Listen — more than you speak: You know the old adage? ‘We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.’

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 Sandra Bekhor.

Sandra Bekhor is a Practice Management Coach at Bekhor Management who helps lawyers, architects, consultants and other professionals realize their potential by pursuing the right possibilities, strategically and authentically.

Sandra is an Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR) at York University, the Subject Matter Expert (SME) for the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s (RAIC’s) ‘Marketing for Architects’ course and contributor of a chapter to the 2nd edition of ‘Marketing Techniques for Law and Professional Practices’, written by Marc W. Halpert and published by the American Bar Association (ABA).

Sandra spends much of her free time painting expressive abstracts, practicing yoga and meditation, fermenting vegetables, culturing yogourt and consuming books… many at once!

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?

At one of my previous jobs, I was working with a relatively jovial group. One day an upsetting commotion disturbed the normal, peaceful buzz of the office.

Sadly, it started with a racial slur.

Before we left for the day, a memo was circulated from one of the business leaders (in fact it was hand delivered, by him personally walking it around and dropping a hard copy on each person’s desk — making grim eye contact for added gravity, as he did so). The memo stated in no uncertain terms the policies moving forward in terms of absolute intolerance for any disrespect of any sort, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, religion, gender…

Bear in mind that like all good fairy tales begin, this was a long, long time ago. And at the time, companies were less than speedy at responding to such issues (if at all). So much more so was this response notable.

I took that memo home. I read it to my friends and family (seriously, I actually read it to them… and they were interested). I kept it where I could see it. For a long time. It made me feel safe and secure. It made me proud to be working for ‘the good guys’.

This incident made a real enduring impact on my young and impressionable mind. I learned it was not only permissible to use my voice and stand up for what I think is right. It was necessary.

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?

Sometimes the only way to get someone to shift their perspective is to share a story. To give them something that is yours, something that is personal and relatable to their situation.

But, as anyone who has done this will know, it takes courage to share your personal stories.

As an example, I was recently a guest on a podcast where we were demonstrating how to resolve management issues with better communication, by way of role play. It was going along swimmingly, until the host asked a question I wasn’t expecting. Have I previously run into issues like the ones we were cautioning listeners about? After all, I run my own coaching and consulting practice and aren’t I vulnerable to the same problems? I paused and in the moment decided to go for it. I openly shared scenarios that illustrated how my biggest lessons about managing client expectations were actually learned the hard way! From real life.

I regularly use anecdotes in my coaching practice (as well as on my podcast) and I encourage others to do the same. It can make you feel vulnerable in the moment. But it can also create an important bridge. It can change the way people see you, the way they see themselves and, most importantly, how you’re not so different after all.

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

Technically, a manager is responsible for managing things. People. Projects. Timelines. Clients…

A coach is responsible for bringing the best out of someone. For all of us, our best stuff is already there inside of us. So, coaching isn’t about telling someone how to do something. Rather it’s about asking them how they would go about it and listening patiently as they sort it out.

A leader as coach knows how to make the space to encourage someone to tap into their inner wisdom and then to step back in with an anecdote, another question or validation, when they are ready.

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?

Communication skills are essential to coaching. So, even if you’re already a strong writer, presenter or manager, there is always room to grow as a communicator. To learn how to listen more actively and openly. To use your body language and facial expressions to support your words. To pause, breathe and smile with warmth, in order to put others at ease and invite them to be receptive to a discussion.

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 acknowledge the good work they are doing, their values, their gifts and the great potential to go far with that. Here’s a quote that captures my philosophy, from ‘Successful Women Speak Differently’ by Valorie Burton, whom I respect a great deal:

“Show up fully, Your presence is powerful. Tune out the distractions. Give your whole heart, your whole attention, and your whole self to your conversations. It will transform your relationships. It transforms how others see you and empowers new levels of success and happiness to unfold.”

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?”

For leaders who are looking for ideas to improve engagement, performance and productivity, here are my top 5 ways to coach your team to win:

  1. Stop making assumptions — start asking questions:

When something goes really wrong, a missed deadline, an angry client, errors on a final submission… it’s easy to jump to conclusions, which can be or misguided or mistaken. Catch yourself. Even when you’re sure you’re right. Catch yourself. Replace the knee jerk reaction to make assumptions about who did what with curiosity about what you don’t know. Ask questions. Learn to listen to the answers openly. You may be surprised at what you find.

Let’s say you’ve just reviewed a report from your recently promoted associate, Sally. You are dismayed to find sloppy errors and you’re right up against the deadline. You’re feeling pressure and just a little upset that you’re left to deal with the corrections all on your own, seeing as how it wasn’t even your file. What do you do? It’s easy to assume that Sally was more interested in making it to the gym than in proofreading her work. But are you sure you’re right? So, instead of getting upset and saying things you might regret, you could try telling her that you found these errors and ask her what happened. You may find that she doesn’t have a rigorous proofing process. She may need some time management tips. She may have struggled with the assignment and be in need of training. She may have had a personal emergency. Or you may ultimately find that your assumption was correct. Even that is an opportunity. It allows you to dig into why Sally feels so disengaged from the purpose of her role.

2. Be present — so they can too:

Going from meeting to meeting and deadline to deadline, can feel frenetic. If it feels that way for you, then it will feel that way for your team. What if you were to turn it off between activities?

Imagine taking a few quiet breaths to clear your mind before taking your next call. If you feel calm and collected, the person at the other end will too.

3. Listen — more than you speak:

You know the old adage? ‘We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.’

If you actively and regularly listen to others, instead of talking at or over them, you will gain influence. Your team will feel understood, appreciated and respected. That’s the power of connection.

Let’s say you’re getting ready for a coaching meeting with one of your direct reports. Instead of preparing a speech about how they could improve, how about preparing a series of questions? Or just keep it simple and ask why types of questions (without judgement). So, if Tim has trouble managing meetings, instead of telling him you’re looking for more leadership, or you’d like to see meetings end on time, with clear minutes and actions, you could ask him what he finds most challenging about his role, in meetings. Listen openly for areas where you can offer support. It may be that the root issue is different from what it looks like on the surface. If Tim is struggling with fear of conflict that typically arises in these meetings, for example, that may be throwing him off his game. With some coaching on conflict management strategies, he may ease into the other aspects of meeting management more easily.

4. Give feedback — and ask for it:

If the performance review is the only time your team receives feedback, they’re probably making their own judgements about how they’re doing. They may be right. They may be wrong. That in itself is problematic. And, there is so much more opportunity to nudge them closer to their goals, and yours, with more discussion about their progress along the way.

Go a step further. Sincerely, ask for their feedback on how you can support them, even better. And follow through. Even if that’s not something you personally can offer, find someone who can.

If you have events in your calendar that mark the completion of some form of collaboration, they may be a good excuse to check to see how your team felt they did, to ask where they ran into problems and to share your perspective on how these obstacles could be approached or prevented next time. If you hold back and wait for the annual performance review, you will have lost the valuable opportunity to move the ball forward, an inch at a time, and to build stronger connections along the way.

5. Motivate each individual — as an individual:

Every person on your team brings their own set of goals to the table. It’s your job to find out what they are. Yes, we all want more money and time. But, that’s not the whole story. People also want opportunities to learn, to use their skills, to be appreciated, to be proud, to collaborate, to problem solve, to be autonomous and to enjoy a sense of mastery.

The closer you get to each individual’s truth, the closer you get to driving powerful productivity.

At one of my previous jobs, I was managing a very talented employee who seemed disengaged. On the surface, it wasn’t clear what the reasons were. We weren’t sure he would stay with the company, though they wanted him to. Upon digging, I found several issues. Money. Yes, and we dealt with that. However, that wasn’t the whole story. This individual was looking for a different way of working. He wanted to be buffered from certain aspects of management. Areas that weren’t his strong suit (nor his interest). It took a lot of trust before this issue was openly addressed. Once it was on the table, it was fairly easy to adjust our roles as a team, to make the changes work for everyone and to drive a marked improvement in engagement as a result.

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?

Do not make the mistake of only hiring people like yourself… either by default or by design.

We all have an unconscious bias to want to hire and work with people that remind us of ourselves, whether that means they are from your own generation or in other regards. Just know that your instinct isn’t necessarily doing you a service in this regard.

The strongest, smartest teams are diverse. That includes muti-generations. So, help your team understand this fact. Gather research data relevant to your field and share stories that illustrate the power of different experiences, perspectives and skills coming together to accomplish great things that simply could not be possible otherwise.

That may not be enough.

When people (inevitably) run into misunderstandings, find it difficult to arrive at consensus or even to collaborate, offer support to help bridge the gap. Show them that learning to better communicate with people who think, feel, act or look different from you is possible, by providing the necessary tools and coaching.

Then, lead the way by example.

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?

Emotional intelligence isn’t something you either have or don’t. It’s something that can be actively pursued. On a daily basis. Here are a couple of my own regular practices:

  1. Take a few calming breaths — before getting into a conversation with colleagues, clients, supervisors or direct reports. Even the busiest manager has time to take three breaths. Seriously, count them. And use this time to clear your mind of any distractions. What you were doing before. What you’re doing next. Forget the noise in the room. The business and personal pressures. The temperature, hunger pangs, fatigue… Tell yourself you can come back to it later. Now, you’re ready to be emotionally intelligent in that discussion.
  2. Respond but don’t react — regardless of what upsets you. A client is angry about an invoice and demanding a change? Avoid defending yourself (from fear that you won’t get paid), getting into a heated debate about it and possibly losing business in the process. Instead, calmly ask questions to better understand the issue. Communicate empathy for the client’s problem (even when you’re sure you’re right, show the client you care about how they feel… and mean it). Investigate by asking questions. Make promises you can keep, like getting back to them after looking into the issue (and follow through).

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 understand.”

Not the sitcom version where the charmer says it for the sake of being liked… knowing full well they do not understand!

Say it because you really do understand. And if that’s not true for you at any given moment… ask questions! Because that’s how you arrive at true understanding.

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

Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh used to talk about how not being understood can be one of the most isolating feelings.

While some workplaces have found the formula for a wellness culture, others continue to struggle with conflict, alienation, disengagement, resentment and unhappiness. Law, architecture, consulting and other professional service firms are no exception to this trend. One of the ways to build a culture of wellness is to coach managers on how to establish real connections with their team members.

Get to know each individual on your team, personally and professionally. Invite them to bring forward their ideas, to stretch their skills, to do things their way while under your guidance. When you run into failed attempts, politics and roadblocks, you will have a foundation of trust to carry you through. Your intent to understand and to persevere will help to preserve your hard-earned goodwill and maybe even earn you and your organization some loyalty.

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?

Find me on LinkedIn and share your thoughts on this article! I regularly post ideas and tips on coaching, leadership and communication.

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