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.

Sharing Information About Yourself

In years past, the leader was the boss. Yesterday’s leaders shared information on a need-to-know basis and personal disclosures were rare.

Since then, leadership has evolved. Successful leaders today can no longer lead based solely on the power of their title or position. They must create genuine partnerships with those they lead, based on the following fundamental belief:

Leadership is not something you do to people;

It’s something you do with people.

So, how do you create genuine connection with the people who work with you? One of the most effective practices is Sharing Information About Yourself—which is one of the fourteen SLII® micro skills I’ve been discussing in my last several blogs.

How to Share About Yourself Effectively

Like many skills, there’s a right way and a wrong way to share information about yourself in a work setting. Let’s begin with the right way.

A good start is to share your Leadership Point of View with the people you lead. Your Leadership Point of View describes the key people who have influenced your life—such as parents, grandparents, coaches, or bosses—and what you learned about leadership from these people. It also describes key events that were turning points for you and explains what you learned from those experiences. Finally, your Leadership Point of View identifies your personal purpose and values. By sharing your Leadership Point of View, people will know your values, what you expect from yourself, and what you expect from them.

It’s Not About You

Use good judgment when sharing information about yourself. Remember, the purpose of sharing about yourself is to foster a thriving partnership. It’s not about you; it’s about creating connection.

Keep the focus on sharing information that will be useful to the person you’re leading. The information you share should put them at ease and help them relate to you. Do not waste people’s time by oversharing or disclosing personal information that could make people uncomfortable.

Before you disclose personal information, ask yourself: Will this information serve the person I am leading? Perhaps you have a personal anecdote that can help someone understand why a task is important. Maybe you have a story about an error you made that can illustrate why a certain policy or procedure makes sense. It can be helpful to share your mistakes with others, so that they don’t have to learn the hard way.

It’s Okay To Be Vulnerable

As Brené Brown contends in her bestselling book, Dare to Lead, it’s okay for leaders to be vulnerable. You might think that if you admit you don’t know how to solve every problem, people will see you as weak. Quite the contrary. When you show your vulnerabilities, rather than thinking less of you, people will think more of you. Why? Because they already know you don’t know everything!

For example, my team is aware of the fact that I often don’t know how to say no. I’ve never heard a bad idea, so I say yes too easily. As a result, I tend to become overcommitted—which puts stress on me and my team. That’s why we established a system a few years ago for me to give out my executive assistant’s business card instead of my own, so she can help screen calls and talk with me about which business proposals are realistic considering my time, energy, and the team’s resources.

Did admitting I have a hard time saying no weaken my leadership? Not in the least. In fact, it led to a solution that made work easier for all of us.

So—with others’ best interests in mind—share information about yourself with your team. You’ll be building trust, strengthening relationships, and leading more effectively.

Sharing Information About Your Organization

Sharing Information About Your Organization is, in fact, one of the SLII® micro skills—the fourteen directive and supportive leader behaviors I’ve been discussing in my last several blogs.

I’ve always been a big believer in sharing information. As a college professor, I used to give out the final exam on the first day of class—and spend the rest of the semester teaching students the answers. Why did I do this? I shared this information so that my students could master the material and get an A. After all, the point of education is to give people knowledge, not to sort them into some normal distribution curve.

The Benefits of Sharing Information

Business leaders should also strive to give people knowledge. Just as giving my students the final exam and teaching them the answers allowed them to master the course material, giving employees the information they need empowers them to find solutions and make informed business decisions.

Today’s most successful leaders know how to create a partnership with the people they lead. They view people as working with them rather than for them. Managers skilled in SLII® don’t just tell people what to do; they actually provide resources and information to help people do their jobs.

When employees learn more about the organization, they can see where their individual work fits into a larger context. They work faster and smarter, because now they have access to organizational resources and knowledge. Knowing that their tasks have meaning and connect to a larger purpose boosts people’s motivation and increases their job satisfaction.

Transparency Creates Trust

Being transparent with information about your organization—even information on sensitive topics such as future business plans and strategies, financial data, industry issues, or problem areas—communicates a sense of “we’re in this together.” This kind of information sharing builds trust and improves morale. It also encourages people to act like owners of the organization, which ultimately improves the bottom line.

More and more organizations are realizing the benefits of sharing sensitive information. A study from Robert Half Management Resources found that 56% of private organizations provide at least some employees with regular updates on the company’s financial performance—a 32% increase over 2012.

Sharing sensitive information has benefitted our own organization. When the events of September 11, 2001 created a crisis in our company’s bottom line, the leadership team opened the books to show everyone how much the company was bleeding, and from where. This open-book policy unleashed a torrent and ideas and commitment to increase revenues and cut costs—and the company emerged from the crisis stronger than ever.

Information Sharing in the Age of COVID-19

Fast-forward to 2020, as organizations around the world adapt to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our new president, my son Scott Blanchard, has been living his value of forthrightness by writing weekly updates to the entire company about how COVID-19 is impacting our business. Scott candidly shares information about our company’s finances and survival strategies—and the news often isn’t pretty. “It is a cruel irony that the values I cherish are not only being tested but pushed to the limit,” he wrote in an all-company e-mail. “While I can’t foresee what will happen ultimately, I remain committed to these values and to the values we have leaned on in the business during the most trying of times.”

When leaders share information about the organization, they multiply the number of intelligent minds working to solve problems. In our own company, this has led to a revolutionary transformation from classroom to digital learning. As Scott puts it, we’ve shifted from surviving to thriving—and it wouldn’t have happened without the commitment and brainpower of our associates.

That’s why I so often say: “No one of us is as smart as all of us.”

Providing Rationale

As a leader, there’s a lot you can do to help people get things done while also boosting their motivation and confidence. We call these leader behaviors SLII® micro skills. Continuing our series about these leadership skills, in this post I’ll discuss Providing Rationale—a supportive behavior that too many busy leaders overlook.

Answering the Question “Why?”

Nobody wants to do meaningless tasks. Sometimes, without a bigger perspective, certain tasks may seem confusing—or worse, pointless. People who aren’t given reasons for a request are more likely to ignore or resist that request.

By Providing Rationale, leaders answer the question, “Why?” Take time to explain to people the reasoning behind a request, and how their work will help achieve larger goals. Give people a mental picture of what’s needed.  What will it look like if what you would like to see happens?

Creating an Environment of Mutual Respect

If you simply assign a task without giving a rationale, the person is left to guess at your reasons for making the request. That’s demotivating; they may wonder why they should bother to do it at all.

Also, assigning a task without providing a rationale doesn’t allow the person to apply their own knowledge and skills to analyze and solve problem. They’re not called to stretch and grow. Their creativity is stifled. Consequently, they aren’t invested in the result. Not only does this undervalue the individual, it also hurts the organization.

Providing Rationale creates an environment of mutual respect. When you explain your reasoning and the bigger picture, you show respect for the person’s intelligence and give them an opportunity to respect your thinking as well.

Equipping Future Leaders

In our book Helping People Win at Work, Garry Ridge writes about an experience from his teenage years that taught him the importance of providing rationale. He was working for a man named Jack Lambert, who used to repair tennis rackets:

“I remember one day watching him regut and restring a racket. It took him hours to do this one racket. I said to him, ‘Mr. Lambert, why do you spend so much time stringing one tennis racket?’ He said, ‘Garry, someone will play an important game with this racket. They’re depending on the quality of my work for the result they get.’

Garry learned early on that when you explain the reasons behind an assignment, you empower the person you’re leading to take ownership of the results. As a teen, Garry also worked for a hardware store owner, Warren Knox, who provided him with a rationale for keeping the store organized and clean: “If you expect people to come in and shop at your store,” he told Garry, “it’s got to be appealing and inviting. It’s got to provide a warm and attractive atmosphere.”

As Garry recounts: “I remember when Warren Knox’s father died. He left me alone to take charge of the store for two days. He just turned over the keys to me and said, ‘You know what to do.’ And I did. I ran the store for him during those two days. I opened the store. I made sure the product was out. I handled the money. When he came back and I gave him his keys, he didn’t question anything. He taught me how to get an A, and he knew I would be an A player when he was gone.”

So, when you assign a task or project, remember to provide a rationale, because when you answer the “why?” question, people will be better equipped to step up and make the organization a success.

Establishing Timelines

If you are a regular reader of my HowWeLead.org blog posts, you’ll know I’m writing a series of blog posts highlighting each of the micro skills (also called leadership behaviors) used by an effective SLII® leader. This time, I’m covering Establishing Timelines, a Directive leadership behavior.

The First Secret of The One Minute Manager is One Minute Goals. Similarly, the first of the three primary skills of an SLII® leader is Goal Setting. Both of these key principles are about manager and direct report agreeing on what needs to be done—and when. When setting goals, it is critical that the SLII® leader establishes clear timelines for goal achievement.

You’ve heard me say that all good performance starts with clear goals. But how do you know a clear goal when you have one? For a goal to be clear, people need to understand what they are being asked to do—their areas of accountability; as well as what a good job looks like—the agreed-upon performance standards by which they will be evaluated.

When a direct report is new to a task, the job of goal setting largely belongs to the manager. As the manager sets a goal, they establish agreed-upon performance expectations and a realistic timeline for achieving that goal. The manager also explains the method for tracking the direct report’s progress toward goal achievement and how often this tracking will take place.

Here’s an example. New hire Michelle’s manager, using a Directive leadership style, sets a goal for her to complete a large proposal three weeks from today. They schedule meetings for every Tuesday and Thursday along the way to track her progress toward her goal. Why? Because the odds of Michelle delivering a high quality proposal are greatly increased if her manager regularly reviews the project and subsequently either praises Michelle’s progress or redirects her efforts to keep her moving in the right direction. Her manager worked side by side with Michelle to set her up for success—and she achieved her goal within the established timeline.

Establishing clear timelines for goal achievement is an integral part of SLII® leadership. Keep checking here for more updates on the other SLII® micro skills!