Coach-Approach Leadership: 3 Steps to Make Your Teams More Effective

How can you get the people on your teams to be accountable? You can use quick tricks to fix behavioral symptoms, like being late, or you can take a coach approach to leadership and encourage your people to self-reflect so they can solve their real problems. Here are steps you can take to be a better coach.

I recently received an email with five tips to help my team get their work done on time, all the time. The tips were good: Schedule meetings 10 minutes early, don’t do “one more thing” before you leave, etc. The last tip, “trick your mind,” really hit home. It suggested changing your clocks to run ahead of the actual time so you will be less likely to be late (guilty).

These tips got me thinking about accountability, which is all about being effective. In The Oz Principle: Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability, Roger Connors, Tom Smith, and Craig Hickman draw a line where those living Above the Line “see it, own it, solve it, and do it,” while those Below the Line ignore or deny what is going on, don’t take responsibility, wait for direction, and cover their butts so no one can blame them when things go south. In other words, Above the Line = being effective; Below the Line = shame and blame. But it’s not that simple – I find that most of us live somewhere in the middle.

Here’s the question: How do we get the people on our teams to be accountable and consistently see it, own it, solve it, and do it? You can use tips like the ones in that email I received, or you can take a coach approach, encouraging your people to do a bit of self-reflection so they can solve the problem instead of the symptom.

For example, being late is a symptom, and I am guilty as charged. I can change my clocks and trick my mind to increase my chances of being on time, or I can figure out the reason behind why I am late so I can choose to be on time. Pinpointing the “why” gets to the root of the problem, which allows me to transform. This is my approach as a transformational coach, rather than a facilitative coach, helping people to achieve long-term sustainable change from the inside out.

As a leader, a large part of your role is to be a coach to your people. I call this coach approach leadership. Let’s look at three steps you can take to coach your employees to find the root of their problems.

Step 1: Play the ‘Why’ Game

Asking “why” can be powerful. The key is to keep asking “why” until you get to a point of being stumped. This means you must ask “why” at least 3-5 times to get past the symptom to the root cause. That’s where the magic happens.

So, why am I late? I am late because I am always doing one more thing. Why am I always doing one more thing? Because my schedule is so full, I don’t have enough time to get everything done. Why is my schedule so full? Because I feel like I have to get everything done right now. Why do I feel like I need to get everything done right now? Because nothing is ever enough. Why is nothing ever enough?

Good question. This is what I need to reflect on. Doing it alone is scary and makes me want to walk out of my office and see what other people are doing – this is where you, the coach-approach leader, comes in.

Asking “why” gets below the surface and brings issues to light that have been simmering and possibly manifesting in ways the employee is unaware (see step 3). It starts to build awareness of their feelings, which builds emotional intelligence. It lets the employees know that you care about what is happening and, most importantly, why it’s happening.

Step 2: Be a Non-Judgmental, Empathetic Coach

It would be easy for me to say that I am late because I am being selfish and don’t respect other people’s time, or that too many people are pulling me in too many directions. I consider those answers to be the easy ways out, where I blame myself or blame other people. “I’m just a bad person and other people need to change.” Problem solved!

Notice how my answers in step 1 did not reflect any judgment on myself or others. My answers to the “why” questions were honest and non-judgmental. In getting to the root of a problem, the goal is to help people answer “why” with thoughtful insight rather than judgment. While judgment plays a very important role in our lives, it often results in shame and blame that can stop us in our tracks. The goal is to instead build awareness and be curious. As coaches, that means the buck stops with us. I can’t be non-judgmental with anyone else until I am non-judgmental with myself. As a coach approach leader, you need to walk your walk.

Coach approach leaders are vulnerable and sit in the uncomfortable spaces with their employees. They guide employees, support them, challenge them, and hold their hands. They are empathetic. But they also do not rush to turn on the light and make everything okay so that they can feel better. A coach doesn’t think about their own discomfort because it is not about them. Coaches are able to focus their energy on their players because they have already done (and continue to do) the work on themselves. My previous article, How Transformational Leadership Impacts Your Bottom Line, is a good place to start your own self-reflection.

Many times, what is going on in your employee’s world is a mirror for what is going on in your world. Yes, it may make you uncomfortable – there is a lesson here for you, too. However, being a coach approach leader is about serving. Your employee is also feeling uncomfortable. Discomfort will lead to growth for both of you.

Step 3: Teach Your Players to Look for Patterns

Once we get below the surface, find the root of the problem, and start exploring, patterns start to emerge. As I explored why it feels like “nothing is ever enough” for me, I realized that it’s not just about being late. It is also why I have a hard time eating only one Thin Mint, or why when I dive into a project, I work non-stop until my team and I are exhausted. Never Enough is a pattern that shows up in lots of places in my life. I also identified that I have another pattern, All or Nothing, that is closely tied to Never Enough.

Your role as a coach approach leader is to help your employees understand what patterns they have, and to work with them to establish new patterns. It is important to help each employee understand how their current pattern is an asset to their game as well. For example, my Never Enough pattern means that I strive for mastery in anything I do. My team and were able to produce some ground-breaking work because of my pattern. And yes, eating an entire sleeve of Thin Mints requires mastery! The flipside of this pattern is that I am chronically late, I often over commit, and I spend a lot of time judging myself for my shortcomings.

Now you must work with the employee to identify a new pattern – if they could choose exactly how they want to behave, how would that be? This is called a power pattern. This is the new pattern that they want to live into. I have replaced my Never Enough pattern with a pattern I call White Space Is Golden. And I have replaced my All or Nothing pattern with This and That.

Take the Coach Approach

Now it’s time for the experiments to begin! This is where you, the coach approach leader, really start to build a deep relationship with your employees and work with them to say goodbye to their old patterns. Work with them to identify experiments they can try to adopt new power patterns, and empower them to do new things they may have not felt supported or challenged enough to do on their own.

Keep in mind: Your employees will not live into their new power patterns immediately. It’s like learning to ride a bike — it will take experimenting, falling, scraping your knee, maybe even cracking your helmet. It’s thrilling, exhilarating, and a bit scary.

As the coach, you will sit beside them, guide them, support them, challenge them, and hold their hand. You will be empathetic. You will be vulnerable. You will celebrate their wins, listen to their challenges, ask curious questions, and help them be non-judgmental so they can learn, be accountable, and be more effective.