(Reprinted with permission from Authority Magazine)
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 Melissa Jacobs of Crow & Pitcher LLC (https://www.crowandpitcherllc.com/).
Melissa is the CEO and lead strategist at Crow & Pitcher LLC, an innovation and growth consultancy. Businesses that want to innovate, grow, and reinvent themselves to get to the next level, but don’t have the luxury of dedicated strategic resources on staff, hire her team to spark transformational growth. Prior to founding Crow & Pitcher, she grew her career and leadership experience for over 20 years in marketing, strategy, and innovation roles at Kimberly-Clark Corporation, the Fortune 200 maker of Kleenex, Huggies, and many beloved CPG brands.
Very early in my career, I had a boss that recognized a natural talent for leadership in me. She coached me and gave me leadership opportunities long before I had that aspiration myself. One defining moment came when a team leader unexpectedly moved to a new role, leaving a leadership position vacant for several months. Even though I was the youngest person on the team, with the least experience, I was named as the interim leader.
My boss believed that choosing me put the team in the strongest position and invested her time to coach me. In hindsight, I’m sure this decision was a risk for both of us. She was hard on me, but I knew she was making me better and rewarding me at the same time. Her approach ensured that I was successful in this stretch opportunity and laid the foundations for my leadership style. A style that is rooted in knowing my team, sometimes better than they know themselves, and coaching them for growth opportunities.
Honestly, I’m not sure if I agree with this saying. At first glance it makes me think of a manager forcing their team to do as they say. But when I step back and think about how my approach connects to this saying….I do agree that a leader needs to have an overall vision of where the team needs to go (knows the way). And it’s important that they are consistent, not changing the vision or goal (goes the way). But when it comes to showing the way, it’s my philosophy that a leader who is investing in coaching allows room for their team to show the way.
To me, a manager directs people to do things their way, while a coach helps people build skills and thought processes to achieve the goal in the best way. And grows their team for future opportunities. Leaders who coach encourage their team to share ideas and opinions which ultimately makes the team more effective.
Essential skills needed to lead as a coach include clarity, consistency, and patience.
Fundamentally, what we’re asking for here is a behavior change. We are asking leaders to lead differently and team members to work differently too. And behavior change is HARD. In my experience, the more you understand people’s goals and motivations, the more likely you are to be able to influence them to change their behavior. This is true of marketing any product to customers. And it’s true of convincing leaders to upskill.
Inspiring and influencing people to upskill is infinitely easier when you frame the adoption of new behaviors as a path toward achieving their personal goals. What’s in it for them is far more influential than what’s in it for you or for the company.
As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s table stakes for the leader to provide clarity around the team’s goal, scope, and each member’s role. Once that foundation is in place, it’s time for great coaching to begin. My top 5 ways to be an effective coach include:
1. Ask a Simple Question. One simple, but shocking question has been the key to coaching my direct reports. When they ask for an answer, simply ask them "What do you think?"
In my first official leadership role, I inherited a team operating under command and control. They weren’t thinking for themselves. Frankly, they'd been reprimanded for doing so. I was shocked to find this simple question left them speechless. One woman even recoiled in her chair when I first asked her opinion. It only took a few weeks before they were used to this approach and were prepared with their own thoughts.
Some managers I’ve shared this idea with get nervous about taking this step. But asking this question doesn’t mean you have to approve their first answer. There is no risk. You’re simply starting a conversation.
2. Allow Time. Once you ask them what they think, you’ve opened a dialogue. Now you can learn their thought process and ask more questions so they can figure things out on their own. This takes time. Time for them to decide what they think. Time for you to listen. Time to ask more questions, so you can help them build critical thinking skills.
A former boss used this approach flawlessly. There was a particular consumer group that looked, at first glance, like an obvious growth opportunity. Nearly every person who joined our team suggested we shift our budget toward this group. Every time this happened, our leader asked the new team member to put together a business case to support their suggestion. Over the next few weeks, he’d ask questions to guide them toward data they had overlooked and challenge their assumptions. And every time, the new team member ultimately concluded the opportunity was far too small and therefore too expensive to be worthwhile. This exercise was always worthwhile. New skills and relationships were built that benefitted the team for the long term.
3. Coach for the Situation. We often think of people as more junior vs more experienced. Or stronger performers vs weaker performers. But when it comes to coaching, the situation matters. Coaching for the situation means adjusting your coaching style based on each situation. Is this person doing something for the first time? Have they been given a project or task that requires different skills or partners with a different group of people? Even if they’re a rock star and you like to give people a lot of room to learn on their own, this situation may call for more direction and guidance early on. The opposite can also be true.
I had an amazing up-and-coming marketer join my team. He had the kind of potential that almost always called for a “get out of his way” leadership style. But the business we worked on was regulated by the FDA and his prior experience had been on non-regulated products. This situation called for flexing my leadership style to ensure that he had the proper direction and guidance for his new responsibilities. I found myself leaning in, being more directive, and generally staying much closer to his work than if we worked together in a different situation.
4. Be Open. This one really matters. If you’ve done steps 1 – 3, your team is bringing forward better and better ideas and recommendations. You must be open to adopting them. While I believe in the leader being consistent when it comes to the goal and the sandbox, I also believe in having flexibility in the plan that achieves the goal. Plus, if team member’s ideas are always shut down, they’ll stop sharing them. And the coaching opportunities will stop.
The leader who asked for a business case when new team members wanted to shift the budget to a new consumer target? He was always open to doing so, if the data and rationale indicated it was a good idea.
5. Stretch Them. A benefit of coaching your team is that they’re upskilling and ready for more. Look for opportunities to hand off things to them, even if you aren’t sure they’re ready. You’ve built a relationship where coaching is happening regularly, which means you can support them to stretch. This helps alleviate your workload (giving you more time for coaching your team), while also improving their motivation.
I remain forever grateful to my first boss, who gave me that first stretch opportunity and changed the trajectory of my career. She didn’t let traditional norms around age or experience keep her from pushing me forward.
I think it comes down to treating each person as an individual and not assuming what works for you is what will work for them. Do you understand what matters to each of your team members and what motivates them? Directly asking them might reveal surprising insights.
1. Ask, don’t assume. One of my first managers gave each of her direct reports an index card and asked us to write down 3 things that motivate us. It took quite a bit of reflection to answer that question. Thinking back on that now, I must admit it was pretty revolutionary. And yet at the same time so simple. If I didn’t know my answer to that question, how could she have known without asking?
2. Personalize feedback. I had a leader who gave very little feedback. We rarely had 1:1 meetings. Once, he called me into his office and told me “You make my job easier”. I felt amazing. Until later that day when my co-workers and I realized he’d had the exact same conversation with all of us. Goodbye amazing feeling. Hello feeling like a number. Once you do step 1 above (ask, don’t assume), you can personalize your coaching and feedback so your team feels valued and understood.
Whether it’s leading people, framing up a sales call, or marketing to consumers, putting the needs of the receiver first is critical to get the behavior you desire. Look at the last few emails you’ve sent. How many sentences start with or contain “I”? The first time I heard this advice and did this exercise, I was shocked to see about 80% of my sentences were framed about me. How engaging is that to the recipient? Not very. To drive behavior change, it’s imperative to show that you understand what’s in it for them or how something impacts them. Put them first.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” – Albert Einstein
Time and time again I’ve found that taking stock of a situation, problem, or task before jumping into solutions improves the outcome. But it seems like most people are programmed to skip this step. Even those who aren’t programmed that way are dealing with fast-paced environments every day, making it hard to pause and get clear on the problem. This applies to all kinds of situations, including preparing for coaching opportunities.
The best way to connect with me is to visit my company’s website and sign up for our quarterly newsletter, From the Crow’s Nest. We share how our clients are accelerating their growth with data-driven insights, transformational strategies, and focused execution.
You can also find me on LinkedIn, where I’d love to connect and continue the conversation.
About The Interviewer: Karen Mangia is one of the most sought-after keynote speakers in the world, sharing her thought leadership with over 10,000 organizations during the course of her career. As Vice President of Customer and Market Insights at Salesforce, she helps individuals and organizations define, design and deliver the future. Discover her proven strategies to access your own success in her fourth book Success from Anywhere and by connecting with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.
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Melissa Jacobs is the CEO and Lead Strategist at Crow and Pitcher LLC, an Innovation and Growth Consultancy. Mid-size companies hire Crow & Pitcher to spark transformational growth with data-driven insights and focused strategies, so they can grow more by doing less.
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