IT leadership: 8 ways to be a great coach

Great leaders are all about empowering others to be their best. Consider this expert advice on how CIOs and IT leaders can do just that
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Are you driving a digital transformation today? Leading multiple agile teams to deliver new digital products and services? Designing new business models with your fellow senior executives and client partners? Seeking your next promotion?

If you are, then one of your most important leadership roles should be regularly coaching your staff to achieve consistently higher levels of performance. Here’s why that’s essential, and some advice on how to do it.

Why you need to be a great coach

The day you were promoted to manage a team of managers was the day your job ceased to be managing technology. From that point on, your job has been to inspire and enable the members of your teams to be their professional best every day, and to become better and better each day.

Leadership today is not about solving problems or delivering solutions – it’s about helping the rest of your organization do that. And the primary approach to make that happen is coaching.

Leadership today is not about solving problems or delivering solutions – it’s about helping the rest of your organization do that.

If you are not coaching your people to improve their performance every day, then you and they will quickly become overwhelmed by the complex challenges you all face. In their book, The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey, Ken Blanchard and company point out that when a person goes to their boss with a problem and the boss agrees to do something about it, the monkey jumps off their back and onto the boss’s. In order to achieve their own priorities, managers need to give back other people’s monkeys and let them solve their own problems. Coaching is the best tool for doing that.

How to be a great coach

1. Ask… don't tell

While you may know an answer, you may not always know the best answer. Cultivate a practice of asking your colleagues for their ideas before sharing yours. You may not only come up with better solutions to problems, but you will also help your colleagues build their skills.

[ Read also: 9 must-read books to make you a stronger communicator and  10 leadership books to stretch your skills in 2021. ]

2. Be vulnerable

In her review of the book The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier, Brené Brown, author of Rising Strong and Daring Greatly, wrote, “It takes courage to ask a question rather than offer up advice, provide an answer, or unleash a solution.” Modeling that it’s OK not to know something and to work together to figure things out creates a safe space for experimentation, learning, and innovation.

3. Express curiosity

Mark Twain once said, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” Be more curious about what could be true and learn to question your long-held assumptions.

4. Embrace ambiguity and discomfort

Enhance relationships and engage more fully with others via dialog. This means leaving space in your conversations for others to share what’s on their minds and making it easy for them to do so.

5. Focus on the why rather than the what

Team members who understand and emotionally connect with the rationale for any objectives – why it’s important to the organization and to them – feel inspired rather than manipulated and will do all they can to creatively support and implement the target.

If your teams are not making some mistakes, they are not taking enough risks.

6. Recognize and reward calculated risk-taking

If your teams are not making some mistakes, they are not taking enough risks. While it is certainly required that your systems of record are at least 99.99 percent accurate, your systems of differentiation and systems of innovation (per Gartner’s Pace-Layered Model) are best developed with agile product management methodologies.

This means creating a set of hypotheses for each user story and testing them out in one or two sprints that deliver new working code that is then tested by users. Per the scientific method, a successful experiment is one in which we learn more about our hypothesis. It does not require that we prove that the hypothesis is correct.

For example, we can maximize our batting averages by hitting singles. But to hit home runs, we need to take bigger swings at faster pitches, which means striking out more often. This means creating a culture where it’s OK to strike out from time to time and not always get it right.

7. Respect and leverage diversity

If you force every one of your team members to be mini-me’s, your teams will only be as strong and creative as you are. You can’t know for sure the best behaviors for capitalizing on every situation, nor can you force others with different world views to act just as you would in a similar situation.

We all have the potential for greatness within us. Great leaders look for the unique perspectives and skills others can bring to bear on any issue and, as part of speaking with rather than speaking to, draw on that diversity to enhance the team’s performance.

8. Rethink your role

Take your lead from the great coaches in the world of professional sports: These men and women are not the best golfers, quarterbacks, or home-run hitters. Rather, they are compassionate professionals with a deep understanding of the sports they coach, who care deeply about the success of the people that they coach and about bringing out the best in them in the most efficient, respectful way.

When you show up as a coach you will maximize the capacity of your teams to deliver value to your organization while also creating and maintaining a culture of growth and inclusion that everyone wants to be a part of.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Bob helps IT managers and teams get more done while improving user relationships and reducing organizational conflict. He provides online training as well as group and 1:1 coaching programs that get problems solved fast.