One trick I’ve learned as a coach is to be very mission driven. While I originally thought I’d work through a bunch of ideas with my mentees, I came to realize that reiterating our company goals has value, especially in a small company that is growing quickly. As a type-A person, I don’t like repetition, but I see how it keeps our mission front and center.

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 TJ Hoffman.

TJ Hoffman is the chief operating officer at Sibme, a platform that powers professional development through virtual and hybrid coaching, peer-to-peer collaboration, cohort-based professional learning communities and micro-credentials. Hoffman has also worked as a teacher, curriculum writer, new teacher mentor coordinator and program manager at Pasadena and Houston Independent School Districts in Texas.

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?

My defining moment came when I was pursuing another career. I went to college to be a choir director. When one of my professors said, “Our job is to hold people together,” that really clicked with me. Even though I switched out of a music career to business, those words have stuck with me for more than 20 years. Today, I think those seven words are a great description of my leadership style at Sibme. My job is to hold people together.

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 don’t know if I agree. Certainly, that’s not the way I lead. There are many ways to lead and I find success by working to bring and keep people together. My job is to help my team accomplish its goals. I do that by listening, watching, and aligning our vision. Like a conductor, I find that what I need to do is keep everyone together.

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

It’s the old carrot-and-stick analogy. As a coach, I provide the carrots — the incentives to become great and the support needed to achieve it. But sometimes I do need the stick — holding people accountable and making sure they align with expectations. That’s my managerial role. I subscribe to the Steven Covey quote: “Clear is kind.” As long as people know what’s expected of them, we’re lucky enough to (almost always) head in the same direction.

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?

Here’s the critical part: coaches don’t get on the court. Practically speaking, in a company our size, I’m still on the court a lot. But when I coach, I get out of the way. I help the people I’m coaching know what the goal is, I explain our current reality, and we work together to reach the desired goals. So, my essential skills are listening, watching, and comparing. But also, negotiating. I have to make sure employees don’t just follow my advice, but they buy into the reasons behind what I’m saying.

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 challenge them. One technique is to give people work that is beyond their current skills. This does two things: It communicates that you believe in someone’s ability to grow and provides some pressure for them to accomplish the task.

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. I show confidence in workers to accomplish their goals but underpin that by making sure they know how their work will be judged. For example, when I hired our first CSM I handed her a list of our customers and said, “These are our customers, make sure they stay customers forever.” My direction to her is simple, I tell her: “Your job is happy customers who pay us more money.” She knows our company measures this by NPS (our rating is 78) and NRR (typically between 108–140%). When there is some customer churn, I ask her why and she and her team always know the specific reasons. Then we set goals together to address these issues. And NPS goes up and churn goes down. Every year.
  2. The second way I lead is by saying no, a lot. This may seem counterintuitive but let me explain. A major part of my job is to keep people focused. Sometimes there’s many new ideas that people want to try. And they might be great ideas. But setting priorities is a major part of the job. Just this week, we thought of a new way to attract customers, but I had to tell the group, no. Starting a new initiative would distract us from what we are currently working on, so I tabled this idea for when we have more time to pursue it.
  3. One trick I’ve learned as a coach is to be very mission driven. While I originally thought I’d work through a bunch of ideas with my mentees, I came to realize that reiterating our company goals has value, especially in a small company that is growing quickly. As a type-A person, I don’t like repetition, but I see how it keeps our mission front and center.
  4. That said, as our product has evolved from a simple video sharing app to a full-fledged professional learning and collaboration solution for educators, our team has struggled to evolve with it. This is especially true for employees who are former customers. They fell in love with what we used to be, and they don’t recognize that people who are new to Sibme might not love the same features. I coach our team constantly to be sure they give attention to our newest features.
  5. My last piece of advice is that while it can be fun to be inspiring, it’s more important to clarify roles and goals for your team. We all want to be Ted Lasso and give big locker-room speeches, but the most important coaches are the ones making sure each player is doing their job. No individual contributor really sees how they fit into the overall team, so you need to spend time aligning each contributor to the overall goal. I don’t like telling people to stay in their lane because that can create political infighting. My analogy is like we’re all on a road-trip together. Sometimes you’re in the driver’s seat, sometimes you’re navigating, but we’re all headed in the same direction. I know I’m being effective when I hear our employees talking about “who’s driving right now.”

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?

This should be pretty easy. Listen to people you work with. That means getting to know them as people, learning about how the team works together, and discovering what language they share when they discuss their work. Sometimes this means that advice I have needs to be customized. I often have to write something, record a video of it, and have a meeting to get everyone on the same page. But that’s time well spent if it succeeds.

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?

  • Listen to people.
  • No, really, listen to people.

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 most important words are ones with question marks at the end of them. A good leader listens, so ask questions and hear what people have to say. And then the best leaders act based on what he or she has heard.

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

Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” It’s the most important lesson in persistence I’ve ever heard.

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?

People can keep tabs on Sibme through our website and they can find me on LinkedIn.

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