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Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular won the 2020 Warren Bennis Prize for their article "The Leader as Coach." The prize honors the previous year's best Harvard Business Review article on leadership and is presented jointly by HBR and the USC Marshall School of Business. 👉https://trib.al/XPrBWKT
It was gratifying to see this announcement on my LinkedIn feed a few weeks ago. I had spent the formative years of my career in corporations laying the building blocks for this transition. I was on the frontlines of US manufacturing in the 1990s, implementing team-based approaches to management and work. I was in corporate headquarters in 2000, creating leadership curriculum and performance management systems to influence the shift from command and control leadership to coaching-based leadership. I was a pied-piper, luring the up-and-coming leaders while trying to overcome the reality of the leadership style from the top of the organization. Now, 30 years later, there was evidence that the shift was taking hold.
So what does it mean to lead as a coach? In the conclusion of their article, Ibarra and Scoular define the coach's job as follows: "to draw energy, creativity, and learning out of the people with whom they work." It sounds simple enough, and yet when you begin to recount your own stories of your bosses, most describe traditional command-and-control practices. Ibarra explains why by sharing her experience in the classroom using a role-play scenario in which a direct report is underperforming.
"When presented with this scenario, nine out of 10 executives decide they want to help their direct report do better. But when they’re asked to role-play a coaching conversation with him, they demonstrate much room for improvement. They know what they’re supposed to do: “ask and listen,” not “tell and sell.” But that doesn’t come naturally, because deep down they’ve already made up their minds about the right way forward, usually before they even begin talking to the employee. So their efforts to coach typically consist of just trying to get agreement on what they’ve already decided. That’s not real coaching—and not surprisingly, it doesn’t play out well."
Unfortunately for all of us, human psychology and years of training work against us. Here is what I mean.
We learn to listen from a young age. We practice through interactions with our parents, then our teachers and friends. Our early listening focuses on rules and compliance so that we stay safe and out of trouble. As we grow, we use listening as a learning tool. Our classroom learning model centers on students hearing teachers impart knowledge which they are to store and regurgitate at a later time. Students, called upon during class, demonstrate their listening by answering the teacher's questions accurately. Behavioral conditioning, which pairs listening with being right, begins, and is reinforced for over a decade. As we mature and learn to express opinions that differ from others around us, we focus more on what we want to say (and why we are right), and our listening skills take a back seat.
Coaching in the context of leadership, however, requires more profound levels of listening, as shown in the picture below.
The most commonly practiced is habitual and factual listening because of the reinforcement loop described above. This conditioning is so ingrained in our thinking and actions that it requires intentional focus to overcome.
To move to the next level, mindful listening, the intention shifts to creating a meaningful connection with others. It requires us to let go of being right and open ourselves to hearing and appreciating a perspective that differs from our own. The conversation broadens beyond tasks and makes space for the expression of emotions without fear of judgment or reprisal. Management and leadership training from the late decades of the last century taught active or reflective listening skills. These focused on naming emotions expressed verbally or non-verbally, paraphrasing what the other person said, and asking questions to test your understanding and solicit further details while suspending your judgment or desire to jump in with a fix. The point was to be fully present and convey that you heard the other person. Stephen Covey coined this Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood in his 1989 book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
The deepest level, generative listening, is the domain of real coaches. It requires the listener to believe that potential and possibility are a wellspring to be tapped within others. It completely flips the script from the solution giver to the solution seeker. It requires faith that the answer lies within the wisdom of the group and puts the responsibility on the leader to create the conversational conditions necessary to allow it to emerge. The generative listener takes cues from what is said, and also what is not said, to ask probing questions that uncover ideas and connect thinking in new ways that energize and formulate a future that is co-created.
Right now, many of our work habits have changed as our offices have moved into our homes. This disruption, however, also creates favorable conditions for retraining our brains and adopting new practices. If you are a leader, this is the time to become a better listener. Your staff needs safety to discuss their grief, fear, and uncertainty. Your company needs the collective wisdom of their employees to chart the path forward. You have the opportunity to build new leadership muscles and emerge from COVID-19 as a stronger leader. You have it in your power to make these possible by shifting your intention and sharpening your listening skills.