Recognizing what is standing in the way of a person being more confident in their role. One boss (who was not a super touchy-feely guy, but definitely a caring guy) several years ago said to me, “In the spirit of Lean In, no man would not accept a title because it felt uncomfortable or like they didn’t deserve it.” He recognized the behaviors that are not unusual in many women and would hamper my progress. He called me on it very directly.

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 Pamela James, Ph.D., Vice President, Product

Pamela James, Ph.D., serves as Vice President, Product for Vector Laboratories where she oversees research and development and leads quality assurance, product, and program management. Pam has spent over a decade and a half with Vector Laboratories in multiple scientific and director roles. Pam led the introduction of several impactful products from Vector Laboratories and is focused on Vector’s mission to bring glycobiology tools to the broader scientific community. She earned a Ph.D. in Immunology from UMass Chan Medical School and a B.S. in Biochemistry from California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo.

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 don’t think there was a defining moment so much as many cumulative experiences. Certainly, experiencing different leadership styles and learning from each can help you grow as a leader as you get a sample of styles and skills that you can adapt to your own personal style, as well as knowing what you need to avoid. How leaders show caring and investment in their employees’ futures is always so different because it’s an amalgam of all the experiences they have had, good and bad. Being authentic is most important even as you employ styles and skills you’ve learned along the way. Trying to exactly emulate another leader’s style will not ring true to people around you.

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 have to disagree with that quote. I don’t see a leader as knowing the way but knowing the destination. How we get there is often unknown and takes the collective knowledge of a team of people to find the best way. And how often have we chosen a path only to find down the line that there is an obstacle we need to work around? A leader is like someone who teaches a person to use a compass and equips them to find their own way through collaboration and by being comfortable forging a new path or calling up pieces of maps from prior experience. Showing the way is not actually showing the way but showing the how.

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

In the example above, a manager lays out the maps and highlights the route. A coach teaches the skills to find the way.

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?

Asking for feedback. I ask my team members to give me feedback on what is working or not working for them in my management style. And then listening, really listening, and not trying to explain or defend what I was doing. I do my best to keep that in mind.

It’s funny because when I think about this, I reflect on all the different leadership styles I’ve experienced over the years and how much every experience has shaped me. There are so many articles and books on leadership and coaching these days that it can be intimidating because you have this constant barrage of what a perfect leader should be doing.

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 of the hardest transitions of going from being a manager to being a coach is not to be directive but instructive. A leader progressing in their career starts from a position of skill in the function they lead. They have tons of experience that they can share as, “Oh you need to do this, this and this” because the answer comes so naturally for them. But you have to learn to hold back and ask the questions that can help someone find the right solution through their own thought process or actions. This helps the person being coached to feel more comfortable in coming to a decision that is their own. There is so much more learning and a feeling of pride that comes with acting on a decision that was your own.

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) Recognizing what is standing in the way of a person being more confident in their role. One boss (who was not a super touchy-feely guy, but definitely a caring guy) several years ago said to me, “In the spirit of Lean In, no man would not accept a title because it felt uncomfortable or like they didn’t deserve it.” He recognized the behaviors that are not unusual in many women and would hamper my progress. He called me on it very directly.

2) Backing an employee’s take on something because you have confidence in their skills, even though a bad outcome could have significant impact. We had sold the property that housed our manufacturing operations for decades and had to move to a new facility. It was a huge change for the company and employees, and I had zero experience in doing something like that, but I was game to try. My boss let me take on the challenge. She armed me with the right resources and gave me guidance along the way. After the successful relocation (on-time and under budget), she told me that our investors were not necessarily confident that giving that responsibility to someone without experience was the right choice, but she had backed me. I had no idea there was any doubt from them because she never let on or showed any doubt that I could succeed. She let me take the risk. It is something I always have in my back pocket to shore me up when I’m trying something new and might have some niggling doubts.

3) This is the journey from command and control. I had an employee that had great potential but was used to operating in the command-and-control environment, mostly because that was the way I managed. I finally recognized that my management style was limiting how much more she could contribute. As well as completely undervaluing her, this approach was putting a lot of work on me. As a result, I took a step back and let her take on projects without so much instruction of how to succeed. What I found was that she was very capable in executing, even if it wasn’t the way I would have done it, and she got more joy, confidence and pride out of her successes. I also found that her success was more satisfying to me as a leader than it would be if we had succeeded the old way.

4) Teaching someone how to look outside of their own context and experience to understand behaviors of others. This one I learned from my boss, who is so different from me. Brené Brown doesn’t resonate with her much at all and she can’t relate to imposter syndrome. What we bring to the table as leaders is so different. And one of the things she taught me was that to be a leader, you don’t necessarily have to be the direct point of contact with your employee on a particular subject or point. You do have to recognize when what you are trying to teach or convey doesn’t come across as you need it to and then figure out the best way to do that.

5) Leading is finding the best way to help someone learn and grow. We need to recognize that there may be someone else that communicates in a similar language and putting those people in touch can be invaluable. You can see when a different communication from a different person can be the gift of a gold nugget. Again, referencing what I’ve learned from my boss — she is very perceptive about how people communicate. When she put me in touch with someone who thought like me, we had a great conversation that gave me information that I found actionable versus sort of vague. Basically, maintain awareness of when a message is not getting through and try a different approach.

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 of different generations not as age groups but collections of individual experiences. In that sense, there will be some common denominators from one generation to the next, but what a single person learns from that collection of unique and shared experiences or how it forms them has nothing to do with generational stereotypes. We lose recognition of the individual when we start thinking that, “Oh that person is a Gen X or a Gen Z so they will respond in a certain way.” In a multi-generational workforce, teaching respect and recognition of individuals and how they contribute, and understanding what is unique to their motivation is very important. People who, early in their careers, bring different thoughts and approaches that years of experience can close off over time. And people with many experiences can bring learnings they can share. The best solution results from varied experiences but that can only work if everyone approaches others with respect and open-mindedness. So, activating the collective is about teaching behaviors that are ageless in their value to all people; being genuine, being vulnerable, valuing what others can bring, and looking past styles of communication to see what the message is.

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?

This is a tough one, because I think there has to be some inherent EI in a person to build on. But if it’s there, one thing to give it time to be effective is to pause and not think about a response in your framework but in theirs. It’s like the half halt in equestrian sports. A rider gives a small, brief signal to the horse to regroup. It helps regain balance and focus for the next move instead of moving forward unprepared. I find myself thinking, “I need a half-halt here” and pause so that I am not just reacting to something from my own point of view but considering another. Another step is to recognize the driver behind someone’s actions and behaviors. It may not necessarily change your message but it may change how you deliver it.

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

Leading goes beyond words, it’s about actions and modeling behavior. But there are certainly words that provide guidance or can be markers. Drawing on the earlier discussion, I would say that some important words would include “authenticity,” “presence,” “collaboration,” “confidence,” and “perception” — to understand who your team is and what will support them in their journeys.

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

“Clear is kind.” I’m sure that resonates with many people, but it is so powerful for a couple of reasons for me. One is because it gives me the internal strength that lets me do the right thing and know that I am acting out of best interests and with respect even if it’s very hard. It’s important to respect those you interact with regardless of the situation. Another reason is that I’m not always the best at interpreting delicate communication when you must read between the lines, so I appreciate clear communication. Left to our own devices, when a message isn’t clear, we can read a lot of non-truths into it. I think many people interpret this quote as just being straightforward and saying exactly what you mean. I don’t think that’s always the case. We need to think about the need to communicate in a way that is the easiest for someone to understand. So clear doesn’t just mean saying something frankly and not beating around the bush, but communicating in a way that is actually clear to the person hearing it. That means taking into consideration how that person communicates best. If you are totally frank, and the receiver typically hears the worst, it’s like overshooting the mark and may not generate the desired outcome, because that person has heard a different message than you intended. Or it can mean writing something down and letting that person stew on it a little if they are a thinker and need to process. We are taught as we grow up that being kind is always being nice. And so “clear is kind” is a new behavior for most but once you see the very real benefits, it becomes much easier to practice.

Another quote that isn’t famous but is something one of my bosses said to me after a meeting where I clearly made a mistake in my approach and communication and the outcome was a little off the rails. I was so upset afterward. I don’t remember his exact words, but he said something like, “Own it, suck it up and move on.” It makes me laugh today. Those mistakes aren’t the end of the world or reflect on you as not being good at your role. They are totally how you grow and develop. So though I wouldn’t use those words exactly, letting people know that mistakes, for the most part, aren’t as devastating as we think they are and are just the tough stepping stones to growth. So you learn not only not to make that mistake again but to take note of it, adjust, and move on. Another time I made another mistake. I think I emailed some sensitive, confidential information accidentally and I was horrified. When I spoke to my boss about it, she said, “I’m going to let you carry the weight of this one.” She wasn’t going to say “Oh, it’s ok, don’t worry about it,” because it wasn’t ok and she didn’t say, “I can’t believe you did that, now this that and the other will happen.” She understood that mistakes are made, and she knew how I would respond to the mistake without anyone having to say how bad it was. So, I had a couple of sleepless nights and then remembered, “Own it, suck it up and move on.” But I am extra cautious about reviewing what I email!

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?

Message me on LinkedIn!

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