As an executive coach and founder of Liveauthentic Coaching, Vanya Lazarova partners with CEOs and leadership teams in the Startup and VC ecosystem, on their journey of scaling their culture and organizations. She has lead training sessions at companies like Wework and Techhub and served as a mentor at startup accelerators like Plug and Play and Founder Institute.
At the beginning of my coaching career, I’ve met many people suffering through day-to-day life at their workplace. Unfulfilled, unmotivated, feeling like a cog in the wheel, and looking for something meaningful to do. Professionals with extensive corporate experience in big companies were looking for help to design a life of purpose, where they’d feel what they did matter. By getting clear on what was truly important to them and creating a plan together, most of them ended up becoming entrepreneurs.
We know that today people want more from their work, than a paycheck and benefits. Working in the startup ecosystem, I follow the trends in the workplace, as I speak with CEOs and people leaders. Employees are more interested in companies that provide opportunities for growth, meaningful work, purpose, social responsibility, community, learning and development, connection, and freedom to be who they are.
HR and people teams are creating more and more programs that are serving these needs. From learning and development, wellbeing and DEI initiatives to coaching and leadership development opportunities for everyone in the organization.
Traditionally employee engagement and performance have been a responsibility of the people and culture team, however in reality we should agree that managers create the most direct impact.
They’re extremely vital for the success of the organization. We’ve all heard the popular saying: “Employees don’t leave jobs, they leave managers”. Then wouldn’t it be valuable to help managers develop the approach needed to create the best possible environment for their teams to thrive in?
This new workplace paradigm requires managers to raise the bar. They aren’t only responsible for business outcomes and goals, directing and managing their teams, but they now have to take the role of a leader and a coach. Someone who can motivate and inspire, build trust-based relationships, and create a psychologically safe space for the team to work and grow.
This isn’t easy, as unfortunately, even experienced managers don’t really receive training or coaching to develop such skills. Another typical situation we see in startups is managers being promoted, based on great individual performance. Once at a leadership level though, they have a challenging time rising to fulfill all the roles required from them.
Let’s look at what coaching is and which skills are essential for managers.
Coaching is a unique transformational modality. Professional coaches are equipped with a set of skills and competences that unfortunately aren’t taught in school. With these essential skills, a non-judgmental and holistic approach, coaches support people to get powerful, measurable, and long-lasting results.
In 2008 Google conducted a study with more than 10,000 managers to find out what makes a great manager. They called it “Project Oxygen” and, over time, identified the 10 behaviors that Google’s best managers share.
Being a good coach was listed as number one. Knowing how important this is, Google has launched training programs and implemented coaching at every step at an employees’ career development.
Here’s how the international coach federation describes it: “Coaching is partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”
Beyond the traditional manager skills and capabilities, here’s a look into what I believe is essential for managers to master from the coaching toolkit.
Something important to remember is that the foundation of this work for the coach, as well as for anyone who would like to develop and practice this craft is self-awareness. It’s always the first step. Without understanding your own psychology and inner world, it would be hard to relate to others deeply. Working with a coach or a therapist, practicing breathwork, meditation, journaling or other introspective modalities could put you on the right path to developing your self-awareness. Working effectively with people, building relationships, and truly impacting someone requires building capacity for a deeper connection with yourself and those around you.
1. Co-creating relationships with your team.
In order to be highly effective as a manager and hit your company goals, you should work to understand people’s strengths and passions. Start demonstrating respect for the employee’s perceptions, learning style, and personal being. Coaching implies trust and understanding on a deeper level, which requires to really spend time getting to know people and develop these relationships.
2. Effective communication is key: It requires active listening and powerful questioning.
It’s extremely important to be fully present with the person, drop any agenda, and just listen. When we create space for people to feel heard and seen, we immediately create a connection. All we need as human beings is to truly feel seen and validated for who and what we are. We can achieve this by listening to understand versus to respond. In a busy and dynamic environment, it is often difficult to stay present and truly listen, without already crafting an answer in the mind. Try to practice staying present and active while listening.
Asking open-ended, powerful, and clarifying questions is another communication skill to master. When I went through my coach training, I focused so much energy to reshape how I asked questions. We had to completely exclude questions, which required a “yes” or a “no” answer. This is important because we want to encourage people to think on their own and come up with their own answers. In coaching we believe that the client always knows the answer, therefore we don’t give advice.
As a manager you don’t always have to know all the answers, you might not want to take the role of an expert. Even if you know what’s right, you don’t necessarily need to help right away. Trust they have the capacity and answers and help them get to them themselves. To be able to encourage employees to take ownership and responsibility, you have to ask them powerful open-ended questions, to help them come up with solutions. Of course, many situations require straight advice based on experience. In such times, the manager directs the report as necessary.
Communication is a two-way street and it requires both parties to be active. Require asking clarifying questions and check-in for complete understanding. If someone isn’t performing well, that might be because expectations weren’t clear, to begin with. There’s often a problem with expectations, therefore focus on getting buy-in. Try to come to a place of agreement with your team. Agreements are consensual. They’re based on everyone being clear on what needs to get done, how success looks like, and agree on how they will get there.
Once you get to an agreement on what they’re going to be accountable for, focus on the end results. This is not only what matters, but it also gives people autonomy and freedom to go and do the work the best way they can. A lot of managers focus on activity and tracking hours of work, which isn’t effective. Instead, learn to effectively implement OKRs, rocks, or other goal-setting framework, which allows for a clear way of measuring and tracking success. If you get your goal setting right, then you just check-in along the way and avoid micromanaging.
3. Focus on curiosity and inquiry.
We’re often too quick to judge and find who’s to blame. As human beings, we have a strong negativity bias that we can overcome by practicing curiosity. Try to focus on what’s right. Be curious about what’s going great, what are you grateful for, what’s to be celebrated? We can learn to train that muscle more and more in the workplace. The more we do it, the more we shift our whole mindset to see and focus on solutions vs problems. We experience many failures at work, miss deadlines, deal with product issues, mistakes, frustrations, etc. Try not to judge the situation and people right away, but instead try to understand what’s going on and help find a solution. Asking more questions and challenging our own assumptions will help us become more objective and make better decisions. More curiosity leads to less reactivity.
4. Cultivate your emotional capacity.
Unfortunately, most people are used to subtracting their emotions to bite-size. Somehow we became afraid to express and deepen our feelings, especially at the workplace. We perpetuate the notion of our inner life being irrelevant when it comes to our careers. We seem to be afraid to deepen our feelings, to embody our own aliveness. We perpetuate a collective numbness and exclude our most human aspect- being able to feel our feelings freely and be in tune with others. We fear closeness and in turn create a false sense of autonomy. The truth is that we’re interconnected, we need each other. This is what truly matters. The more we allow the whole human being to show up with all its complexity and rawness, the closer we get to help them step into their potential. And in turn, they contribute more to the company.
Care for people. Truly. Awaken your empathy and compassion and keep people accountable at the same time. It may seem like a paradox, but it’s important to show your team you truly care about their growth and development. This is the reason you want them to be accountable for their roles and strive to achieve great results. In “Radical candor”, Kim Scott talks about the ability to be direct with people when giving feedback, by making sure they know your intention is rooted in kindness. In coaching, we ask for accountability and agree on ways the client will keep their commitments. If we want to create a real culture of growth, we need to look even beyond feedback. Conventional feedback is past focused, it provides information about past activities and performance. There’s a future-oriented conversation you could have with your team, called feedforward. It’s best implemented in real-time. The coaching skill you can use here is simply noticing.
When pointing out areas of improvement as you go, instead of waiting for the annual performance review you help your reports increase their own self-awareness and become more effective in learning how to improve. The brain learns best when in action, so the more immediate the feedback, the better. From there, would be easier to design and implement a step-by-step plan for improvement.
5. See people’s potential
Our ability to see the greatness in people is one of the most important skills we can develop. The way we see people has a tremendous impact on them. When you truly believe in someone, they become motivated to naturally do their best to step into their highest self. This could absolutely unlock someone’s potential. It could push them to want and do greater things. Believing in someone and holding a big vision for them is powerful. With the right support and environment, people are able to reach new heights.
Organizations could be agents of transformation if they truly adopt a coaching approach. Through challenging and supporting their people to grow, managers can not only achieve their team objectives but strengthen their culture and truly create a powerful, one of a kind work experience.
To create a true learning organization and culture, managers should invite more and more of the coaching approach and balance it with the typical directive style. This requires training themselves to think in new ways about their role and value as a leader. As workplace coaching usually takes place either in brief exchanges or the weekly 1:1’s, it’s good to use certain questions to help focus the conversation on getting results and creating action.
Helpful questions to use are: “What would you like to walk away with when we’re done with our 1:1?”; “What really matters here”, “What have you already thought of?”; “What’s another option here”; “If you had a magic wand, what would you do?”
When more managers start shaping interactions in such a way, asking great questions, working as they’re not the expert, and building strong relationships with their teams, you’ll know you’re transforming into a growth-oriented organization.