ensure that all voices are heard. This is the heart of the work I do, and I’m really passionate about it!

But, I would suggest that what’s even more important than the specific words we might use is that leaders develop range in their communication behavior. Let me explain. The words that we use in any conversation can be coded into 3 categories: Power, Affect, and Meaning. Power is the language of getting it done and taking action (e.g., “let’s be effective, efficient, and take action, ”). Affect is the language of care and concern for others (e.g., “how might this decision feel for our team?.”). And Meaning is the language of purpose, values, and what’s important (e.g., “why are we doing this work? Why does it matter?”).

Now, the important thing about what I call communicative competence is knowing that all three of these categories of communication need to be present for conversations to be effective. And this means that the most powerful thing we can do as leaders is develop our ability to speak and engage across all of the categories.

And it’s not easy! We’ll often have two of the languages that feel natural and organic to us, but one that we’ll feel like is less natural to us — one that we’re likely to even have some kind of bias. That’s the category of language that we need to develop. Because it’s in the space of bias that we can find ourselves talking past one another. Engaging with all three categories of language is the best way we can bridge difficult conversations and complex interpersonal dynamics, so if we under-develop (or actively ignore) a category that we don’t prefer, we’re virtually guaranteeing that people will leave conversations feeling frustrated and unheard.

So, rather than focus on individual words, I think the way we use words is where we need to focus.

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 favorite sayings is “let go to let come.” It hangs on a sticky note next to my desk and I look at it daily. I’m not sure who to credit the phrase to, but the conceptual idea came to me from the Theory U model by Otto Scharmer, where he talks about letting the future emerge. It’s a daily reminder to me that any place where I’m holding tightly — whether it’s a specific thought, process, belief, or assumption — it might be the very thing that is blocking new ideas from coming or stopping me from seeing an easier way forward.

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?

The best way to connect with me is on LinkedIn If you connect, drop me a quick note to let me know who you are and how you found me.

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