The Manager as Coach: Get Curious
By Lisa Kramer, MSW, PCC
Throughout organizations today, business leaders and managers are adopting a coaching style of leadership to achieve results from their employees. At the heart of this leadership style is the ability to be genuinely curious -- to listen deeply and to ask powerful questions that stimulate creativity and inspire action.
Asking questions rather than providing answers is the key to leadership excellence and success in the 21st century. Yet, too often managers stop themselves from asking questions because they believe that giving the answer saves time. That may be true in the short run. However by getting curious and asking powerful questions, managers stimulate creative solutions from their teams. When faced with a challenge, asking powerful questions elicits more innovative responses from team members, creating buy-in to move forward with greater energy and enthusiasm. And that is ultimately a time-saver.
What it means to be curious
To be curious means to be open: setting aside assumptions and listening to the other without anticipating the response. In essence it means being willing to not know. When you are genuinely curious, you really don’t know how the other person will respond. And that curiosity invites greater collaboration. In contrast, when you offer solutions, you assume that the solution that is right for you is also right for the other person. And that conveys a disempowering message, ‘I know better’. Having a mindset of curiosity conveys a genuine interest in hearing ideas from the other, ideas that you may not have even considered yourself.
A Coaching Conversation Model
The following coaching model provides a structure for a question-based conversation. A coaching conversation is structured with a beginning, middle and end. It is not scripted or formulaic but is a predictable progression toward desired outcomes. It consists of five steps that are not necessarily linear in nature.
- Establish Focus – At the beginning of the conversation, it is important that you and the other person are clear about the focus. You cannot have an effective conversation without a clear focus. Don’t assume anything; make sure the focus is clearly stated.
- Promote Discovery – Listen deeply and ask questions from a mindset of curiosity as described above. This is done throughout the conversation.
- Clarify Gaps – This step is key to understanding where you are now and where you ultimately want to be. What is the gap that this conversation will narrow or close? What is occurring at present and what is the desired outcome?
- Determine Options – This includes a variety of possible options to achieve the desired outcome. There is often more than one way to close the gap.
- Actions and Accountability – What specifically will occur as a result of this conversation? In what time frame? Having some kind of follow up is critical to insure that the plan is being carried out successfully.
Joan is the marketing director of a clothing manufacturing company. She recently hired Beth, a marketing coordinator, to assist her in the day-to-day operations of the department. Beth, a recent college graduate, is highly creative but is sometimes late in meeting important deadlines. She recognizes that this is an area she needs to improve upon and has scheduled a meeting with Joan to determine ways to better manage her time. Joan recently attended a coaching-skills-for-managers training and decides to use a question-based approach in her conversation with Beth.
Here are some highlights from their conversation:
Establish Focus - The focus of the conversation is to assist Beth in better managing her time so that she is able to meet project deadlines.
Promote Discovery and Clarify Gaps – Here are some of the questions Joan asked as she spoke with Beth:
- Tell me about the current challenge you are facing (a statement that is actually a powerful question).
- What do you ideally want the outcome to be?
- What have you tried so far? What has worked/not worked?
- What strengths do you have that you can apply?
- What barriers are getting in your way?
Each one of these questions illustrates Joan’s genuine curiosity and openness to eliciting answers from Beth. She invites Beth to talk about her vision for an ideal outcome, generate options, focus on her strengths and consider possible barriers to success. What is equally as important is Joan’s tone of voice and presence. She listens fully without multi-tasking by looking at her computer screen or allowing for interruptions. Joan’s behavior conveys the message that Beth is important to her.
Once Joan and Beth have had an opportunity to discuss the situation in depth, they are ready to determine the possible options for Beth to achieve the desired outcome of meeting deadlines by managing her time more efficiently. Brainstorming is also a helpful skill to determine options. Here is an excerpt from that part of the conversation:
- Now that we’ve had a chance to explore the situation, what ideas do you have?
- What else?
- May I make a suggestion? By asking permission to make a suggestion, Joan demonstrates respect and invites Beth to be more receptive in hearing her idea.
Actions and Accountability
It is now time to wrap up by determining what action steps Beth will take as a result of the conversation. Joan and Beth have decided to design an experiment with an upcoming project, putting some of their ideas into place and seeing how that impacts Beth’s performance. Here is how the conversation was brought to a close:
- Now that we’ve had a chance to determine some action steps, what’s your specific plan of action?
- What support do you need to successfully carry out this plan?
- What’s the first step?
- What barrier(s) might get in the way? How will you address that?
- By when will you complete it? How will we both know?
As a result of a focused coaching conversation with a question-based approach, Beth had a concrete plan that enabled her to try out some new ways to manage her time more effectively. She and Joan met on a regular basis as Beth worked on the project and made some modifications along the way. As a result, she successfully completed her work on the project by the deadline.
Managers who use this coaching model report that it becomes easier over time and ultimately saves them time in working with their teams. By incorporating the model, managers invite their team members to look within themselves for the answers. This conveys trust as well as a belief that the team is creative, resourceful and capable of coming up with the answers that work best for them. There is tremendous freedom for the manager in not having to find solutions, ‘fix’ problems or have all the answers. Everyone wins!
Lisa Kramer, MSW, PCC has been a professional coach since 1998. Her business, LIVING WITH INTENTION LLC, specializes in life and leadership coaching, coach training, and mentor-coaching. Lisa is a Certified Professional Coach (PCC) and a graduate of the Coaches Training Institute. At UT Dallas, Lisa teaches Coaching Techniques and Practices for the WGU program, provides individual and group supervision, and she is an assessor. She is passionate about supporting coaches in their professional development. She is the author of Loving with Intention: A Guide for Relationship Coaching. For more information, visit Lisa on the web at www.livingwithintention.com.