A Coaching Culture Is No Longer A Choice, It’s A Necessity
Within two weeks of COVID-19 hitting Singapore in January, many companies began activating their business continuity programs and shifting teams into remote working pods. Employees found themselves working at home among family, with leaders missing physical exchanges with half or more of their teams for months.
While we weren’t hit with a sudden lockdown like other countries, we very quickly learned to expect new government measures every week. It became the norm to operate with little commitment, holding off decisions until the last minute. Plans had to keep changing and being recommunicated. Forecasts were only until the next week — anything beyond seemed impossible.
Change has never been so intense and real until now, bringing with it disruption to every single norm in our lives.
COVID-19 showed the true colors of today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world. This business environment challenges every leader. How so?
• What we knew last week may not be relevant next week.
• What we see is only one part of the larger puzzle. This, unfortunately, is based only on what we know.
• We all deal with uncertainty and complexity differently, giving rise to tainted lenses and interpretation of information.
In short, the truth is we operate out of outdated, limited, misinterpreted data. But it’s also true that human beings aren’t designed to be omnipresent or omniscient. Wise leaders know one important fact: They don’t know everything. In embracing this truth, they don’t try to know everything, or worse, pretend to know everything. A leader who gets this:
• May have an answer but knows it’s not the answer
• May have a solution, but knows there isn’t only one solution that is needed
• May be familiar with the problem, but knows every situation is flavored with unique factors
A leader who understands this understands that collective wisdom is more powerful than he or she could ever be as a single source.
Collective wisdom in the workplace means tapping into employees’ ideas, perspectives and knowledge in order to reveal a larger picture of the problem.
Inevitably, this too gives rise to new or more robust solutions that can be deployed. Involving employees in understanding the problem and constructing solutions also increases ownership of the state of things. When the team secures a big deal, everyone on the team feels proud. Going into their world and involving their thoughts and sentiments increases engagement, which leads progressively to more active problem-solving, teamwork, collaboration, pride and achievement.
Driven by discovery, the focus is no longer on proving what one knows.
To harness collective wisdom as a leader, a learning attitude is key. This comes from a personal choice of being open and curious to explore beyond what one knows.
This isn’t about giving up authority or power that the role requires to make things happen, although it is about letting go of authority and power that comes from “knowing what’s right.”
Leaders I’ve worked with have admitted they fear being seen as useless or not “value-adding” if they don’t have an answer to offer. There is a notion that respect is tied to knowledge, but contrary to tradition, the leaders we need today are those who are adaptive. Specifically, leaders who can dance between learning and contribution.
In summary, leaders today need to:
1. Believe in and know how to harness collective wisdom
2. Involve and include their people in problem-finding and solving
3. Unlearn the need to know or provide answers
4. Make a constant choice to explore and discover in order to adapt to this VUCA environment
One discipline that has shown to quickly facilitate a leader’s shift into the above is coaching.
When a leader coaches, he/she is forced to set aside prior knowledge in order to allow the employee’s thoughts and sentiments to emerge. This is done through a coaching method: asking questions to unearth and unpack what’s beneath. Leaders who build authentic and real connections with their people find that they obtain deeper truths, thoughts and sentiments they otherwise wouldn’t get if basic trust was missing. This only happens if the leader shows up without positioning himself or herself as (or pretending to be) the expert.
This is the mindset shift that happens when leaders coach. This humility lowers an employee’s guard because they feel like they are being consulted, respected and valued as a partner. Curiosity demonstrated by questioning brings an exploratory tone into conversations that invite more than instruction. Questioning alongside paraphrasing and other responses in a coaching leader’s toolbox are skills that strengthen when leaders coach.
Perhaps, the most rewarding and inspiring outcome of coaching leaders is the collaborative relationship that happens in the moment.
Often, leaders have come out of a coaching conversation utterly surprised by the unexpected outcomes this dynamic collaboration brings. Both parties leave the conversation in a positive space, feeling more confident, engaged and energized. If one conversation can have that impact, imagine that for the hundreds that go on in your organization in a single day.
A coaching culture helps an organization learn and change together at a pace that matches today’s VUCA environment. Coaching conversations encourage collective wisdom that is needed to keep up with such intense change. They not only help elevate employee engagement and ownership and more robust solutions to ever-evolving challenges, but they are truly valuable in that they breed positive connections in a work environment that is increasingly demanding and stressful.
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