The Beauty and Magic of SLII®

Millions of people the world over know the massive positive impact SLII® leadership training has had on leaders at every level and their team members in every industry. If you’re not one of these people, I’d like to introduce you to the basics of SLII®.  

SLII® is based on these two beliefs:

  • People can develop and want to develop.
  • There is no best leadership style to encourage that development; leaders must tailor their leadership style to the situation.

Think about it—we all are at different levels of development, depending on the task we are working on at a particular time. Leaders who over-supervise or under-supervise their people—give them too much or too little direction—have a negative effect on their development. That’s why it’s so important to match leadership style to development level.

SLII® is an easy-to-understand, practical framework that enables leaders to first diagnose a person’s development level on a specific task or goal: Enthusiastic Beginner, Disillusioned Learner, Capable but Cautious Contributor, or Self-Reliant Achiever. Leaders then apply the matching leadership style: Directing, Coaching, Supporting, or Delegating—the one that has the right amount of direction and support to help the person succeed at that development level.

  • Enthusiastic Beginners have just begun to learn a task or work on a goal. They are excited about doing it—but they don’t know what they don’t know. They need clear direction from their leader on exactly how to do the job.
  • Disillusioned Learners have been doing the task or working on the goal just long enough to understand that it may not be what they thought it was going to be. They aren’t sure if they can do the job or even want to do it. They need a coaching leader who can encourage them and build their confidence through this tough stage.
  • Capable but Cautious Contributors have the experience and skills necessary to do a job well but may have times when they still doubt themselves. They need a supportive leader who has their back and is there to cheer them on and show them how much they are appreciated.
  • Self-Reliant Achievers are capable, confident, and at ease with the task or goal at hand. Their leader is happy to delegate the job to these high performers—but is always available to help work a problem or celebrate a success.

So how would this model work in the real world? Let’s start with an example from your childhood. Can you remember when you started learning how to ride a bicycle? Sometimes you were so excited that you couldn’t sleep at night, even though you didn’t know how to ride yet. You were a classic Enthusiastic Beginner who needed directing.

Remember the first time you fell off your bike? As you were picking yourself up off the pavement, you might have wondered why you wanted to learn to ride in the first place and whether you would ever really master it. You had reached the Disillusioned Learner stage, and you needed coaching.

Then came the day when you could ride your bike with a parent cheering you on. But that confidence became shaky the first time you took your bike out for a spin without your cheerleader close by. Now you were a Capable but Cautious Performer in need of support.

Finally, you reached the stage where your bicycle seemed to be a part of you. You could ride it without even thinking about it. You were truly a Self-Reliant Achiever—and your parent could delegate to you the job of having fun on your bike!

The beauty and the magic of the SLII® model is that it can be applied in every part of life that includes tasks or goals: your personal life, family life, work, school, church, community, workplace, friendly or romantic relationships, etc.

As an educator, I know the thrill of witnessing the moment when a student suddenly realizes a concept I’ve been teaching them. It’s the same feeling you will get as an SLII® leader when you meet your people where they are in their development on a particular task or goal. Why? Because leadership is not something you do to people; it’s something you do with people.

Training Plus Coaching: A Formula for Success

Several years ago, someone asked me a thought-provoking question: “What has been your biggest disappointment in your career?” After careful reflection, it occurred to me that what bothered me most was that while my books were widely read and our training programs were used around the world, people were not following through on the concepts and using them consistently in their day-to-day work.

Why not? I wondered.

When Training Doesn’t Stick

It’s not that people didn’t care or weren’t motivated to apply the learning. It’s just that, despite their most sincere efforts, what they were learning just wasn’t sticking.

People would go to an expensive training, get inspired, and vow to apply the learning. Then they would get back to the office. Soon their notes from the training would be buried under a pile of work. Perhaps they would even try to apply some of the training. But because they were not yet good at the skills, the outcome of their efforts would be neutral or even negative. The newly trained people didn’t really have time to figure out why, so they would write off the training and go back to their old, not-so-great way of doing things.

It bothered us that the investments organizations were making in training were going down the drain.

Coaching Can Bridge the Gap

We realized that to bridge the gap between what people knew—all the good advice and tools they had learned in training—and what they did with this knowledge, people needed more support.

We have found that the best way to help people retain and apply what they learn is to integrate coaching with training. We recommend enrolling participants into a minimum of three coaching sessions after a training. In each session, the coach has focused conversations with the participant to help them tailor their new knowledge to their own work scenarios.

Sometimes even the smartest students miss key insights. Madeleine Blanchard, cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services, recalled working with the president of a company who had just taken our SLII® leadership training. The program teaches leaders how to diagnose the development level of their direct reports on each goal and task and apply the appropriate leadership style.

The president was eager to become a role model for SLII® leadership—someone who knew exactly what each person on his team needed to succeed.

“Do you have clear goals and tasks for each direct report?” Madeleine asked in her first session with the president.

The answer was no. In his eagerness to master all the other content, the president had forgotten the first step in the training: goal setting. That kind of oversight is common—and is exactly why coaches can be invaluable in helping people apply what they’ve learned.

Where AI and Virtual Coaching Fall Short

Lately, artificial intelligence has been making a big splash in the training industry. Although AI technology offers some benefits, when it comes to making training stick, there’s nothing as effective as working with another warm-blooded, breathing human being.

There’s no big mystery to that. If you’ve ever done a physical fitness or weight loss program, you know how much more effective it is to answer to a personal trainer or classroom instructor than an unfeeling, computer-generated coach.

No matter how sophisticated AI becomes, a virtual coach can’t prepare people for all the variables they will encounter when they try to put their training into practice in the workplace. It can’t hold people accountable to their commitment to apply the training. And there’s no way a virtual coach can take the place of a human when it comes to acknowledging, praising, and celebrating progress.

It’s human nature to be motivated by positive feedback from others. “After our coaching sessions, people often get back to me about how they’re applying the training,” says Madeleine. “A common email I get is, ‘You are going to be so proud of me.’”

Coaching: An Investment with Long-Term Rewards

The investments organizations make in training are not intended to end when people leave the classroom. In fact, that’s just the beginning. The hope is that the benefits from the training will accrue to the bottom line over the long term.

A small additional expenditure in follow-up coaching assures that an organization’s training investment will pay dividends well into the future. If the cost of one-on-one coaching is prohibitive, small group coaching can also be effective. So, start integrating follow-up coaching with your training. You’ll be amazed at the results!

Returning to the Office: How Using SLII® Micro Skills Can Help

As the number of fully vaccinated individuals in the US increases, people are beginning to return to their offices. Many companies are using a “flexible hybrid work model” that has people working from home most of the time and coming into the office just for team-related activities.

No matter how your organization is addressing this issue, now is the time to take a situational approach to leadership. By using the time-tested micro skills of SLII®, you can help people stay on track, regardless of their working arrangement.

SLII® maintains that there is no one best leadership style. This means that the person being led needs varying amounts of direction and support depending on their development level—their competence and commitment—on a specific task or goal.

Using SLII® Micro Skills: An Example

For example, let’s say you manage a customer service associate, Jason, who has been working from home for the past year. In some parts of his job—working with customers, for instance—he shines. You’ve even received emails from delighted customers singing Jason’s praises. In this area of his job, he is a self-reliant achiever and can handle a delegating leadership style, where your main job is to cheer him on. But in other areas of his job—for example, using the company’s new software system—Jason has expressed discouragement. This is where you’ll need to use a coaching leadership style and give him more direction and support.

In a series of blogs over the past year, I described in detail the seven micro skills of Directing and Supporting leadership. Let’s see how you could apply these micro skills to benefit Jason.

Use the Seven Directing Skills

Directing skills are actions that shape and control what, how, and when things are done. These are helpful for people who, like Jason, need help to become competent in a specific area of their job.

First, set SMART goals (specific, motivating, attainable, relevant, timebound/trackable) with Jason to help him tackle the new software system. Depending on your vaccination status and office policies, the two of you might want to do this in person at the office, at least to get things started.

Second, show and tell him how to achieve specific tasks with the new software. This is the approach to take when someone is brand new to a task and you need to set them up for success by demonstrating what a good job looks like.

Third, establish timelines for his learning of the new software system. When will his learning begin? When will it be completed?

Fourth, help him identify priorities related to his work with the new software. Together, make a list of what Jason plans to accomplish and rank them in order of importance. This way you’ll both be on the same page about what Jason will be accountable for.

Fifth, clarify your roles related to his learning. What are Jason’s responsibilities? What are yours?

Sixth, help Jason develop an action plan to complete his learning. This is a step-by-step plan that will show Jason how to begin, what to do, who to consult with, and when to finish his learning plan.

Seventh, monitor and track Jason’s performance. Set up regular, 15- to 30-minute meetings to check in with Jason and see where he needs help.

Use the Seven Supporting Skills

Supporting skills are actions that develop mutual trust and respect, which increase a person’s motivation and confidence. Because Jason has expressed discouragement about the new software system, he needs help to build his confidence and restore his commitment. Here’s how to use supporting skills to give Jason the boost he needs.

First, listen to Jason. Don’t assume you know the challenges he’s facing. Ask him open-ended questions and give him time to answer. Resist the temptation to jump in. Reflect his thoughts and feelings back to him so that he knows you understand what he’s saying.

Second, facilitate self-reliant problem solving. If you find yourself thinking, “Forget it. It’ll be easier and faster to do this myself,” that’s your cue that you need to enlist Jason to step up. Help him brainstorm ways to address his problem and cheer him on as he works to solve it.

Third, ask for Jason’s input. Again, ask questions and assure Jason that his thoughts and feelings count. This will increase his engagement and commitment.

Fourth, provide rationale for Jason. Nobody wants to do meaningless tasks. Explain why the company is using this software system and how his input contributes to the bottom line.

Fifth, acknowledge and encourage Jason by giving him positive feedback on his efforts and praising the things he’s doing right. This is my favorite SLII® micro skill!

Sixth, share information with Jason about the organization—specifically, how learning to use the new software system affects all the other departments and the company’s mission. Help Jason see where his contribution fits into the greater whole.

Seventh, share information about yourself. Telling Jason about your struggles with technology, for example, can give him hope and reduce his stress around the issue.

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You can adapt the above example to whatever leadership situation you find yourself in. Remember to diagnose the person’s development level on a task and match the appropriate leadership style. The key point to remember is:

Leadership is not something you do to people, but something you do with people.

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!