Allow Time. Once you ask them what they think, you’ve opened a dialogue. Now you can learn their thought process and ask more questions so they can figure things out on their own. This takes time. Time for them to decide what they think. Time for you to listen. Time to ask more questions, so you can help them build critical thinking skills.
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 Melissa Jacobs of Crow & Pitcher LLC (https://www.crowandpitcherllc.com/).
Melissa is the CEO and lead strategist at Crow & Pitcher LLC, an innovation and growth consultancy. Businesses that want to innovate, grow, and reinvent themselves to get to the next level, but don’t have the luxury of dedicated strategic resources on staff, hire her team to spark transformational growth. Prior to founding Crow & Pitcher, she grew her career and leadership experience for over 20 years in marketing, strategy, and innovation roles at Kimberly-Clark Corporation, the Fortune 200 maker of Kleenex, Huggies, and many beloved CPG brands.
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?
Very early in my career, I had a boss that recognized a natural talent for leadership in me. She coached me and gave me leadership opportunities long before I had that aspiration myself. One defining moment came when a team leader unexpectedly moved to a new role, leaving a leadership position vacant for several months. Even though I was the youngest person on the team, with the least experience, I was named as the interim leader.
My boss believed that choosing me put the team in the strongest position and invested her time to coach me. In hindsight, I’m sure this decision was a risk for both of us. She was hard on me, but I knew she was making me better and rewarding me at the same time. Her approach ensured that I was successful in this stretch opportunity and laid the foundations for my leadership style. A style that is rooted in knowing my team, sometimes better than they know themselves, and coaching them for growth opportunities.
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?
Honestly, I’m not sure if I agree with this saying. At first glance it makes me think of a manager forcing their team to do as they say. But when I step back and think about how my approach connects to this saying….I do agree that a leader needs to have an overall vision of where the team needs to go (knows the way). And it’s important that they are consistent, not changing the vision or goal (goes the way). But when it comes to showing the way, it’s my philosophy that a leader who is investing in coaching allows room for their team to show the way.
How do you define the differences between a leader as a manager and a leader as a coach?
To me, a manager directs people to do things their way, while a coach helps people build skills and thought processes to achieve the goal in the best way. And grows their team for future opportunities. Leaders who coach encourage their team to share ideas and opinions which ultimately makes the team more effective.
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?
Essential skills needed to lead as a coach include clarity, consistency, and patience.
- Clarity: In order to develop their own ideas and make solid recommendations, each team member must be clear on the team’s goal, scope, and their role. Providing clarity on where the team is heading and the sandbox they’re allowed to play in is the first step. Also, having clarity on the team’s strengths and opportunities is essential.
- Consistency: Once the team is clear on the goal and sandbox, staying consistent as a leader helps them get better at meeting expectations. If these things are constantly changing, especially if changes are not communicated, it becomes impossible for team members to make progress without the leader intervening as a manager.
- Patience: Lastly, but equally important, is the ability to give team members time. Leading as a coach is a “go slow to go fast” approach. This is especially true in the beginning. When first adopting this approach, team members are starting to build their own skills, formulate their own ideas and opinions, and get feedback from their leader/coach. It’s iterative. It takes time. And the leader must be patient and allow time.
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?
Fundamentally, what we’re asking for here is a behavior change. We are asking leaders to lead differently and team members to work differently too. And behavior change is HARD. In my experience, the more you understand people’s goals and motivations, the more likely you are to be able to influence them to change their behavior. This is true of marketing any product to customers. And it’s true of convincing leaders to upskill.
Inspiring and influencing people to upskill is infinitely easier when you frame the adoption of new behaviors as a path toward achieving their personal goals. What’s in it for them is far more influential than what’s in it for you or for the company.
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?”
As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s table stakes for the leader to provide clarity around the team’s goal, scope, and each member’s role. Once that foundation is in place, it’s time for great coaching to begin. My top 5 ways to be an effective coach include:
- Ask a Simple Question. One simple, but shocking question has been the key to coaching my direct reports. When they ask for an answer, simply ask them “What do you think?”
In my first official leadership role, I inherited a team operating under command and control. They weren’t thinking for themselves. Frankly, they’d been reprimanded for doing so. I was shocked to find this simple question left them speechless. One woman even recoiled in her chair when I first asked her opinion. It only took a few weeks before they were used to this approach and were prepared with their own thoughts.
Some managers I’ve shared this idea with get nervous about taking this step. But asking this question doesn’t mean you have to approve their first answer. There is no risk. You’re simply starting a conversation.
2. Allow Time. Once you ask them what they think, you’ve opened a dialogue. Now you can learn their thought process and ask more questions so they can figure things out on their own. This takes time. Time for them to decide what they think. Time for you to listen. Time to ask more questions, so you can help them build critical thinking skills.
A former boss used this approach flawlessly. There was a particular consumer group that looked, at first glance, like an obvious growth opportunity. Nearly every person who joined our team suggested we shift our budget toward this group. Every time this happened, our leader asked the new team member to put together a business case to support their suggestion. Over the next few weeks, he’d ask questions to guide them toward data they had overlooked and challenge their assumptions. And every time, the new team member ultimately concluded the opportunity was far too small and therefore too expensive to be worthwhile. This exercise was always worthwhile. New skills and relationships were built that benefitted the team for the long term.
3. Coach for the Situation. We often think of people as more junior vs more experienced. Or stronger performers vs weaker performers. But when it comes to coaching, the situation matters. Coaching for the situation means adjusting your coaching style based on each situation. Is this person doing something for the first time? Have they been given a project or task that requires different skills or partners with a different group of people? Even if they’re a rock star and you like to give people a lot of room to learn on their own, this situation may call for more direction and guidance early on. The opposite can also be true.
I had an amazing up-and-coming marketer join my team. He had the kind of potential that almost always called for a “get out of his way” leadership style. But the business we worked on was regulated by the FDA and his prior experience had been on non-regulated products. This situation called for flexing my leadership style to ensure that he had the proper direction and guidance for his new responsibilities. I found myself leaning in, being more directive, and generally staying much closer to his work than if we worked together in a different situation.
4. Be Open. This one really matters. If you’ve done steps 1–3, your team is bringing forward better and better ideas and recommendations. You must be open to adopting them. While I believe in the leader being consistent when it comes to the goal and the sandbox, I also believe in having flexibility in the plan that achieves the goal. Plus, if team member’s ideas are always shut down, they’ll stop sharing them. And the coaching opportunities will stop.
The leader who asked for a business case when new team members wanted to shift the budget to a new consumer target? He was always open to doing so, if the data and rationale indicated it was a good idea.
5. Stretch Them. A benefit of coaching your team is that they’re upskilling and ready for more. Look for opportunities to hand off things to them, even if you aren’t sure they’re ready. You’ve built a relationship where coaching is happening regularly, which means you can support them to stretch. This helps alleviate your workload (giving you more time for coaching your team), while also improving their motivation.
I remain forever grateful to my first boss, who gave me that first stretch opportunity and changed the trajectory of my career. She didn’t let traditional norms around age or experience keep her from pushing me forward.
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 think it comes down to treating each person as an individual and not assuming what works for you is what will work for them. Do you understand what matters to each of your team members and what motivates them? Directly asking them might reveal surprising insights.
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?
- Ask, don’t assume. One of my first managers gave each of her direct reports an index card and asked us to write down 3 things that motivate us. It took quite a bit of reflection to answer that question. Thinking back on that now, I must admit it was pretty revolutionary. And yet at the same time so simple. If I didn’t know my answer to that question, how could she have known without asking?
- Personalize feedback. I had a leader who gave very little feedback. We rarely had 1:1 meetings. Once, he called me into his office and told me “You make my job easier”. I felt amazing. Until later that day when my co-workers and I realized he’d had the exact same conversation with all of us. Goodbye amazing feeling. Hello feeling like a number. Once you do step 1 above (ask, don’t assume), you can personalize your coaching and feedback so your team feels valued and understood.
Words matter. And we’re collectively creating a new leadership language right now. What are the most important words for leaders to use now?
Whether it’s leading people, framing up a sales call, or marketing to consumers, putting the needs of the receiver first is critical to get the behavior you desire. Look at the last few emails you’ve sent. How many sentences start with or contain “I”? The first time I heard this advice and did this exercise, I was shocked to see about 80% of my sentences were framed about me. How engaging is that to the recipient? Not very. To drive behavior change, it’s imperative to show that you understand what’s in it for them or how something impacts them. Put them first.
I keep inspiring quotes on my desk. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote,” and why does it mean so much to you?
“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” — Albert Einstein
Time and time again I’ve found that taking stock of a situation, problem, or task before jumping into solutions improves the outcome. But it seems like most people are programmed to skip this step. Even those who aren’t programmed that way are dealing with fast-paced environments every day, making it hard to pause and get clear on the problem. This applies to all kinds of situations, including preparing for coaching opportunities.
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 to visit my company’s website (CrowandPitcherLLC.com) and sign up for our quarterly newsletter, From the Crow’s Nest. We share how our clients are accelerating their growth with data-driven insights, transformational strategies, and focused execution. You can also find me on LinkedIn, where I’d love to connect and continue the conversation.
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.