A Coach Approach to Leadership: Empowering others during uncertainty and change

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June 2010

A Coach Approach to Leadership: Empowering others during uncertainty and change

CIDMIconNewsletterRosanne Scriffignano, PhD, ADP, Inc.

The challenge for every organization is to build a feeling of oneness, of dependence on one another …because the question is usually not how well each person works, but how well they work together.— Vince Lombardi

Recent economic events have resulted in a myriad of new challenges for managers. After surviving the aftermath of these challenges, including downsizing and restructuring, managers are shouldering more responsibilities. They are challenged to bring new skills to the workplace. In addition to overseeing day-to-day operations, they are expected to be multi-skilled and ever-adaptable while leading a workforce that is often multicultural and geographically dispersed. Responding to these challenges in a way that nurtures stronger relationships will help build a more resilient, capable workforce environment.

Acknowledging that time and energy are fixed resources, how can managers cope with changing demands while avoiding potential obstacles created by new workplace challenges? John C. Maxwell in his book Developing the Leader within You suggests “There is nothing more difficult to undertake, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than introducing change. Why? The leader has, for enemies, all those who have done well under the old conditions and only lukewarm defenders in those who may do well with the change.” Managing change during uncertain times can be challenging. Change management requires the support of individuals from all levels of an organization. This human resource offers diversity in its education, skills, and experiences that can be drawn upon to support, and in some cases, mitigate the effects of change. Using a coach approach, as opposed to the more hierarchical “command and control” style of change leadership, managers encourage staff to participate in decision-making and problem solving. This article explores how managers can use the coach approach to empower and lead people through uncertainty and change and emerge stronger and ready to take on new business challenges.

How the Coach Approach Evolved

The coach approach to leadership can trace its roots to the discipline of executive coaching. Since becoming an integral component of leadership development programs during the 1980s, leaders from organizations representing diverse industries in the public and private sector have participated in executive coaching programs. These programs, along with talent management and training initiatives, have successfully supported the development of high-potential associates as well as new leaders transitioning into key roles.

Traditional executive coaching involves a relationship in which the coach may not be a specialist in the manager’s professional field, in contrast to most mentoring, consulting, or training relationships, but rather a skilled practitioner in the discipline of coaching itself. In some organizations, the coaching relationship is more formalized within the context of a coaching program with pre-defined durations, focus areas, and measurements for success. In this context, a leader, paired with an internal or external coach, focuses on professional development areas such as time management, strategic thinking, and effective communications. Through a structured process, leaders identify and target goals that effect positive changes to their professional development and careers.

Drawing from their own experience with coaching, leaders started to embrace the coach approach as a viable alternative to lead and inspire their own staff. Zeus and Skiffington suggest that “… managers are increasingly dissatisfied with the traditional ‘boss’ style of management and recognize the need to improve their interpersonal or people skills in order to be more effective and productive within their organizations”. In lieu of dictating solutions and action plans, these managers model the coach approach by providing a framework from which their staff can cultivate new ideas and build confidence in their decision-making skills. This new paradigm is successful because it supports creativity and collaboration throughout the entire organization.

The Coach-Approach Framework

The coach approach requires managers to hone skills such as active listening, powerful questioning, and direct communication. The goal is to make the transition—from telling what to do, when to do it, and how to do it—to trusting that other people can make decisions, as well as provide meaningful and lasting contributions. Drawing on models developed for the field of executive coaching, the coach approach provides a framework whereby managers help their staff to set goals, identify potential barriers, and develop action plans. Although there are situations when the manager must make key decisions or set overall direction for projects, there are still many opportunities for staff members to participate in brainstorming and problem solving while working toward their professional and organizational goals.

Despite the opinion of those who support the delegation of problem solving and decision making whenever possible, managers may instinctively want to offer suggestions or complete tasks on behalf of others. However, this approach can result in paralyzing behavior emanating from staff members’ lack of confidence to take risks. This unwillingness to delegate can exacerbate an already problematic workplace environment where managers may be burdened with too many responsibilities. With the coach approach, the manager/staff dialogue is focused on how staff members can develop solutions as well as take responsibility for their own actions. A sample coach approach conversation may play out as outlined in Table 1.

Writer Manager
I’m having trouble getting feedback from Mary on my draft. She’s always late with feedback. Can you please talk to Mary’s boss about this? What are you trying to accomplish? Are you focusing on changing Mary’s future behavior or getting her feedback right now?
I’m trying to get her feedback as soon as possible. My deadline is tomorrow. I already sent her a reminder e-mail. What have you tried in the past when this occurred with Mary?
I spoke to her in person to let her know how critical her feedback was to my project. What happened when you did that?
She sent me feedback right away. Is this something that you could try again?
Yes but I shouldn’t need to do that. I understand. What do you think your next step is?
I’ll try to speak to Mary. Is there anything that can get in your way?
No. Mary’s in the office. I’ll stop by her desk now. Sounds like a plan. Thanks.

Table 1: Sample conversation using the coach approach

In the sample conversation, the manager did not assume responsibility for the writer’s problem. Instead, the focus was on exploring options and designing actions for the writer, not the manager. While demonstrating empathy and active listening, the manager provided a framework from which the writer could explore a potential resolution to the issue at hand.

Ground Rules for Success

As with a traditional coaching relationship, the coach approach requires developing relationships with people. Below are some ground rules to cultivate successful interactions with staff members:

  • Expect the best
  • Be supportive
  • Provide feedback
  • Stay focused
  • Cultivate innovation

Expect the Best

In the sample conversation outlined in Table 1, the manager demonstrated her belief that the writer could resolve the issue by not asking for a report on his progress. This approach demonstrated the expect the best trait of successful leaders as suggested by Kouzes and Posner in Encouraging the Heart: A Leader’s Guide to Rewarding and Recognizing Others. Research completed by Kouzes and Posner uncovered that “People are often anxious or nervous when they are encouraged by people in leadership positions to deliver their personal best. But in our surveys of people who experienced such challenges, with leaders holding high expectations for them, they marched in and did what was expected without hesitation.”

When managers expect the best, they foster an environment where people believe that they can accomplish great things. This self-fulfilling prophesy, also known as the Pygmalion effect, translates into better performance because managers presume that people’s skills, knowledge, and contributions are valuable assets to the organization. The overall end result is a more motivated workforce.

Be Supportive

There are times when staff members need to voice concerns, report problems, or simply think out loud. When these interactions occur, the manager may feel most comfortable to shift into a problem-solving mode. However, this approach could adversely impact the quality of the conversation because the need for a good listener does not translate into a request for solutions.

The coach approach offers managers an alternative to problem solving by allowing staff members the opportunity to work through their own issues. Instead of telling how to proceed, the coach manager offers support by listening and clarifying while demonstrating an understanding of the issue at hand. This approach fosters awareness by encouraging others to reflect more deeply on potential outcomes and scenarios. It also gives the manager permission to not know the best answer to all problems.

Provide Feedback

The coach approach involves supporting staff through the process of problem solving and goal attainment. However, the manager should be willing to provide appropriate feedback when necessary. This feedback should be specific, while focusing on potential impact to others within the organization. For example, if the writer from the scenario in Table 1 had taken improper steps, such as verbally insulting Mary, to resolve the issue, the manager would need to seek further clarity, and then provide clear, constructive feedback on the impact of the writer’s actions on team morale and future interactions with others.

Stay Focused

As managers become buried under mounds of communication generated by email, instant messaging, and voicemail, the end result is multi-tasking and constant distractions. Unfortunately, multi-tasking does not allow for deep and meaningful conversations with staff members—although some managers might argue that multi-tasking is absolutely necessary in order to maintain a competitive edge and to shoulder the demands of leading geographically dispersed teams. In extreme situations, managers responsible for a dispersed workforce must deal with the daunting reality that, during any given 24-hour period, multiple counterparties are sending email and expecting a quick response.

Despite the inherent challenges caused by constant distractions, managers need to stay focused during interactions with people. By demonstrating the importance of these conversations, managers will earn the trust of their staff. Without this trust, it may be difficult for staff members to honestly express concerns or share project-related challenges. Managers can improve their focus by using active listening techniques such as paraphrasing, asking questions, and responding emphatically during conversations with staff.

Cultivate Innovation

A potential benefit of the coach approach to leadership is more reliance on problem-solving skills and innovative thinking throughout all levels of the organization. Staff members, armed with a unique perspective, can offer solutions to a myriad of organizational issues when encouraged to do so. In Flexible Leadership: Creating Value by Balancing Multiple Challenges and Choices, Yukl and Lepsinger offer the following strategies for supporting innovation: “Identifying innovative ways to improve strategies, processes, products, or services is one requirement for successful adaptation, and there are many ways a leader can influence more innovative thinking by employees. The leader can encourage people to look at problems from multiple perspectives, to question implicit assumptions about the work, and to brainstorm better ways to do things”. By cultivating an innovative workplace, managers and staff together can mitigate the effects of internal and external threats such as apathy, fear, global competition, and technological obsolescence.

Shifting Focus from One to Many

Some managers may find that the coach approach is not easy to implement in their organizations. Deeply engrained personal and corporate cultures can influence how people communicate with one another. In organizations that emphasize hierarchical leadership or that reward behaviors based on pre-determined job duties, coach managers could face an uphill battle. However, there are effective ways to introduce this new approach. For example, staff members who successfully resolve issues, champion new processes, and develop creative solutions should be recognized for their contributions. As people internalize the shift to rewarded traits such as self-reliance, innovation, and independence, organizational behaviors will also change.

Those managers who can embrace a more collaborative work environment are shifting focus beyond their own contributions to those of a diverse and talented workforce. As they embrace this transition, managers must learn coaching skills that will allow them to support and inspire others. As Sharon Ting suggests “Leaders note that the gap between knowing what effective coaching behaviors are and being able to enact them consistently presents an ongoing challenge. Often their strengths and the skills for which they have been rewarded are around achieving results quickly and efficiently. The most common development need for these leaders around coaching skills, not surprisingly, is learning how to let go of that style and mind-set when they are helping others to grow. It does require a conscious shift from a problem-solving mentality to a collaborative discovery process.” Organizations can support this new discovery process by offering “leader as coach” training as well as traditional executive coaching opportunities for their managers.

Future Benefits

Fostering a culture of creativity and collaboration, manager coaches are no longer compelled to dictate solutions to organizational challenges. Instead, they engender trust, shifting focus to the greater workplace community. As managers become more adept at coaching staff through problem solving and goal setting, possibilities for workplace transformation emerges. Despite the ever-present challenge of uncertainty and change, a coach approach to leadership empowers everyone to confront future challenges on the path to organizational success. This newfound empowerment allows managers and staff alike to nurture new relationships that are more flexible, resilient, and able to meet the mounting challenges of the modern workplace.CIDMIconNewsletter

ScriffignanoRosanne Scriffignano, PhD

ADP, Inc.


Dr. Scriffignano is a Project Leader for ADP, Inc. Before joining ADP in 1993, she worked in the telecommunications, investment banking, and computer services industries. An ADP Leadership Coach and a founding member of the ADP Coach Advisory Board, she has been a guest speaker at events sponsored by the Society for Technical Communication, American Medical Writers Association, and New Jersey Professional Coaches Association. During the 2007 CIDM Best Practices conference, she was a guest speaker and leadership panel participant. Dr. Scriffignano has been published in various venues and is the recipient of several writing awards. She has taught graduate-level courses as an Adjunct Professor at Seton Hall University, where she earned an MA in Corporate and Public Communication. She holds a PhD in Business Administration with a concentration in organizational leadership.


Gary Yukl and Richard Lepsinger
Flexible Leadership: Creating Value by Balancing Multiple Challenges and Choices
2004, Hoboken, NJ
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
ISBN: 9780787965310

James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner
Encouraging the Heart: A Leader’s Guide to Rewarding and Recognizing Others
2003, Hoboken, NJ
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
ISBN: 9780787964634

John C. Maxwell
Developing the Leader within You
1993, Nashville, TN
Thomas Nelson, Inc.
ISBN: 9780785281122

Perry Zeus and Suzanne Skiffington
The Complete Guide to Coaching at Work
2000, North Ryde BC
McGraw-Hill Australia
ISBN: 9780074708422

Sharon Ting and Peter Scisco, Editors
The CCL Handbook of Coaching: A Guide for the Leader Coach
2006, San Francisco, CA
ISBN: 978-0787976842