Coaching and Servant Leadership Go Hand in Hand

As many of you know, I’m a huge proponent of servant leadership, which is all about putting your people first—giving them the right amount of direction and support for the task at hand and then getting out of their way so that they can do their best work.

There is an element of coaching in every servant leader’s skill set. In fact, being an effective coach requires four communication skills that are also key elements of servant leadership. Here’s how those skills play out in the workplace.

Listen to Learn

When we think of the characteristics of a great leader, being a good listener is always one of the first that come to mind. Why? Because people appreciate a manager who cares about what they think. When you begin a conversation with someone, eliminate distractions so that you will be present and focused. Open your mind to their ideas and perspectives. Resist the temptation to interrupt—allow the person time to think before they speak. Pay attention to nonverbal clues such as tone of voice. Restate your impression of what the person said, or wait and summarize the full conversation at the end—so that they know you understand their point of view. Think of this as listening with the intent of being influenced.

Inquire for Insight

This is about drawing out ideas from the person you’re having a conversation with. Use well thought-out questions to seek information, opinions, or ideas that will help you understand exactly what the person is saying. Open-ended questions encourage communication; for example, “Can you tell me more about that?” Clarifying questions (“when” or “how”) check for understanding. Prompting questions (“what”) promote deeper thinking. 

Tell Your Truth

As a leader, sharing information can help people make decisions in the best interest of themselves, their department, and the organization. Sometimes telling your truth can be uncomfortable—but remember, people without accurate information will often make up their own version of the truth, which can be more negative than reality. Before sharing information, think: Will what I have to say help them succeed? Will this problem resolve itself if I don’t say anything? Could this information help the person avoid obstacles so that they can succeed sooner?

Express Confidence

Toward the end of a coaching conversation with a direct report, let the person know you appreciate them and have their back. Expressing confidence is the best way to build their self esteem and give them feelings of belonging and empowerment. Acknowledging people’s efforts and letting them know in specific language that they are doing a good job will go a long way toward both individual and team engagement.

Being a leader who serves and coaches gives you even more opportunities to establish and build trust with each person on your team. And here’s a bonus: also helps them get to know you better. Leadership is a pleasure when you know you are building meaningful relationships with your people.

You Don’t Have To Do It All Yourself

As a leader, do you feel like you have to do everything yourself—that you can’t count on anyone to take on some the things that need to be done? Perhaps it has occurred to you that you need to delegate some of your work. Why haven’t you? Is it because no one is ready to assume those responsibilities and you don’t have the time to train them?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s time to reconsider your leadership philosophy. Too many leaders make the mistake of thinking that they are at the top of the hierarchical pyramid, responsible for all the planning, organizing, and execution, while their people are below them, responsive to their directives. While there is nothing wrong with the pyramid as an organizational chart, thinking and operating with this top-down approach can lead managers to believe that they must do all the heavy lifting.

The key is to turn the pyramid upside down, so that your people are responsible. Your job is not to do all the work yourself, but to roll up your sleeves and provide people with the direction, coaching, and support they need to accomplish the goals you’ve agreed to. This way, both you and the people who report to you will be successful.

At this point a lot of people say, “But I don’t have time to provide direction, coaching, and support to all the people who report to me!”

Don’t worry; you don’t have to spend all your time working closely with all your people—only those who need your direction and support to develop their competence and commitment. In time, they will become independent, self-motivated, and high performing—freeing you to focus on other priorities.

We call this approach SLII®, the leadership framework outlined in Leadership and the One Minute Manager, a bestseller I coauthored with Patricia Zigarmi and Drea Zigarmi. The book teaches leaders how to set clear goals, diagnose people’s development level on each task, and match their leadership style to the development level of the person they’re leading.

Notice I said “diagnose people’s development level on each task.” Even experienced managers can fall into a trap of seeing people as beginners, moderately competent, or highly experienced. Assuming that because people are experts in one aspect of their job, they’re experts in all aspects can lead to poor performance. Most of us have areas where we’re still learning and need leadership.

For any task, people can be at one of four development levels, depending on their experience and commitment. Your job is to identify and understand those levels and adjust the direction and support you give accordingly. Here’s a brief overview:

Level 1: Enthusiastic Beginner. Appropriate Leadership Style: Directing
Enthusiastic beginners are eager to get started on a task, even though they have not demonstrated expertise. For this task, regardless of the status or tenure of the person being led, the leader needs to provide specific direction about goals, show and tell how, and closely monitor performance so they can provide frequent feedback on the individual’s results.

Level 2: Disillusioned Learner. Appropriate Leadership Style: Coaching
This level usually sets in after an individual has been unsuccessful at a new task. Enthusiasm turns to discouragement and insecurity, and the leader needs to provide direction on how to attain the goal or finish the task. The leader should explain why, solicit suggestions, and begin to encourage involvement in decision-making.

Level 3: Capable But Cautious Performer. Appropriate Leadership Style: Supporting
Once a person has demonstrated skill with a task, the leader and the individual make decisions together. At this stage people may be competent but still need the leader to bolster their confidence and motivation. The leader’s role is to listen, draw out, encourage, and support.

Level 4: Self-Reliant Achiever. Appropriate Leadership Style: Delegating
Once an individual becomes an expert at a task, the leader allows the individual to make most of the decisions about what, how, and when. Because the individual can achieve goals with little direction, the leader’s role shifts to valuing the individual’s contributions and supporting their growth.

It’s Worth the Investment Take time out of your busy day to check in with your people, diagnose their development level on each goal-related task, and give them the leadership style they need. By doing so, you’ll not only empower them to accomplish goals, you also will set them up to assume greater responsibilities. When you look at it this way, you don’t have time not to give people the leadership style they need!

Day-to-Day Coaching: The Best Way to Help People Get an A

An effective performance management system consists of three parts: performance planning, day-to-day coaching, and performance review.

Most organizations, unfortunately, devote the greatest amount of time to the third part of the performance management system: performance review. This is where manager and direct report sit down and assess the direct report’s performance since the last annual review. Over the years I’ve heard HR leaders boast, “You’ll love our new performance review form.” I always laugh because I think most of those forms could be thrown out. Why? Because they tend to measure things nobody knows how to evaluate, such as initiative, willingness to take responsibility, or promotability. When people don’t understand how to win during a performance review, they focus most of their energy up the hierarchy. After all, if you have a good relationship with your boss, you might have a higher probability of getting a good evaluation. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but it’s certainly not an effective way to manage performance.

Many leaders in organizations do a good job on performance planning and set very clear goals with their people. But then what happens to those goals? Most often, they get filed and no one looks at them until it’s time for their annual performance review. Then everybody runs around, bumping into each other, trying to find the goals.

So which of the three parts of the performance management system do you think managers are least inclined to spend time on? You’re right: day-to-day coaching is the most ignored of the three—yet it is the most significant aspect of managing people’s performance. Why? Because the most important feedback—praising progress and redirecting inappropriate behavior—happens on an ongoing basis.

In our book Helping People Win at Work: A Business Philosophy Called “Don’t Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A,” WD-40 Company CEO Garry Ridge and I discuss in detail how an effective performance management system works.

The book was inspired by my ten-year experience as a college professor. I was always in trouble. What drove the faculty crazy more than anything was how, at the beginning of every course, I gave students the final exam.

When the faculty first found out about it, they came to me and said, “What are you doing?”

I said, “I’m confused.”

They said, “You look it.”

“I thought we were supposed to teach these students.”

“You are, but you don’t give them the final exam ahead of time!”

“Not only will I give them the final exam ahead of time, what do you think I’ll do throughout the semester? I’ll teach them the answers so that when they get to the final exam, they’ll get A’s. Because life is all about getting A’s.”

I tell you this little story because it is a great metaphor for an effective performance management system. Here’s why:

  • Giving the final exam at the beginning of the year is like setting goals during performance planning: it lets people know exactly what’s expected of them.
  • Teaching the answers is what day-to-day coaching is all about. Check in with each person on a regular basis. If you see or hear about someone doing something right, you don’t wait a year to congratulate them during their performance review—you give them a praising on the spot. If they do something wrong, you don’t save your feedback for their review—you redirect them right away to get them back on track toward their goal.
  • Finally, when people get the final exam again at the end of the year—their performance review—they will get an A: a great evaluation.

After learning about this philosophy, Garry Ridge implemented “Don’t Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A” as a major theme in his company. He is so emphatic about this concept that he has been known to fire managers of poor performers rather than the underachievers if he learns the managers did nothing to help the person in question get an A.

When a performance management system is done right, there are no surprises at performance review time. Team members have stayed focused on their goals and know what a good job looks like—because their manager has connected with them throughout the year with day-to-day coaching to ensure they get an A. Now that’s performance management.

Four Steps to High Performance Teams

Most people use the term “team” loosely in business settings. Yet because so much work today is accomplished by teams, it’s important to clearly define what a team is and examine what makes a team most effective. These characteristics apply whether the team is working virtually or in a physical setting.

We define a team as two or more persons who come together for a common purpose and who are mutually accountable for results. This is the difference between a team and a group. Often, work groups are called teams without developing a common purpose and shared accountability. This can lead to disappointing results and a belief that teams do not work well.

A collection of individuals working on the same task are not necessarily a team. They have the potential to become a high-performance team but first, they need to clarify their purpose, strategies, and accountabilities.

The Characteristics That Make a High-Performance Team

Some teams achieve outstanding results, no matter how difficult the objective. They are at the top of their class. What makes these teams different? What sets them apart and makes them capable of outperforming their peers? Below are the characteristics and best practices that are shared by outstanding teams.

Align for Results. High performance teams begin by aligning for results. They work together to clarify the team’s purpose, so that everyone knows what they’re aiming for. Next, the team members define their goals, outline their respective roles, and agree on behavioral norms.

Perform Under Pressure. Another characteristic of a high-performance team is its ability to perform under pressure. When conflicts arise, issues are embraced and discussed. Team members encourage each other to express their views with candor. Because the goal is to achieve the team’s purpose—rather than to protect individual egos—team members listen with curiosity and openness rather than defensiveness.

Develop Team Cohesion. Anyone who’s watched a championship team perform can observe that the team’s members work in harmony, collaborating with one another and doing whatever is necessary for the good of the whole. No matter what a team member’s role, their contributions are respected and appreciated. Team members trust one another and hold each other accountable, which further develops team cohesion.

Sustain High Performance. The final characteristic of a high-performance team is its ability to sustain its impressive results. The team members continue to demonstrate unity by sharing leadership. A high-performance team will adapt to change and accept even greater challenges.

As you read through the characteristics of high-performance teams, it’s probably no surprise that teams like these are effective. I’ll never forget the time I was invited to a Boston Celtics practice during the heyday of Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale. Standing on the sidelines with Coach KC Jones, I asked, “How do you lead a group of superstars like this?”

KC smiled and said, “I throw the ball out and every once in a while, shout, ‘Shoot!’”

In observing Jones as a leader, I noticed he didn’t follow any of the stereotypes of a strong leader. During time-outs, the players talked more than KC did. He didn’t run up and down the sidelines yelling things at the players during the game; most of the coaching was done by the team members. They encouraged, supported, and directed each other.

The Celtics of that era exhibited the characteristics of a high-performance team. They were aligned for results, knew how to perform under pressure, had built team cohesion, and had reached a level of sustained high performance that did not rely on the coach for direction to get the job done.

When this low-key leader, KC Jones, retired, all the players essentially said he was the best coach they’d ever had. Why? Because he permitted everyone to lead, and that’s what a team is all about.

Building a highly effective team, like building a great organization, begins with a picture of what you are aiming for—a target.  Let these characteristics be your target. By benchmarking your team in each of these areas, you can identify where you need to improve to become a championship team.

Need Relief from COVID Fatigue? Let’s Revisit the PACT Model

COVID-19 had been around only a few weeks when I wrote a blog post about a life-balance model that was created by my wife, Margie. When she was studying research about peak periods of happiness in people and also the effect of extreme stress on long-term health, she learned researchers had identified a set of almost identical elements for both groups. She created a simple model—PACT—that addresses both life balance and stress reduction. Margie and I have taught these concepts for many years and we find it helps people manage the day-to-day demands of a busy life as well as unexpected stress-inducing situations.

If you missed reading the blog post I’m referring to, I hope you’ll learn all about the PACT model here. And if you did read that blog post, I want to follow up with you. It’s been nine months and you may be in a very different place today, in many areas of your life, from where you were last April. I’d love to show you how to prevent—or continue to prevent—stress from affecting your body and life negatively.

The PACT Model

The acronym P.A.C.T. represents four elements that can create both happiness and stress resistance in our lives: Perspective, Autonomy, Connectedness, and Tone.

P: Perspective

The first element that can create happiness and stress resistance is perspective—a picture of where you’ve been and where you’re going that sets the context for today. When there’s a major shift in our lives—job loss, death of a loved one, etc., our perspective will drop. And now we know COVID is one of those major shifts. Almost everyone’s life has been affected by COVID in one way or another, and we have all experienced our perspective declining, a little or a lot. Over time, many people have found this low period to be an opportunity for personal growth—but others aren’t there yet.

Viktor Frankl, a World War II concentration camp survivor who wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning, observed during his imprisonment that the people who were able to keep going were the ones who had a purpose they could hang on to—a great love they wanted to return to, work they wanted to finish, a strong spiritual direction, or even a strong desire to help others through their common experience. We can think in terms of personal or professional goals we want to achieve, important projects we don’t need to put off any longer, values we want our lives to reflect, or living each day to the fullest extent possible, even with COVID restrictions.

How about you? Have you regained your perspective or will it take some help? We all went through a lot together in 2020. Perhaps we can accept this difficult situation for what it is while also believing that better times are ahead. And we can step into that reality together, as well.

A: Autonomy

The next element that contributes to high life satisfaction and high resistance to stress is autonomy. Autonomy is a feeling of having control over your own life—a clear sense of your identity, the freedom to make your own choices, seeing your daily activities as moving you toward your long- and short-range goals. I know. Right now this is a long shot, to put it mildly.

Although COVID still has most of us feeling that we are anything but in control of our lives, we always have some autonomy. For instance, we can choose how we react to our current situation.

I’m convinced it’s easier to get through hard times if you also focus on good things that are happening around you. We have the ability to develop our skills—for example, taking a course online or learning how to meditate—to help us control where our thoughts go. And we can choose how to spend our extra time—open a good book, try a new recipe, catch up on movies or a series we haven’t seen, or play a game with the kids.

To me, the most important thing is being intentional about which messages we pay the most attention to. Are you obsessed by news reports that claim things are awful and life will never be the same? Or do you look for the articles that suggest the pandemic is the beginning of a new era of neighbors taking care of one another, parents and children spending more time together than ever before, and people around the globe working together to build a positive future?

How are you doing on autonomy? Are you regularly choosing how you respond to things? Don’t forget the story about the two wolves battling inside you—one evil and one good. Which one wins? The one you feed.

C: Connectedness

The third element is connectedness. People who report high connectedness have positive relationships with friends, family, and coworkers. You can have a highly connected experience taking a walk in nature or watching a sunset because it feels good. You can also feel highly connected having a cup of coffee on a video call with a friend or sitting in bed at night cuddled up to someone you love.

Low connectedness is when you feel like you aren’t an integral part of your environment—whether it be at home, at work, or in your community. Because of COVID, many folks have been physically isolated longer than ever before in their lives. Social get-togethers are rare or nonexistent. Work teams meet virtually. Loved ones living in different locations have to visit each other through Zoom or video calls instead of in person. And I don’t know about you, but I really miss hugging people!

Staying connected doesn’t have to be difficult, though. Maintaining your relationships can enhance the feeling of overall well-being and balance. Keeping in touch with colleagues at work, even through email or text, can improve morale and performance on both sides. Spend the first few minutes of work Zoom meetings taking stock of how everyone is doing—some teams even include regular visits from dogs, cats, kids, or babies! And while spending more time at home with your family at first seemed to be a major work disruption, many have settled into a nice routine and discovered a stronger feeling of family unity than they had before.

How are you doing on Connectedness? If you feel isolated and reaching out to people doesn’t come natural to you, jump out of your comfort zone and just call that friend you haven’t heard from in a while. I do this a lot—and most of the time people are happy to hear from me. You know why? Because they are feeling isolated, too.

T: Tone

The fourth element in the PACT model is tone. This is how you feel about yourself physically. It includes the way you present yourself, your health and energy level, and your sense of fitness—even the way you’re dressed. People with high tone generally have a high energy level, average weight, and good nutrition, and are comfortable with their physical appearance.

For people who have been working from home all these months, it’s pretty easy to stay in pajamas until noon or be careless about how much we eat. Some people who used to go to the gym don’t bother to work out at home. But I also know folks who have made huge improvements in their health because they have been at home.

How about you? How is your tone? Are you the relaxed type who has become a bit of a hermit and rarely wears anything but sweats or ventures outside? Or are you a disciplined kind of person who wakes up at your normal time, showers and combs your hair, and wears stylish work clothes each day because you want to look your best for those Zoom meetings? Maybe you’re in between, like most of us. It’s all okay—but remember, if you clean yourself up a bit, it may help you feel better.

Note: If your perspective, autonomy, and connectedness aren’t as high as you would like these days, focus on your tone. When you take a walk, you can work on perspective. When you make healthy choices, you’ll feel better and realize you are in control of your health. People who feel good about themselves are more likely to reach out to others—and that helps with connectedness. So you see, starting with tone helps the other three stress-reducing elements in the PACT model fall into place.

Following the PACT model during this upside-down season, especially if you personalize the steps to your own preferences, will help you. When you allow perspective, autonomy, connectedness, and tone into your daily life, happiness will show up more often, stress will naturally lose its grip, and you will find yourself enjoying life again. Take care and stay safe! Have an im-PACT-ful day!