It’s a familiar tale: a small business gets off to a flying start…and then growth stalls. Sales plateau, staff morale falls and the company’s leader feels frustrated at his or her seeming inability to take things to the next level. Often, this is caused by the leader’s failure to adjust their leadership approach from a directive style to a coaching one.
Why Directive Leadership Doesn’t Work
Directive leaders take a ‘command and control’ style to running their company. They’re across everything that’s going on in the business and they make most – if not all – of the decisions.
This approach works adequately in very small businesses where the leader is also a subject matter expert. For example, when a talented accountant opens an accounting practice, or a star digital marketer branches off to set up their own agency. However, the shortcomings of a directive approach become apparent as soon as a business starts to grow.
There are two reasons for this. First, a command and control culture is kryptonite to employee engagement, and makes it hard to attract and retain talented people. Why? Because top performers want to be told what they’re expected to achieve, and then want to be left alone to work out how to get it done. Sooner or later, talented employees will vote with their feet and move on from a directive culture to more engaging and empowering environments.
The second problem with a highly directive leadership style is that it does not work at scale. Once the MD’s leadership team starts to have direct reports of their own, the clunky, slow nature of centralised decision really starts to impact performance. Issues are escalated up the line for decisions to be made, and things start to become bureaucratic. The business is unable to keep up with nimbler competitors with a dynamic, coaching-based culture.
A coaching culture: a key driver of growth
In a coaching culture, employees are encouraged to make most decisions for themselves, in the moment. The businesses leaders make sure that everyone understands the organisation’s culture and the 2-3 key goals the company is trying to achieve. As a result, whenever a staff member is faced with a decision, all they need to do is ask themselves: “Of the options available to me, which choice aligns best with our values and goals?”. In the vast majority of cases, they’ll be able to make the right call, then and there, without having to go to their manager. The only issues that get escalated to senior leadership are the genuinely major and/or challenging ones.
This has a transformative impact on the organisation. Staff feel empowered and able to meet the needs of customers. When they see an opportunity to improve a process or innovate, they are empowered to try things out. They collaborate with one another. The result?
- Motivated, engaged and high-performing staff.
- Customers that are delighted with the organisation’s sparkling service and ‘can-do’ attitude.
- Best of all, the company’s leadership team is freed up from working in the business to being able to focus on the business.
With the shackles on growth removed, the business flourishes and moves to the next level.
How to build a coaching culture
Creating a coaching culture is simple at a conceptual level, but requires focus and practice to implement. I’m writing this at a café at the Nozawa-Onsen ski resort in Japan, and I’m reminded of the challenge most people face as they learn to ski. In order to control your skis, you need to lean forward, down the hill. This feels unnatural and downright scary at first, especially on a steep slope, and most beginners find themselves leaning back when things get challenging.
It’s the same when moving from a Directive to a Coaching approach to leadership. The challenge as a leader is to avoid the temptation to always tell employees ‘the answer’ when they come to you with a question. This is the leadership equivalent of leaning back on your skis. It feels good in the moment, but it doesn’t lead to better outcomes in the medium term, because it sends a subtle message to the employee that he or she can’t work things out for themselves.
Instead, leaders should encourage – even push – their people to come up with answers themselves. One of the simplest ways to do this is to tell your people that when they come to you with a question, they should also come with potential solutions. The solutions don’t have to be perfect, but it’s important that they have taken the time to try and think things through for themselves before coming for help.
Next time a team member comes to you with a question, ask yourself: “Is it worth investing five minutes now to help this person come up with the way forward on their own? Would that make her more empowered and effective in the medium term?”
If the answer is “No”, then go ahead and tell her what to do: it’s not an opportunity for a coaching conversation. However, if the answer is “Yes”, then spend a few minutes to ensure that you both have clarity on the problem they are seeking to solve, push her to come up with multiple possible solutions, and agree a course of action with them moving forward.
There are some highly effective, evidence-based coaching models that leaders can use to help employees work things out for themselves. For longer coaching conversations, the venerable GROW model (Goal, Reality, Options, Wrap Up) – or one of the many variations on this – work well. Often a really useful place to start building a coaching culture is to use models such as RARA (Recognise, Agree, Reframe, Actions), which are designed for shorter, sharper ‘corridor coaching’ conversations.
While all of these models are easy to understand, they can be challenging to apply at first. Like with any new skill, mastery takes practice. But the results are worth it. In a world where information flows at the speed of light, and competitors can react almost instantly to new products, pricing and distribution; the one sustainable source of competitive advantage for most businesses is a high-performance culture. Building a coaching approach to leadership may be the key to unlocking employee potential and taking your business to the next level.
About the author
Revel Gordon is a highly experienced executive and team coach, coach trainer and facilitator based in Sydney. He works across Australia and the Asia Pacific region. Clients range from multinational corporates like Google to fast-growing SMEs and late-stage digital start-ups. In addition to his coaching and leadership practice, Revel is a Director of the International Coach Federation Australasia.