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 Michelle Schafer..

Michelle is an award-winning career coach and owner of Michelle Schafer Coaching , specializing in leadership development and career transition. Certified by the International Coaching Federation, Michelle is known for her ability to connect with people and develop individual coaching programs to help clients clarify their career goals, develop a job search strategy to find work that energizes them, empower employees, lead teams in a hybrid environment, establish positive relationships with others in the workplace and have challenging conversations. Clients describe her as warm, honest, empathetic, a good listener, able to create a safe and comfortable environment that helps people relax and talk openly, and ask thought-provoking questions to encourage curiosity.

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?

We all have a career story, and exploring the story of my leadership is a great place to start. Early in my career, I had the opportunity to lead a team of training coordinators for a large international financial services institution. These coordinators did not report to me directly, so my role was one of leading through influence, versus people management leadership. Although there was no reference to coaching in my job description many years ago, I recognized I brought this to my leadership style — creating a psychologically safe environment for people to share, delivering recognition and constructive feedback and working with them to identify opportunities for skill development. I was coaching with a “small c” — I didn’t have any theory or method to lean on. Years later, when I decided to pursue a coaching certification and establish a practice, I could say I was coaching with a “capital C”. But that “small c” coaching approach became part of my leadership, and I brought this to my work years later, leading a team of volunteer trainers at a large national not-for-profit.

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?

Leadership is a journey — not an event. As a leader, it’s critical to continue learning, adapting and applying knowledge. I’ve participated in leadership development programs, and work extensively with leaders to explore their challenges in both 1:1 coaching sessions and in groups. But if I don’t bring this to my interactions and conversations, I’m not a leader. Leading by example is key, and modelling leadership behaviours to others. When I work with my leadership clients, or facilitate leadership development workshops, I model active listening, empathy, asking powerful questions and feedback delivery. This way people can experience leadership in action — what it looks like, and what it feels like.

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

This is a great question, as it highlights how leadership has changed and evolved. I like to think of the differences in metaphorical terms. A leader as manager tends to employ a firefighter approach — suiting up at the first smell of smoke, jumping in quickly to put out the fire. This leader solves problems, makes sure things happen, and drives accountability back to the leader. A leader as coach is more of a gardener — creating the right conditions (soil, light, positioning in the garden) for their plants to thrive. These leaders empower team members to solve problems, contribute ideas and provide them with opportunities to develop their skills, encouraging accountability to the team.

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?

Leaders need to bring a human element to their leadership today — it’s more than meeting strategic objectives or communicating a vision. And in the career transition work I do, I see that people leave leaders — not jobs. Leaders today need be emotionally intelligent — to be able to understand the experience of the other person, and all the emotions that go with it. In “coach-speak”, I like to say this is “seeing as” (borrowed from my Integral coach training) — being able to see the world from the perspective of the other person, as best as you can. Leaders also need to demonstrate curiosity — to ask questions, and listen intently — and both of these show a leader’s ability to be fully present and ready to support team members. Building trust and psychological safety have become even more important now — it’s the foundation for a positive working relationship, and coaching can’t happen without it. Leaders can demonstrate their vulnerability — and when leaders share that they make mistakes and learn from them, it makes it easier for others to do so.

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?

As a coach, I work with leaders to support them on a variety of topics — and the one thing I find in common with just about all the challenges expressed by leaders, is communication. And I notice this foundational challenge surfaces with new leaders, experienced leaders, and leaders in different sectors. When I discuss what outcomes the client wants to achieve — what they want to see happening differently in 4–6 months time, the desire to develop or upskill becomes a more natural one. Leaders want to experience the positive outcomes they described — to help them become the leader they want to be.

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 psychological safety — in order to create a high-performing team, leaders need to create an environment where team members feel comfortable to raise challenges or make mistakes. And the foundation of this environment is trust — engaging in activities and behaviours that enhance trust, and avoid behaviours that erode trust. Simply asking “what am I missing?”, “let’s hear some dissent”, “this is new so we will make mistakes” or “I need help” can go a long way in creating that safety. To add to the leader toolbox, I highly recommend “The Psychological Safety Playbook: Lead More Powerfully By Being More Human” by Karolin Helbig and Minette Norman — the 25 “plays” outlined in the book are easy to implement ways to enhance safety in teams.
  2. Deliver recognition and constructive feedback in a clear and kind way — I see leaders miss opportunities here in two ways: not jumping on delivering recognition feedback in the moment (or not being specific enough) and hesitating to deliver constructive feedback because it’s a challenging conversation they want to steer clear of. Ask yourself “what would the impact be if I didn’t deliver this feedback” (likely not good for the individual, the team or the business as a whole) and “what would open up if I did “ (likely the opportunity to clarify expectations, explore what’s happening and uncover new solutions). When recognizing team members, go beyond “nice job” or “well done” — be specific about their contribution and the value they bring. When delivering constructive feedback, use the framework “I notice…”(share your observations — these are facts), “the impact is….” (share the impact of their actions — better yet, ask your team member what they feel the impact is) then explore the “why”, what they are willing to do/what they need from you, and gain a commitment from your team member about who is doing what by when.
  3. Be flexible and pivot your communication style — as humans, we naturally communicate with others in the way we want others to communicate with us, and we lead in the way we want to be lead. The challenge — this approach will not work for everyone. Be aware of your approach, and be mindful of what others need from you. When you “speedread” their communication needs (or better yet, have a conversation to explore these), you can adapt your own style to find a “way in” with them, especially if there is often friction or frustration in your interactions.
  4. Ask for feedback — in order to draw out peak performance in others, you need to be open to receiving feedback which helps to create psychological safety and shows team members you are committed to learning and developing. You can ask “what would you like to see more of from me? Less of from me?” then be ready for what team members share. Actioning their feedback will be key to building trust in your working relationship.
  5. Empower others to contribute and take charge — in other words, don’t be a firefighter. Ask questions that provoke thought and demonstrate your curiosity. Be open to their ideas. Encourage them to champion and lead the development of solutions. And actively listen to what they share. One of my leadership clients recounted her frustration over her leader’s determination to multitask during their 1:1’s, checking her phone and responding to emails while my client was talking. Send the right message to your team member — their time is valued, their contributions are valued, and you are fully present for them.

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?

The biggest mistake I see leaders make is not recognizing the diverse needs of their team, and assuming that everyone needs the same approach. Have conversations with your team members, and ask them what they need from you. Do they need regular feedback, or do they need to explore opportunities to develop skills? Just because a team member is from one generational group, does not mean that all team members from that group have the same needs. Pivot your approach, and be flexible.

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?

In our rushed world, it can be hard to slow down. And yet slowing down is the best thing a leader can do to enhance their emotional intelligence. Pause, observe what’s happening, and reflect. What was your contribution in that situation -and what’s one thing you could build on/do differently next time? Reflection heightens awareness, and awareness is the precursor to development and change.

Leaders can also intentionally dial into the experience of the other person. For example, if a team member shows frustration, ask yourself “what’s most important to this team member, in this moment”. This shift in perspective also creates awareness, and can help leaders better understand the responses and reactions of team members. The magic is in the communication — talking to the team member after to explore how they are, can demonstrate a leader’s ability to be fully present for their team and their commitment to support.

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 top ones I’ll encourage my clients to bring to their leadership are: empathy, collaboration, curiosity, support, humanity and encouragement. I also like to give my clients the language to help them demonstrate these things. Leaders can say “how can I help?”, “what challenges are you facing?”, “how are YOU?” (and not meaning how is the individual in the context of their work), “if you say yes to X, what are you saying no to?” or “what ideas do you have/how would you solve this problem?”.

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

Two years ago, I listened to a podcast by Brene Brown that featured leadership expert Doug Conant. He shared a quote which I taped to my wall: “Your life story is your leadership story”. So true.

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?

LinkedIn is one of the best places, as I regularly post on this platform on both career transition and leadership topics. Other places are Brainz Magazine, as I contribute articles and thought leadership on a monthly basis, and my website. I’ve included the links here.

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