Make it about them. After you’ve asked purposeful questions, listened attentively, and provided specific feedback, the individual will be empowered to thrive in their own way. The feedback must be about them, not subconsciously about what you hope to get out of them. Coaching is entirely about the person you are working with, not about the person doing the coaching.

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 Houske.

TJ Houske is the CEO of OTAVA®, a global leader in managed multi-cloud solutions, business resiliency, and security services. For more than 20 years he’s held senior and executive leadership roles in engineering, architecture, and strategic business development. TJ is a people-focused leader and a John C. Maxwell certified educator that believes in coaching, mentoring, and collaborating as a means to long-term success and fulfillment.

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 was ten years old when I was able to fully understand what it meant that my Dad was not my biological father. At that age, I remember grasping and appreciating the magnitude of my Dad’s commitment and his total devotion to me. He did an amazing job and contributed so much to my life. He was supporting me, raising me, and sacrificing for me. This was a pivotal time, because this revelation helped me realize that faith would play a very important role in my life. It showed me what it meant to live a life in faith and service. It gave me an understanding of who I wanted to be.

I was fortunate that my defining moment came early in my life. It helped to make me who I am today and shaped my approach to leadership. I learned early on that to sacrifice for someone, is to give all of yourself. As the saying goes, give the best of you, not the rest of you. I believe that if I can lead by giving the very best of myself, it can help others to be their best selves. It also drives me to lead by example, both through words and actions. I always try to be as clear and honest with people as possible so that they can gain the trust needed to reach their full potential.

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?

This is one of my favorite John C. Maxwell quotes. Another is, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” To me, both of these statements mean that you owe what you know.

As a leader, if I ‘know the way’ it is because I have relevant experience and have been there before. People learn how to do things the right way, mainly because they’ve done them the wrong way in the past. So, I can look back on my experiences and missteps, and I am now able to ‘go the way’ and, even better, ‘show the way.’ All of this is to say that leaders have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. And we owe it to others to share what we have learned to help support them on their journey.

Another important point to consider about the meaning of this quote is the fact that people will not simply follow what you say. They will, however, follow what you do. Even though we often think about a leader’s job as creating a vision and charting a course for how to achieve it, there is more to it. In order to be successful, leaders also need to teach and coach. It is one thing to tell someone how to do something and another to show them. As a coach and mentor, I believe that actions matter most. I am always looking for actionable ways to demonstrate my commitment to our company and for new opportunities to work alongside, elbow to elbow, with the members of our team.

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

In my view, the differences between a leader as a manager and a leader as a coach can be summed up in very simple terms. Managers tell, and coaches show. For example, managers are often good at talking at people, whereas coaches are great at talking with people.

It is important to understand the ways in which leaders communicate, because different approaches lead to different outcomes. The most productive and positive results are produced when leaders actively participate and collaborate with their teams. The least effective outcomes generally come from leaders who instead mainly inform their teams of tasks and responsibilities through written or verbal direction.

For example, if I said, “I need you to do this,” I would be managing rather than coaching. This management approach communicates a specific need but it does not help get to the end result. Coaching, on the other hand, is about working and collaborating with people, as opposed to simply talking to them. Here’s another way to think about it. It is the managers who generally use one-sided communication (e.g. speak to) to direct their teams, and the coaches that take on collaborative and multidimensional (e.g. work with) approaches to achieve goals.

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?

In today’s society, now more than ever before, leaders must have a strong emotional quotient. The need for emotional intelligence and self-awareness is equally, if not more important, than a leader’s domain knowledge in areas such as finance, business, technology, marketing, or other specialties.

Today’s leaders must have true people skills that go beyond how to manage people. They must be able to develop positive and productive relationships. And in order to do this, leaders first need to understand themselves. Investing in self-development and growth is critical, because organizations don’t lead organizations. People lead organizations.

I can’t overemphasize the importance of emotional intelligence as an essential leadership skill. At the end of the day, all leaders are trying to make a positive impact on people. And developing more leaders with higher emotional intelligence will inherently create better coaches.

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?

There is a common misconception that inspiration and motivation are created by charisma. However, I believe that true inspiration is generated through authenticity and gratitude. In my experience, people want to be around other people that have genuine hearts and are committed to something. This combination will draw people in and bring out the best in them.

Leadership that is rooted in authenticity and gratitude means working together toward goals and not just seeking specific or individual outcomes. If you have demonstrated your own authenticity and commitment first, and then ask others to participate in activities such as upskilling or continuous learning, you’ve earned the opportunity to help stretch people. But you can’t ask someone to do something you are not willing to do. If you are not willing to do the hard work on yourself to become better in your profession, or better in life, then you can’t expect it from others.

I firmly believe that it starts with the individual. Leaders need to ask themselves, am I here genuinely? Can people see my character and commitment? Have I earned their respect through my actions? If the answer is yes, then leaders will find that others will trust and follow them.

That’s my approach and how I’ve tried to inspire those around me.

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?”

5 ways that leaders and managers can be great coaches:

  1. Focus on yourself first. In order to be a great coach, you must first be self-aware and take responsibility for yourself. Then, you can commit to becoming the best version of yourself. You can’t coach anyone until you acknowledge that you are a constant work in progress. Otherwise, you will end up in the management trap. As an example, think about how you organize your day and allocate time for intentional and regular personal and professional development. Start with ten minutes in the morning, and ten minutes before bed. You can control the bookends of the day and grow tremendously over time with patience and discipline.
  2. Ask great questions. In order to be a great coach, you need to ask thoughtful questions that are meaningful to the individual. Being intentional allows coaches to better connect with others, resulting in more effective development and outcomes. For example, when starting a new project, ask, “If you could coach your younger self, where would you spend the most time in developing them for the future?” And, “If time weren’t an obstacle, and money had no limit, where would you invest your focus?”
  3. Learn to listen. Asking great questions, but being a bad listener, won’t translate into good results. Practice active listening techniques, such as being fully present in the conversation, paraphrasing and reflecting back what has been said. Put your phone on do-not-disturb and avoid looking at your watch. Set the appropriate amount of time based on the conversation intent. It’s important that you don’t fall into the trap of “checking the box” when it comes to investing your time. Oh, and no judgments!
  4. Be specific. Be clear in your feedback and responses. Provide detailed information on what was done well, and what still needs more work. Use the person’s name when delivering feedback. Namesake is everything to each person. For example, if a team member or leader is struggling in a particular area, find data points that connect your feedback to reduce the risk of it feeling “personal” when you actually intend it to be developmental. Remember, it takes time for people to grow. In some areas, people grow at a microwaved pace, but in others, it’s more like a crockpot pace.
  5. Make it about them. After you’ve asked purposeful questions, listened attentively, and provided specific feedback, the individual will be empowered to thrive in their own way. The feedback must be about them, not subconsciously about what you hope to get out of them. Coaching is entirely about the person you are working with, not about the person doing the coaching.

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?

Diversity and inclusion continue to be important corporate priorities. When connecting with a large group of people, my best coaching advice for company leaders is: don’t take yourself too seriously.

If we look at most any big group or organization, it will be multi-generational, made up of different genders, and it will come with different frames of reference. But at the end of the day, we all have one thing that unites us. We are all human.

By not taking ourselves too seriously and understanding that everyone has a story, and a desire to connect in some way, the more we can focus on commonality, and create unity.

Unfortunately, many company executives overlook this and try to solve challenges from a place of labels (gender, ethnicity, age, etc.) and then appeal how we may be alike or the same. But instead of seeking “sameness,” we should strive to create unity among individuals. With unity, we can celebrate our differences and reach our full potential within a supportive and cohesive group.

At the end of the day, what I find moves people the most is recognizing that regardless of age, backgrounds, etc., we are all human beings.

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?

Two steps that leaders can take to achieve greater emotional intelligence include:

  1. First, admit that you need it. Recognizing the importance of emotional intelligence and being able to accept the fact that you need it, is a great sign that you can achieve it. This requires genuine humility. We are conditioned from a very young age to believe that we are supposed to know the answers. We are measured by tests, grades, and other quantitative results. Knowledge is a pass or fail endeavor. When it comes to emotional intelligence, this is the wrong kind of thinking. We are all born with a blank canvas. We learn by trying, failing, and trying again until we find the right way. Those who can admit, “I don’t know, but I want to learn,” are demonstrating emotional intelligence that will carry them forward in a positive and productive way.
  2. Then accept that you will never arrive. Emotional intelligence is a continuous journey. There is no finish line. Knowing this, you can continue to improve throughout your life. Open, honest, and humble pursuit of emotional intelligence over time makes you a great human.

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

Words do matter! They are powerful and can build people up and tear them down. One word can make the difference in someone’s life. It is impossible to be a leader of substance if you do not acknowledge that “how you lead” includes the words, tone, and intent. “Sweat the small stuff” is my way of saying, “details matter”.

Because today, we are more educated and armed with more data than ever before, leaders are becoming increasingly aware of the language being used.

The two words that matter the most from a leadership perspective are knowledge and wisdom. They are not the same thing. The difference is significant. Knowledge, for example, is using new technology or the internet to troll data and gather pieces of shareable information. Wisdom, on the other hand, is truly understanding what you are getting, why you are getting it, and how it applies to your specific situation.

In today’s leadership culture, it is incredibly important to lead from a place of wisdom over knowledge. Wisdom is usually slow, steady, consistent, committed, patient, and empathetic.

In a world with so much noise, it all boils down to prioritizing wisdom over knowledge and reaching a place where you can understand what matters, how it applies, and its overall context.

If you can narrow in on this concept and these two words, leaders can change their lives and the lives of others.

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

My favorite quote is: “It’s not about you!”

This short sentiment keeps it simple and says it all. It reminds me that there are bigger things going on than what we are sometimes aware of, or focused on. It provides perspective on what really matters.

Looking beyond yourself and living a life of service, giving, and faith brings greater fulfillment, happiness, and success. And this short, little quote helps me to remember that.

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?

I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to reach out to me via LinkedIn. Also, check out what we are doing at OTAVA® at our website. We’ve also recently launched a new podcast called The Notice, which you can check out here.

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