Become an advocate for the employee. I have encountered very successful leaders compared to other executives, who don’t recognize their level of accomplishment. As a leader/coach, we must acknowledge and recognize their excellent achievements. Superstars are often the last to know or accept that they have gained that status. We must show them how good they have become.
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 Rod Brace.
Rod Brace, Ph.D., is an executive coach and organizational strategist. Dr. Brace is a partner with Relia Advisors, LLC, which provides consulting on high-reliability practices, leadership, and organizational development. https://www.reliahealthcare.com/
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?
Early in my career as a hospital CEO, I had the opportunity to take on some tough organizational challenges. I took over hospitals that were for sale, merging, or in need of significant organizational change. I learned that running into an organizational “burning building” is an opportunity to grow quickly in one’s leadership abilities.
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?
When our employees see a disconnect between what we do and what we say, they assume there is an issue with our integrity. I’ve found that being approachable and relatable with employees builds trust and transparency. When there is open and honest communication, employees feel valued, and the organization benefits from their insights.
How do you define the differences between a leader as a manager and a leader as a coach?
We manage tasks, assets, and calendars, but we coach people. Coaching requires that we know the individual and their definition of success, and we help them see their meaningful work at play in our organization. Meaningful work fuels motivation, and if an employee feels they are being managed to act in a way that doesn’t allow them the opportunity to achieve meaningful work, they will disengage. Our employees should not be manipulated in a way they cannot act in their self-interest.
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?
Coaching requires that we become a student of those we coach. This is easier said than done when our definition of success as a leader is often narrowly defined around our success. We must understand what causes barriers to progress for our employees. We must engage in open conversations about their fears and concerns. A great coach will continually remind their employees that they are cared for, and they have the opportunity to make a difference. The focus moves from leader-centric behavior to investing in an employee for their benefit and that of the organization.
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?
I think the recent pressures of the pandemic caused a reset in the leadership mindset that many managers previously held to be true. The challenges of the last three years have forced leaders to notice the poor engagement in many of our organizations. In doing so, these leaders have become more aware of their need to engage with employees personally and thoughtfully. This paradigm shift has caused well-intentioned leaders to seek new skills based on these new paradigms. Having said that, not all leaders got the message. As an executive coach, I still hear of employees and leaders who remain victimized by outdated management practices such as coercive power, dysfunctional hierarchical inefficiencies, and personal threats leading to burnout. Eventually, the lack of success these misinformed leaders will experience will root them out. But, until then, it remains an issue. The most senior executives of an organization have an obligation to identify these suboptimal leaders and rectify the situation.
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?”
- Become an advocate for the employee. I have encountered very successful leaders compared to other executives, who don’t recognize their level of accomplishment. As a leader/coach, we must acknowledge and recognize their excellent achievements. Superstars are often the last to know or accept that they have gained that status. We must show them how good they have become.
- Frequently communicate. I had a client tell me that they haven’t met with their immediate supervisor to discuss their progress in over two years. This is within a company with annual evaluations, which were not performed in this case. As leaders, we must communicate in real time. I recommend that every employee receives at least 15 minutes with a supervisor every week. In this meeting, the discussion should be about whether the employee is making progress and what the leader can do to help them succeed.
- Set clear expectations. I’ve had many conversations with coaching clients that center on the client’s belief that they might be in trouble or get fired. As we dive into the conversation, I ask what has caused them to come to that conclusion. In most instances, they have no proof. In fact, they often have evidence that they are doing a good job. The problem originates in not having clear expectations and feedback from their boss regarding what equates to success. By our nature, humans seek security. We want to work within an organization that makes us feel safe. We lack security when we don’t know what is expected of us. We are unsure as to what will be defined as success. Leaders generally do a terrible job of setting clear expectations for each team member. Leaders simply have not taken the time to think through, in detail, what they expect from their individual team members. Then when an employee doesn’t meet expectations of the boss, it surprises the employee. Clear expectations create a safe environment and lead to optimal productivity. Organizations that fail, usually do so because of a lack of role and goal clarity.
- Look for authority/accountability gaps. I find many organizations play the annual game of here are the metrics for the year and include those goals in an annual evaluation cycle to communicate to employees what goals they must meet in the coming year. However, it is common that the employee doesn’t possess the authority to accomplish the assigned goal. This phenomenon is common in strict hierarchical organizations where decision rights are tightly held at the upper levels of management, but the employees below are still held accountable for reaching the goals without having the decision rights to make changes. As a result, employees disengage when they feel they are not equipped and empowered to achieve their goals because it feels unsafe. A coach will spot these disconnects in authority and accountability and either give the power to succeed to the employee or remove the responsibility from what is expected.
- Adopt zero harm as a core value. In our work with large organizations pursuing high-reliability principles, we hold zero harm out to be the true north. A leader/coach that holds zero harm as a core value is aware of how their decisions, actions, or inactions can negatively impact their employees. For example, I commonly come across organizations that don’t appropriately deal with problem employees. These employees are disruptive to well-meaning employees. Disengaged employees are not only unproductive, but they also cause exponential losses to productivity among their coworkers. A leader who tolerates this behavior does not hold zero harm as a core value. Ensuring zero harm is all-inclusive. It includes our executive colleagues, employees, community, and those we serve. By the way, I’ve always been intrigued by how quickly managers can identify employees who can be terminated when an organization faces a reduction in force. Every manager knows their problem employees, but very few leaders do anything about it. That’s not holding zero harm as a core value.
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 generational differences exist, but we tend, as leaders, to overstate the effect. A good coach will focus on the individual. Of course, everyone is influenced by their generational position, but it comes down to expected behaviors espoused by the leader. A millennial may undoubtedly have a different internal narrative regarding work than a baby boomer. But we shouldn’t allow disparate behaviors based on generation. A leader/coach must work at the individual level and set clear expectations related to behaviors. When all employees work from the same behavioral expectations, each can learn to respect and effectively interact with different generations. When standards are set and we hire employees who are sensitive to the needs, beliefs, and goals of their colleagues, generational differences are less of an issue.
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?
Again, simple but not easy. First, they must become a student of self and then a student of others. We all think and behave with a certain level of cognitive bias based on past experiences. While it may not be possible to eliminate those biases completely from our subliminal thinking, we can develop an acute awareness of our tendency to hold the bias. When we become aware, we become more effective at stepping back and seeing the forces at play in our minds and in the action of others. A good shorthand for becoming more emotionally intelligent is to create an environment for cooperation by depersonalizing discussions. It seems a bit contrary, I know, but stay with me. When we treat a discussion as an object on the table, we create a more inviting environment for interactions. It projects to others that we haven’t taken a stand that would otherwise require the other person to support or reject. In doing so, we are less apt to immediately display our bias or force others to defend or deploy their bias. Instead, we invite people into an open and safe exploration of the situation.
Words matter. And we’re collectively creating a new leadership language right now. What are the most important words for leaders to use now?
I’ll go back to what I mentioned earlier about being an advocate. I’ve found that as adults, we rarely hear anyone tell us they are proud of us. When deserved, I take the opportunity to share with an employee how proud of them I am and why. It is a way for them to know and feel they are supported. If our goal as effective coaches is to ensure they know they are cared for and we want them to make a difference, expressing pride in an employee’s accomplishment is an excellent way to start that conversation.
I keep inspiring quotes on my desk. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote,” and why does it mean so much to you?
Everyone wants to be cared for and make a difference. Through my four decades of leadership, I found that when I worked for a leader/coach that was genuine in their desire for me to feel cared for and make a difference, it was a deeply meaningful work experience.
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?
Thanks. I’m most visible and active on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/rodbrace/
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.