… Get to know yourself better — A large part of professional coach training involves self-reflection and gaining clarity of yourself. The better you understand how you show up as a leader and manager, the better you will be at supporting your team in doing the same.

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 Todd Sanders.

Todd Sanders is a Partner with the McChrystal Group (www.mcchrystalgroup.com) where he leads the firm’s Offsites, Events, and Workshops business as well as its Coaching Practice. Todd is a retired US Marine Corps Officer, certified professional coach, and SHRM Senior Certified Professional. He leverages his polymath background to bring diverse domains including philosophy, psychology, mathematics, analytics, and organizational behavior to bear on client’s toughest challenges.

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 experience has been that most people come into positions of leadership after excelling as an individual. “I do a great job at X, I’m ready to be the Leader of X.” There is no doubt that individual performance is necessary as a leader, and perhaps the most important aspect of leadership is enabling high-performance from a team.

A defining moment of my development was assuming leadership of a large, complex team. Different elements of the team had different objectives, capabilities, and resources, but all had to be aligned at my level to achieve the greater mission of the organization. I quickly realized I could not do this alone. I was smart and ambitious and dedicated, and completely overwhelmed with the scale of the task. I learned a valuable lesson as a leader — prepare your team well and let them do their jobs.

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?

There is beauty in the simplicity of the three elements in the quote. I think simplicity makes the ‘barrier to entry’ very very low, which is a good thing in our busy, noisy world. Identifying outcomes, checking in on progress, and ensuring congruency in my language and actions are critical ways for me to be an effective leader.

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

Management has gotten a bad rap the past few years. It’s very easy to damn necessary activities like resource allocation, performance management, and codification and documentation. They aren’t very “fun”, they aren’t very “engaging”, and if your team doesn’t do them, you will likely fail.

Coaching has enjoyed the other side of the spectrum — a continuous celebration of “what leaders need to be.” Its popularity has unfortunately led to a lot of poor practices and ineffective learning.

A leader as manager accomplishes the necessary functions of an organization. These functions enable the team to be successful albeit in less flashy ways. Few people have ever gotten excited about “Project Management Reviews”, that is until the company closes its doors for failing to service clients.

A leader as coach enables individuals and teams to be successful by supporting them to find their best solution. Their, not mine as leader. Coaching is meant to minimize leader direction and maximize individual solutions. Too often leaders believe coaching means telling people how to do something. It is much more asking what solution they have in mind, what barriers or challenges they expect, how they will overcome them, and what needs to be done to be successful.

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?

Any great coach will note ‘curiosity’ as a critical skill — which is absolutely true. The challenge occurs in that moment you team comes to you and you switch to ‘tell-mode’ and start making all kinds of assumptions about the situation.

How do leaders avoid falling into this very attractive trap? I offer it requires leaders to become more intentional about their leading and leverage habitual processes to keep themselves on track.

In example, a leader looking to enable more coaching in their work actually tells their people what they’re doing! There’s no need for surprises. Let your team know what you want to do and why you’re doing it — “I want to use more coaching skills because it allows you to grow, leverages your knowledge of situations, and allows our team to scale beyond just me”.

The leader shares how they will do this — “Expect me to ask more questions and be slower to offer my advice or direction.”

Lastly, the leader invites the team to support them — “Please let me know when you feel like I could be more in coach-mode. In fact, when you come to me, use the phrase ‘Id like you to coach through this with me’ to help focus my support.”

This conversation will sound different for each leader, but the intent stays the same.

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?

The current business environment provides more than enough motivation to invest in upskilling and reskilling. While the case for them may be clear, we still see some leaders that drag their feet in the area.

Modern talent management has been on a regular shifting from expertise to generalization and back over the past few years. I think one of the consistent learnings is that broadened experience beyond a core expertise has proven a key differentiator in high-performing talent. The added benefits of new points-of-view and bridging solutions from one situation to another create real outcomes for organizations.

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?”

Coaching someone to do their best work starts with ensuring the individual knows what their best work looks like. Offering this clarity to your team is a key responsibility of a leader. This simple but powerful task is often assumed away — “They know already…they have a job description…they have been doing this job for a while.” Get specific with the individual and use your coaching skills to help them uncover the path to high-performance for themselves.

A conversation could go like this –

  • When have you been most successful in your work?
  • What do you need to do in your current role?
  • What is the most important knowledge, skills, and abilities for you to leverage and develop?
  • How to you grow in these areas?

Encourage reflection and personal discovery first, then offer your wisdom where appropriate.

The current context is characterized by speed, decentralization, and risk. Such an environment requires a comparable response. The best way to achieve this is to hold more frequent, more focused, more forward-focused conversations. Extra credit for using your coaching skills in these conversations.

Coaching is a powerful skill for leaders and managers. While professionally trained and experienced coaches have extensive skills, every leader and manager can use coaching every day.

Here’s the top 5 ways to be an effective coaching leader and manager –

  1. Make it easy for everyone involved — Many leaders get overwhelmed by the idea of coaching before they even begin. Keep it short, frequent, and hyper-focused on a single area.
  2. Use consistent prompts and cues — Make your coaching conversations predictable. Don’t ad lib and stumble into them. “Would coaching through [this challenge or opportunity] be useful? What outcome are you looking to accomplish? What’s in the way of you doing that? How will you overcome it? How can I support?” Done. Every time.
  3. Practice with your peers — Great coaching spend nearly as much time perfecting their craft as they do using it. Grab a cohort of your peers and coach each other. This allows you to grow from coaching and as a coach.
  4. Learn how to coach better — There are many wonderful and useful coaching books out there. There are just as many resources like LinkedIn Learning and YouTube to see some examples of coaching in action.
  5. Get to know yourself better — A large part of professional coach training involves self-reflection and gaining clarity of yourself. The better you understand how you show up as a leader and manager, the better you will be at supporting your team in doing the same.

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?

The modern workforce is probably the most diverse, in every measure, in history. That’s an exciting proposition for leaders and organizations; Demographic diversity typically brings thought diversity which is an amazing asset for organizations. Generational diversity has been of interest lately as we see extended duration in the workforce by older generations.

My best advice on coaching in this environment is ‘be a coach’. Don’t ‘know’, ask. Don’t ‘assume’, inquire. I know enough to know that while I may become an ‘expert’ in generational considerations, I am a novice in what an individual thinks and feels. This is a core belief in coaching.

Coaching tactics and approaches allow individuals to activate potential in a multi-generational workforce. Spend less time trying to ‘hack’ a generational solution and more time co-developing and engaging with openness and appreciation.

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?

  1. Pay attention — tune in more frequently, listen more deeply, and write down your observations and questions.
  2. Inquire — check in to clarify what you’ve heard, ask for examples to build context, and thank people for their views.

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

Priority and outcome — singular by design!

The biggest challenge I see with leaders today is the failure to prioritize the work their teams are doing. The follow-on effects of this are numerous and pervasive; confused teams, wasted energy, and missed goals are but a few. I believe this is a dark side of empathy. Leaders want everyone to feel meaning in their work, but confuse this very laudable goal for an effective management practice.

Closely connected to priority is outcome. The actions teams take must be connected to achieving a clear outcome. Activity is not a measure of success.

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

“Waste no more time arguing what a good man is, be one” Marcus Aurelius

Many people spend so much time and effort trying to perfect who they are, how they behave, what’s the best way to do it. I’ve found the truth is we typically know what ‘good’ or ‘right’ is and lack the discipline, focus, and courage to ‘be good’. The best way to be good? Be. Good. It’s that simple, though not always easy. This quote reminds me actions matter, good is achievable, make it happen.

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 love connecting with people. You can reach me at [email protected] and on LinkedIn.

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