Updated January 2017
One of the most common issues that comes up in my practice is how my clients--CEOs and other senior leaders--can provide more effective coaching and feedback to their execs and employees.
Early in a leader's career they typically offer advice based on their own experience or skills: "Here's how I'd handle this situation..." But senior leaders manage people who sit much closer to the problems being solved and who may have more expertise in their functional area than the leader. Directive guidance from a senior leader can be counterproductive by preventing execs and employees from making full use of their own knowledge or from taking responsibility for a problem they would rather leave to the leader. Such an approach also keeps senior leaders involved with tactical details and distracts them from larger strategic issues, which is a particular concern in rapidly growing or changing organizations.
An alternative approach for the senior leader is to employ coaching skills to help direct reports come up with their own solutions to the problems they face. To be clear, an internal manager is not a substitute for an external coach--the relationship between leader and employee is fundamentally different than that between coach and client. The leader who aspires to coach their employees must take great care to acknowledge and account for the power differential that exists in these relationships. Subjecting execs and employees to a "coaching conversation" that takes the form of a series of leading questions will rightfully be seen as a theatrical performance and appropriately resented.
This isn't to say that senior leaders who seek to employ coaching skills are precluded from sharing their opinions with execs and employees. But it's important for leaders to develop effective feedback skills and to build relationships with their reports that are conducive to meaningful feedback conversations.
The resources below are derived from my work over the past decade coaching leaders in my private practice, teaching The Art of Self-Coaching at Stanford, and training MBA students in both coaching and feedback skills (in the Leadership Fellows program and Interpersonal Dynamics, respectively.) I've also appended a list of books that have had an impact on my approach to coaching and feedback and whose concepts are readily applicable to organizational life.
How Great Coaches Ask, Listen and Empathize (Harvard Business Review)
- By using coaching methods and techniques in the right situations, leaders can still be effective without knowing all the answers and without telling employees what to do.
- I wrote the Introduction, Why Coach?, as well as Giving Feedback that Sticks and Help People Help Themselves, on self-coaching.
Coaching Your Employees (Harvard Business Review Webinar)
- HBR webinar (1-hour video)
- HBR's summary of my remarks (7-page PDF)
- Helping people self-coach is a natural fit with knowledge work's emphasis on self-management and flat hierarchies.
- This is an earlier version of Help People Help Themselves, which appears in the HBR guide above.
- Bad coaching feels like hammering screws--a solo effort on the part of the coach that can make a lot of noise but accomplishes very little.
- We invest in people, but we're attached to outcomes.
- When we're leading and coaching, how can we help others surface more useful information? How can we make those conversations more effective?
- Yes/no questions are simple and direct, but they surface a minimum of new information and constrain the boundaries of the conversation.
Tips for Coaching Someone Remotely (Harvard Business Review)
- Advice on logistics, focus, equipment and timing.
- I find The Cult of Done professionally relevant, personally inspiring, and an apt metaphor for the coaching process itself.
- There's an arc to this journey that involves pushing ourselves to reach new heights, navigating those peaks under difficult conditions, and safely returning to lower altitudes. Looked at from this perspective, coaching can be seen as emotional mountaineering.
- A number of key concepts from Gestalt therapy can be seen at work in contemporary approaches to executive coaching.
- While I make use of these resources in my work at Stanford and my practice, almost all of them can be applied by a leader or manager within their organization.
- Effective feedback doesn’t happen spontaneously; it’s critical to learn how to give—and receive—feedback in a way that’s effective in a particular context.
- This is an earlier version of Giving Feedback That Sticks, which appears in the HBR guides above and below.
Building a Feedback-Rich Culture (Harvard Business Review)
- As leaders, how do we build a feedback-rich culture? What does it take to cultivate an ongoing commitment to interpersonal feedback? Here are four essential elements...
Make Getting Feedback Less Stressful (Harvard Business Review)
- We need to recognize that receiving feedback is inherently a stressful experience.
- Includes my article, Giving Feedback That Sticks.
Making Feedback Less Stressful (Harvard Business Review Webinar)
- HBR webinar (1-hour video)
- HBR's summary of my remarks (8-page PDF)
Good coaches understand how important it is not to provide too much advice or feedback to clients. But this isn't to say that coaches should never offer advice or feedback--there are times when it's essential to do so. Excerpts from three key texts on coaching.
- This is my slide deck from a workshop I conducted on these topics with the ECG, a select group of venture founders who meet regularly at Stanford to support their own growth and development as leaders.
- Caution and skepticism are essential when exploring the question I pose above: What do great leaders do? And yet there’s a tremendous desire to find answers—I see it in my coaching practice every day,
- Change is hard, and safety is important, but how do leaders actually create the safety that's necessary to support change in their organizations?
- I find this a compelling model for the range of roles that must be played by every leader in any group.
Doing Less, Leading More (Harvard Business Review)
- Instead of simply doing more, sustaining our success as leaders requires us to redefine how we add value. We need to do less and lead more.
- Reflections on what I've learned over about leading groups, with an emphasis on leader as coach and guide rather than as directive authority figure.
- A response from one of my Stanford MBA students to the post above.
- At its core leading is an act of love. It's the ability to love those around us in a way that allows us to understand them, to see their full potential, and to enable that potential to be realized.
FOR FURTHER READING...
Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler
Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen
- Written by three Harvard Law professors associated with the school's Negotiation Project, this book includes one of the most important readings we use at Stanford in Interpersonal Dynamics, "Have Your Feelings (Or They Will Have You)."
- I've never met Susan Scott, but she's a personal hero of mine, and this book has had a substantial impact not only on my approach to coaching but also on my decision to launch my coaching practice in 2006.
Helping: How to Offer, Give and Receive Help, Edgar Schein
- This concise volume by Schein, a longtime professor of management at MIT, is relevant to all potential helping relationships--personal and professional, formal and informal--and it's the book I recommend most often to my clients and students.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini
- Cialdini is one of the world's leading experts on this topic; this classic text was in the curriculum when I was an MBA student at Stanford many years ago, and we still use it today.
Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
- A subsequent volume by two of the co-authors of Difficult Conversations.
Photo by Travis Wise. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.