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Leadership Lessons from Learning to Coach

By Alison Gretz



A few years ago, I embarked on my coaching journey guided by the team at Learning Journeys. My goal was to explore a general interest in coaching, perhaps as an entrepreneurial career shift, and at the same time, delve into a side of leadership that I found myself craving; leadership steeped in curiosity, creativity, and deep empathy for individuals that supercharges team performance. Although I thought it would only take me a year to complete my certification, it took me three years, thanks to a baby, an executive job, and a pandemic. Nevertheless, I was afforded many lessons throughout this journey, and with the extended time I had, it made it possible to apply these learnings within several large organizations, not only affirming my choice to pursue coaching but also my leadership philosophies. The experience and understanding I developed along the way changed how I lead today. My hope is by sharing the lessons I learned, other leaders will see how they, too, can create and support impactful and thriving teams within their organizations.


LESSON 1: Quiet the Expertise Urge – Don't Steal the Journey


As leaders, our expertise and experience are valuable. Still, we must limit leveraging our knowledge to shortcut the process so we can move teams forward in the short term. We steal opportunities for our teams to practice autonomy, build problem-solving muscles and expand on their ideas when we immediately share solutions, give our perspective too early, or ask questions in ways that hold judgmental language. And, we also can actually make the process longer in the long run. People want to be a part of the solution, and when they don't get to contribute fully, we miss out on their ingenuity and energy to move projects forward.

Eventually, if they don't feel the ideas or contributions matter slowly, they will quietly quit while still collecting a paycheck.


It was (and is) hard for me to switch off the advice-giving muscle in all areas of life. I thought I was helping. When I want to jump in and solve, I reflect on all the interactions where I walked away unfulfilled and disappointed. I needed someone to listen, and instead, unsolicited advice was piled on.


Each time it just didn't fit right. In coaching, you learn that your coachee is whole and capable of solving their challenges; the same applies to teams. As a leader, you don't need to advise and shortcut your employees to the "right" answer from your perspective. Instead, you get to provide them an environment where they feel safe and supported to self-discover and develop the needed skills to do their job expertly and confidently. The opposite leads to micro-management and frustrated teams who struggle to tackle new challenges, cannot weather change, or lack assurance in their decisions. When we quiet the advice monster and step into a coaching role, their accountability increases, and commitment strengthens.


LESSON 2: Mind Your Language – Questions that Build-Up vs. Tear Down


The way we ask questions has a profound impact on the outcomes of information exchange, the relationship between individuals, and the experience of the answerer. Judgment, assumptions, preferences, and perspectives can be baked into a question in a way that can stunt and hinder interactions and autonomy. Judgment-baked questions like "Why would you _____", or "Don't you think you should _____" infer preference, assumptions, and righteousness that closes down creativity and dialogue. Questions that hold solutions like "Have you considered [exact solution here]?" are really just advice-giving in question form. Each of these examples reinforces the power dynamic between leader and employee and leads to less confidence and resourcefulness in the individual.


In contrast, powerful questions can open up an individual and group towards healthy and safe dialog to explore ideas, push into their abilities to solve problems, build confidence and strengthen accountability. For example, asking "What have you already tried?" signals several things:

  1. You have confidence that they are already working towards a solution.

  2. You are curious about their approach.

  3. You want to hear from them about what is working or not working.

Asking, "What do you envision you need to be successful?" is another favorite as it keeps responsibility on the person or team without prescribing a path to the end goal. Instead, you are indicating your support for however they get there.


In this lesson, the most joyful thing for me is all the surprising responses to my questions. I have learned so much by not shortcutting or bringing in my conclusions about the people, projects, or pathways. Each time an idea and or solution arises that I would not have considered based on my own experience.


LESSON 3: Listen. Listen. LISTEN.


As an extroverted leader, this one will continue to take practice, but I have already seen it transform dynamics. I have always suffered from the silence and gaps within conversations (made worse now in a land of Zoom meetings). I can't stand the awkward pause, so I have always filled it with small talk, additional questions, and trying every clever tactic to move the conversation along. My reflex is that I must fill the space! BTW-Thank you to all who have been with me during these moments. :)


There is so much to gather and gain in the gaps. Learn to deeply listen to the story beneath the story and allow the spaces for processing, thinking, and for others to speak. In a coaching session, we are taught to match the energy level of the coachee to signal you are following their lead, never to interrupt them so they can really hear their own thoughts and ideas, and to mind the gap allowing them to fill the space during the pauses that we often feel we must fill. I've increased trust within the group, heard information I never knew before, and had an expansion of thought that led to profound action from all of these techniques. I have had to learn to sit in the silence and watch. Watch for the moment when I am invited back in to move the conversation forward. Listen for the hesitation or moment of shift and dig in to understand better. Listen for repeating language or phrases that appear to hold meaning and inquire about their significance and connotation.


As you may know, shared language and listening skills become the foundation of team culture, signaling respect, safety, and values of the individual. Without this foundation, trust and belonging are much harder to foster in interpersonal dynamics. It's also impossible to read the room, notice shifts in body language (yes, even virtually), and hone in on critical details if you are not truly listening. Worse yet, interrupting people, which layered on with lessons 1 and 2, quickly derails healthy cultures. The simple techniques I listed above uphold the structures needed for a team to thrive.


Applying the Lessons Together


There are times when I need to lean into different modes of being a leader, such as managing, mentoring, coaching, modeling, or teaching.

The challenge is knowing when to shift between these modes to meet the varying demands of leadership effectively. I use the coaching skills to even figure out which mode is needed for each moment.


Learning with the Learning Journeys team and community has undoubtedly made me a stronger leader at work and, surprisingly, at home. The same lessons I mentioned before impact how I parent. While it is easy to get swept up in the whirlwind of the morning as we try to rush out the door, I learned that asking, "What do you need to do to be ready?" is so much more peaceful than "SHOES?! Did you brush your teeth?! Where are your socks?!" I've realized this simple shift decreases the chaos of morning departures while building my kids' responsibility and autonomy. (At least some of the time!) One day they will be leaders, and while they don't realize I'm using coaching, they are picking it up. I can't wait to see how they apply this intrinsic knowledge in the future.


· How will can you take translate and apply the lessons I shared with your team?

· What difference will it make?

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