Encourage coachees to open up and tell you their thoughts and feelings. If you need others to open up, you open up first. Find some personal stories that you feel OK to share and show some vulnerability.

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 Coach Michael Lin.

Coach Michael Lin is known for the effectiveness of his leadership training and coaching. He came out of the tech industry and uses his superb analytical skills to dissect business problems, and leaders from more than 500 organizations across many industries have attended seminars and workshop sessions taught by Lin. He has deep insights into human nature, which he uses to help people to solve their leadership challenges.

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?

One of my earliest experiences in leadership was when I worked as a civilian IT engineer for the Royal Australian Air Force. I was leading a team of about 20 civilians, and we worked very closely with the military.

I quickly learned 3 important leadership lessons while working on this military base:

Lesson #1: I could not help but notice the sharp difference between military leadership vs civilian leadership. In the military, officers have the legal authority to issue orders, and the enlisted must obey without question. That was a legal power I did not have as a civilian leading a team of civilians. I could not order my team members around for that would create nothing but resentment.

Lesson #2: Instead of ordering my team members, I had to inspire them. And I had to inspire them using what’s inspirational to them individually, not what’s inspirational to myself. What’s an effective motivating factor for one individual may or may not work on a different individual — for everybody is “uniquely different”. I had to explain to my team members how each of the tasks I assigned to them would benefit them, and that was the essence of “Influence & Persuasion”.

Lesson #3: In order to inspire them using what’s inspirational to them, I had to learn about them. Their lives, their aspirations and their ambitions. What are the things they want? What are the things they want to avoid? How badly do they want them? I had to become more effective at making people feel comfortable about opening up to me.

That was a great learning experience for me! I am glad I got those lessons at such an early stage of my career.

Fast forward to today. I get ex-military attending my leadership training seminars from time to time. They tell me point blank: “I came to learn how to be a civilian, again. I was a great military leader, and I just found out the hard way: that style of leadership does not apply in the civilian world, I don’t have the legal authority to order my team members to do 20 push ups. I need to unlearn what was good for that environment and relearn something new for this environment. So teach me how to be a civilian leader in the business 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?

Today, most jobs in America are “Knowledge Work,” and most employees are “Knowledge Workers”. Good Knowledge Workers are constantly seeking Career Advancement. They know the way to get ahead is Professional Knowledge & Industry Insight. If you are their boss, they want to learn the Knowledge and Wisdom that’s in your head. They want you to support them in their effort to advance themselves.

As a leader in the business world, a lot of what you do is teaching. You are teaching all the way from Technical Skills to Organizational Knowledge, to Industry Insight, Professional Insight, People Skills, Emotional Intelligence, and Emotional Maturity. For example: How to help someone who is new at something to feel more comfortable and how to handle professional disagreements; Why disagreeing is not to be confused with personal attack but seeking growth together.

You constantly improve your ability to teach and expand your own thinking, encourage team members to teach each other, teach your team members how to teach. Do you need to hold others accountable? Start by holding yourself accountable first! In my leadership training, I show leaders how they can develop emotional maturity, by expanding their comfort zone and fear busting.

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

A manager designs business processes and tells the team members what needs to be accomplished. A manager focuses on the “what.”

A coach helps individual team members with the “how,” by helping them overcome obstacles hidden in their Blind Spots. In order to discover what’s in the blind spot, the coach asks the right questions and listens skillfully. The coach helps the coachee perform a 180 in their thinking by expanding their understanding and stretching their mind.

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 Skill #1: A more accurate understanding of the reality of human nature. Not how we wish humans ought to be, but how humans actually are. Effective leaders have a solid understanding that: people are living beings; they are not to be confused with computers. Living beings have self awareness and self interest. Everything is done for individual self interest. As effective leaders, we need to understand that people will always put their own interest first, and this includes your employees! It’s counterproductive to wish your employees would put the organization’s interest first. It’s your job as the leader to help the employee see how helping the organization to accomplish its interest is going to help the employee accomplish their very own personal interest.

Essential Skill #2: A more accurate understanding of human motivators. Effective leaders have a solid understanding that everything you do is driven by pain or pleasure. And since the introduction of agriculture, you need to learn to endure short term pain in exchange for long term pleasure. “If I eat all the seeds today, I will not have any food to eat next year.” Effective coaches are skilled at helping coachees “feel” the long term perpetual pain if the coachee opted for immediate short term pleasure, versus the long term perpetual pleasure if they opted to endure the immediate short term pain.

Essential Skill #3: A solid understanding that everyone is entitled to a better life by helping themselves; so let’s help those who are helping themselves. “Teach people how to fish.” Help people realize, “I can learn to fish, someday I will teach others how to fish. I will discover and invent other means of finding food. I will grow some corn, have some chicken, and one day, I will teach others how to grow some corn and have some chicken, and cows, and sheep, and…”

Essential Skill #4: Speaking skills: Mastery of words, creative wordsmithing, speaking pattern, avoiding monotone, pausing at the right moment within a sentence, voice inflection, putting the emphasis on the word of your choice within a sentence. And if you have a regional or foreign accent, figure out how to utilize it to your advantage! (If you can’t get rid of your foreign accent, you might as well utilize it! Turn it from a Bug into a Feature!)

Essential Skill #5: Skillful storytelling as a coaching tool. Humans have long figured out the effectiveness of storytelling as a teaching tool. This is why we all grew up listening to stories. The reasons storytelling is such an effective tool are: We don’t feel like we are being lectured down upon. The characters in the story are someone else, but we relate to and identify with the characters on our own, for our brains are wired by evolution to see patterns and learn. We realize the educational point ourselves! We feel we came up with the learning ourselves. People don’t reject their own ideas!

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?

Mandating creates resentment. People don’t like being ordered and forced. Knowledge Workers love to learn, but everyone hates being lectured down upon.

This is why employees love to learn from effective coaches, coaches who make the learning process enjoyable not painful. Leaders with good coaching skills are highly sought after by organizations.

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. Create an environment in which everyone seeks constant improvement. (Publicly praise team members who: sought knowledge, learned something from a mistake, taught a fellow team member something; delegate/assign the teaching of a task to the team member who is relatively the most skilled at that task; teach your team members on how to teach…)
  2. Encourage coachees to open up and tell you their thoughts and feelings. If you need others to open up, you open up first. Find some personal stories that you feel OK to share and show some vulnerability. “This is my most embarrassing story in my professional life… This happened when I first got my start, and I didn’t know… I mistakenly thought…” Sometimes making a mistake and experiencing pain is the fastest way to learn. But let’s not make the same mistake twice. There is no such thing as a ‘stupid question.’ The only thing that is ‘stupid’ is you had a question and for 20 years, you pretended you knew the answer — that’s a lot of time, effort and emotional energy wasted.
  3. Listen to your coachee skillfully. Ask them questions to seek clarification. Listening is not about hearing the words. Have you ever heard two tech workers talk to each other, or two lawyers or doctors talk to each other? You heard every word, but you had no idea what was said. But if you ask questions seeking clarification, they can state things in a way that people who are not in their profession can comprehend. If you ask your coachee questions, they will be explaining their situation and their frustration. Let them do most of the talking during the first half of the coaching session for the following benefits: When people are frustrated and full of steam, new info. can not go in. Their frustration needs to come out first. You don’t know what’s holding them back. By listening, you will be given all the info. for you to do your detective work to figure what sort of thinking is in their Blind Spot that’s holding them back. By listening, you make them feel you can feel their pain and their frustration. If people feel you can’t feel the pain of their suffering, they don’t want to hear any of your suggestions. If people feel you feel their pain and their suffering, they automatically assume you have the solution to their problems. That’s just Human Nature.
  4. Help the coachee expand their thinking. (“Your thinking is correct for X environment, but what about Y environment? Z environment? What are the differences between X vs Y vs Z?” A lightbulb may go off in the minds of the coachee.) If one approach doesn’t work, try different approaches. It’s like they have armor around their thinking protecting them from outside info. But there are gaps in their armor, and it’s up to you the coach to try and try different angles, until you find the gap in their armor.
  5. Use Storytelling. So they will figure out the educational points all by themselves. (“When I first started in this business, I made a HUGE mistake, what I did was… and what happened next was… later on I found out it was because at the time, I didn’t know…”)

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?

Since I grew up in Beijing, calling someone “old” means the ultimate respect. It’s part of the DNA of Eastern Culture.

2,000 years ago, Confucius taught: “Respect the old.” For old people have wisdom which they obtained over the decades of ups and downs, and they’re only too happy to share their wisdom with others. They see many of us younger folks as their kids or grandkids.

People ask me all sorts of questions during my leadership seminars. I try to answer as many of them, as quickly as possible, right there on the spot from the stage. But some of their questions are best answered in a 1 on 1 setting so I answer them after the seminar ends. One day, I had two people asking me essentially the same question, and they were from the opposite ends of the generational gap. The gentleman was over 70 and the lady was under 30. They had essentially the same challenge. It’s just his challenge was a lot bigger than her challenge.

What I did, after the seminar was over, was to wait for all other students to leave, and had a mini 1 on 2 session. In the now empty seminar room with only the 3 of us, I asked the older gentleman to tell us his challenge first, and the younger lady to tell us her challenge second.

After the younger lady stated her question, the older gentleman voluntarily started coaching the younger lady — exactly like how I predicted he would. I didn’t have to invite him to offer his help — he just started helping! All I had to do was sit there, listen, and occasionally be the facilitator. After about 45 minutes, he answered all her questions, pointed out the thinking in her Blind Spot that was limiting her and holding her back. For it was good thinking up to that point of her life, but no longer applicable in her newly expanded role in the world of business. He helped her to figure out a new way of looking at her situation, created a new strategy for her, gave her words of encouragement, and she was good! With her frustration gone, she got up, thanked the both of us and walked out with new found understanding, strategy, and confidence!

After she left, I said to the older gentleman: “Great job coaching her! She was confused about… and you sir, did a great job pointing out what she was confused about, expanded her thinking. She is going to do great, and she is going to remember this conversation and be grateful to you for the rest of her life… So sir, how about your question and your problem?” He paused for a second, gathered his thoughts, showed a sign of relief and said to me, “You know what? I don’t have any questions, I don’t have any problems, not any more!” Basically, by helping a younger person see through her challenges, which just so happen to be identical to his own challenge but on a smaller scale, the answer he was looking for came to him, all by itself. So he got up, thanked me, and left with new found happiness and confidence in his walk too!

Worked out exactly like how I planned, and that was a great day — for all 3 of us!

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?

Step 1: Develop yourself by expanding your own Comfort Zone and doing things you’ve never done before. Things that you’ve been too afraid to do — up to this point in your life. Each time you successfully bust one of your own fears, you expand your comfort zone to the next level, and you’ll naturally want to seek out a new target and new challenge to overcome. This game is called “Never ending upward spiral personal evolution.” In this game, you never lose. You only win, and it’s addictive in a very good way. It’s like going to the gym, picking up heavy stuff, and putting it back down — slowly, gradually, but surely, you will want to pick up heavier and heavier stuff because it’s fun!

Step 2: Pay attention to your own emotional ups and downs before, during and after each time you overcome a new challenge. What were the short term pains and pleasures involved? What were the long term pains and pleasures that motivated you? Evolution puts emotion in our biology, successful people use their intelligence to utilize their raw emotions and turn their emotions into fuel to help them toward their goals in life.

The only way to lead other people is to lead them by their feelings. Your job is to lead them from one emotional state to another to another… from the feeling of “I don’t want to do this,” and through a number of intermediary emotional states to the state of “I can’t wait to get started.” Throughout the entire process, you are holding their feelings, like holding water in the palm of your hands — very carefully.

You won’t be able to lead them by their feelings, without knowing how they feel. You won’t be able to know how they feel, without having had that experience yourself. If we were to sign up for a gym and hire a personal trainer, would we hire a trainer who doesn’t workout?

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

Words can be extremely powerful, for they carry emotions with them. I help my leadership seminar students and my coachees with their thinking, by helping them with their words.

For example: “Yet.” When my students say things like: “I don’t…” I help them by suggesting they change their language to: “I am yet to…”

When they say: “I don’t know how to do that,” I tell them “Not Yet”. “Yet” & “Not Yet” carry a forward momentum. The emotional energy here is: “I will.” “We will.” “It hasn’t been… but is about to change, and change for the better.” With just one word — “yet” — their mood is modified, from self doubting to self uplifting.

“Up To This Point”: When my students and or coachees say things like: “I don’t pay attention to the words I use…” I help them by saying: “Up to this point, you are yet to pay attention to the words you use…”

“Even”: “That was good, let’s make it ‘even’ better.”

“You”: When an employee does something good, use “You”. “You did a great job.” The coach/leader is giving all the credit to the employee.

“We”: When an employee does something that needs improving, use “we.” For example, if an employee was late for work, say: “Are we late today?” It’s softer than “you are late today!” which sounds like an accusation and insult.

“They”: When talking about a negative example, use they: “They are yet to grasp the benefit of effective leadership training…”

“This” vs “That”: When contrasting two items, the items you want your team to view with a positive light, use “This.” The items you want your team to view with a negative light, use “that.” “Doing it this way, it’s faster and safer.” “Doing it that way, it’s slower and more costly.”

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

Charlie Munger: “Show me the incentive, and I will show you the outcome.”

Employees are people. Humans are NOT computers. Everyone’s circumstance is Uniquely Different. What’s an effective incentive to motivate one person may or may not work as an incentive to motivate another person.

The key to your success as a leader, as a coach, is to figure out the Uniquely Different incentives for each and every one of your team members, each and every one of your coachees.

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?

Sure, come connect with me at: www.CoachMichaelLin.com Ask me any leadership related questions. I’d be more than glad to help.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!