Employees can tell when you are just going through the motions or exercising genuine curiosity. When you showcase your interest, people feel as though ideas matter and they are more likely to be bold in sharing their opinions or ideas because they’ll feel as though the environment you’re fostering is safe.

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 Zach Smith.

Zach Smith is the Chief Activation Officer + Co-Founder of Activate 180. He has been a trusted voice in mindset, career optimization, and leadership coaching for over 10 years. Zach has coached thousands of employees across mid-market and enterprise-level organizations, aligning their careers with true calling and passion for creating total life fulfillment.

Before becoming an award-winning coach, Zach spent more than 10 years in senior marketing and client relationship management roles for well-known international consumer beverage brands. Zach trained with the Erikson International Coaching, graduating from their highest level course. He is a sought-after keynote speaker who regularly appears before audiences at industry conferences and events.

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?

One moment that shaped me as a leader occurred when I was working with an organization that was facing a stressful challenge. We knew about a solution that would have fixed the challenge swiftly and wouldn’t have brought any client awareness to it, but doing this would have meant I was working in opposition with my values and integrity as a leader. It was easy for me to take the uncomfortable but morally correct path, and there was no hesitation in making that choice to maintain my standards as a value-driven leader.

I believe that the means of a situation cannot be justified by the end cause; instead you need to maintain integrity in every choice you make as a person and an organization. It is essential to avoid taking shortcuts and do what is right, even when it’s not an easy decision to make.

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?

As a leader, I am someone that people can lean on for guidance and support. Leaders know when to coach or guide people to their own solutions and when their teams need decisiveness and require them to lead from the front through challenging situations or in circumstances when employees don’t have enough knowledge.

I practice what I preach, lead by example, and align my actions with my commitments so that people know I am dependable. By acting in accordance with my values, I build team-wide trust.

Like many leaders, I do not always show the path to success directly. I ask powerful, thought-provoking questions that empower people to connect the knowledge they already have with new knowledge that I share with them in order to navigate new scenarios. This means employees are being shown the path through co-creation with a leader who guides them.

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

As managers, leaders are responsible for handling operations, managing logistics, gathering details, solving challenges, and seeking new opportunities. As coaches, leaders are tasked with asking questions rather than answering them, supporting employees, and cultivating the growth and development of their teams. By seamlessly tapping into each of the skills mentioned above, they prepare the next generation of leaders.

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?

To improve their work as coaches, leaders must showcase an interest in employees’ professional and personal motivations, values, and lives. They also must commit to helping employees enhance their abilities, learn leadership or self-management skills, and provide or receive feedback.

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?

Motivation comes from either a person’s vision or fear. As coaches, we focus on helping people understand their vision of becoming the best leader they can be, based on their priorities and objectives for their careers and lives. Typically this requires leaders to optimize themselves through professional development or skill-building. At Activate 180, we use data support and science to show that leadership upskilling and reskilling create business outcomes.

We help leaders understand that their most important responsibility is to create trust and develop relationships. The ability to successfully manage this task can be developed by staying up to speed with language and communication frameworks to motivate, empower, and lead teams. This requires leaders to be adaptable and learn evolving skills to keep up with an ever-changing business landscape. After all, complacency is in direct conflict with being a great leader.

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?”

I coach people to do their best work by first getting a clear understanding of what is and is not working for them and contributing to their professional success. Then, I complete a deeper investigation into what is causing both. Once I discover the root cause of the challenges standing in people’s way, I can guide them into understanding creative, sustainable solutions. Additionally, when I find out which tactics are leading individuals to success, I work alongside them to amplify their strengths in other areas of their work.

Coaching for peak performance in the current context requires adaptability. Leaders are required to see solutions and adapt rapidly when challenges or changes arise because this occurs more commonly and quickly than ever before. So, we remind leaders to see solutions without becoming caught up on problems because embracing these challenges results in higher-level performance and more impactful work.

The top five ways that leaders and managers can be effective coaches:

1. Resist the temptation to fix.

Example: An employee comes to you about a challenge with a client who is unresponsive. They may come to you two or three times with a similar question, and in the moment you can choose to tell them what to do or ask questions about what they think could be effective, what worked in the past, or what might be suitable solutions. By probing employees with questions to guide their own solutions, they will learn the skills necessary to work through future hurdles rather than coming to you for everything, which would limit you as a leader and inhibit the development of their critical thinking skills. As the saying goes, “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”

2. Know how to ask great, open-ended questions.

Example: Leaders should ask questions that begin with “what” or “how” rather than those which can be responded to with a simple yes or no. This creates an opportunity for further contemplation and exploration of potential solutions which can train the brain to look for resolution on its own by reconfiguring how people look at challenges.

3. Listen attentively for what is and is not being said.

Example: Communication is not just composed of what someone says, but also how they say it. The ability to pick up on the social cues people demonstrate through paralanguage allows you to know when to go a bit deeper in the conversation of topics or subjects and see what might be below the surface.

4. Be genuinely curious.

Example: Employees can tell when you are just going through the motions or exercising genuine curiosity. When you showcase your interest, people feel as though ideas matter and they are more likely to be bold in sharing their opinions or ideas because they’ll feel as though the environment you’re fostering is safe.

5. Demonstrate that you truly care about your team members’ success.

Example: It is important to continuously show your appreciation. Studies have shown that the highest-performing teams have a positive reinforcement to corrective feedback ratio of at least five to one. Don’t just tell people what to correct but tell them more often about what they do well, reminding them that you have their back and want to see them succeed. This creates massive engagement, loyalty, and motivation for team members.

6. Understanding people’s motivation.

Everyone has a different definition of success on a large scale but also moment-by-moment. Leaders need to know what employees want in order to motivate them. Some people are extrinsically motivated — by money, title, or other opportunities for advancement– while others are intrinsically motivated –by purpose, fulfillment, or pride. Unless you understand what drives people, you may not fully connect with them when establishing strategies and future development plans.

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?

Educate yourself or receive instruction on generational differences. Once you understand the nuances and motivators that stereotypically align with each generation of people, you can truly come to recognize that priorities and frameworks of communication vary across different groups. This knowledge helps people interact from a place of curiosity rather than making assumptions and causing cultural disconnect.

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?

First, ask for feedback. Showcase humility and a willingness to learn. Demonstrate through your actions that you are aware you don’t have all of the answers and that your team is safe to share ways they think you can be a more effective leader.

Second, leaning into conflict or challenging conversations rather than being reactive or avoiding them. This is a way to avoid resentment and misunderstanding, which harm connection and increase the potential for attrition.

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

Leaders need to be able to ask employees “Are you open to some feedback?” Getting the consent of the person who may receive advice is a critical element to providing effective feedback.

This question also indicates a willingness to share observations with individuals to promote their improvement, which is generally valued by employees.

It is also important for leaders to use the phrase “I appreciate you” or ‘I appreciate the work you are doing.” It can be assumed that people know they are appreciated, but they aren’t aware of this unless we put words on how we feel. Plus, what we appreciate appreciates.

Employees need to hear “I have your back.” Feeling as though a leader is in your corner and supports you is a catalyst for motivation, engagement, loyalty, and teamwork.

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

I really like Albert Einstein’s quote “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” It resonates with me because I’ve always been willing to see things differently and be bold in creating change, but I have found that this can often be met with judgment or discouragement. People believe any dream that is too big cannot be done because of their need for comfort or to grasp onto what they know. Yet, I know that growth only exists outside of our comfort zones, and I create comfort outside of that zone.

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?

Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.