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Throughout organizations today, business leaders and managers are adopting a coaching style of leadership to achieve results from their employees. At the heart of this leadership style is the ability to be genuinely curious – to listen deeply and to ask powerful questions that stimulate creativity and inspire action.

Asking questions rather than providing answers is the key to leadership excellence and success in the 21st century. Yet, too often managers stop themselves from asking questions because they believe that giving the answer saves time. That may be true in the short run. However, by getting curious and asking effective questions, managers encourage creative solutions from their teams. When faced with a challenge, asking effective questions elicits more innovative responses from team members, creating buy-in to move forward with greater energy and enthusiasm. And that is ultimately a time-saver.


What it means to be curious

To be curious means to be open: setting aside assumptions and listening to the other without anticipating the response. In essence it means being willing to not know the answer. When you are genuinely curious, you really don’t know how the other person will respond. And that curiosity invites greater collaboration. In contrast when you offer solutions, you assume that the solution that is right for you is also right for the other person. And that conveys a disempowering message, ‘I know better.’ Having a mindset of curiosity conveys a genuine interest in hearing ideas from the other; ideas that you may not have even considered yourself.


The Coaching Conversation Model

In the Coach Approach training, we teach managers a coaching conversation model to structure a question-based conversation. A coaching conversation has a clear beginning, middle and end. It is not scripted or formulaic but is a predictable progression toward desired outcomes. It consists of five steps that are not necessarily linear in nature.

  • Establish Focus – At the beginning of the conversation, it is important that you and the other person are clear about the focus. You cannot have an effective conversation without a clear focus. Don’t assume anything; make sure the focus is clearly stated.
  • Promote Discovery – Listen deeply and ask questions from a mindset of curiosity as described above. This is done throughout the conversation.
  • Clarify Gaps – This step is key to understanding where the person is now and where he or she ultimately wants to be. What is the gap that this conversation will narrow or close? What is occurring presently, and what is the desired outcome?
  • Determine Options – This includes a variety of possible options to achieve the desired outcome. There is often more than one way to close the gap.
  • Actions and Accountability – What specifically will occur as a result of this conversation? In what time frame? Having some kind of follow up is critical to insure that the plan is being carried out successfully.

Case Example

Joan is the marketing director of a clothing manufacturing company. She recently hired Beth, a marketing coordinator, to assist her in the day-to-day operations of the department. Beth, a recent college graduate, is highly creative but is sometimes late in meeting important deadlines. Both Joan and Beth recognize that this is an area that Beth needs to improve in order to be successful. They agree to meet to determine ways to help Beth better manage her time. Joan recently attended the Coach Approach training and decides to apply the Coaching Conversation Model in her conversation with Beth. Here are some highlights from their conversation:

Establish Focus

The focus of the conversation is to assist Beth in better managing her time so that she is able to meet project deadlines.

Promote Discovery and Clarify Gaps

Here are some of the questions Joan asked as she spoke with Beth:

  • What do you ideally want the outcome to be?
  • What have you tried so far? What has worked/not worked?
  • What strengths do you have that you can apply?
  • What barriers are getting in your way?

Each one of these questions illustrates Joan’s genuine curiosity and openness to eliciting answers from Beth. She invites Beth to talk about her ideal outcome, what she has tried so far, strengths she can leverage and consider possible barriers to success. What is equally as important is Joan’s tone of voice and presence. She listens without multi-tasking or allowing for interruptions. Joan’s behavior conveys the message that Beth is important to her.

Determine Options

Once Joan and Beth have had an opportunity to discuss the situation in depth, they are ready to determine the possible options for Beth to achieve the desired outcome of meeting deadlines by managing her time more efficiently. Brainstorming is a helpful skill to determine options.

Actions and Accountability

It is now time to wrap up by determining what action steps Beth will take as a result of the conversation. Joan and Beth have decided to design an experiment with an upcoming project, putting some of their ideas into place and seeing how that impacts Beth’s performance. Here is how the conversation was brought to a close:

  • Now that we’ve had a chance to determine some action steps, what’s your specific plan of action?
  • What support do you need to successfully carry out this plan?
  • What’s the first step?
  • What barrier(s) might get in the way? How will we address that?
  • By when will you complete it? How will we both know?
The Outcome

As a result of a focused coaching conversation with a question-based approach, Beth had a concrete plan that enabled her to try out some new ways to manage her time more effectively. She and Joan followed up as Beth worked on the project and made some modifications along the way. As a result, she successfully completed her work on the project by the deadline.

Managers who use the Coach Approach report that it becomes easier over time and ultimately saves them time in working with their teams. By incorporating this approach, including the coaching conversation model, managers invite their team members to look within themselves for the answers. This conveys trust and a belief that the team is creative, resourceful and capable of coming up with the answers that work best for them. There is tremendous freedom for the manager in not having to find solutions, ‘fix’ problems or have all the answers. Everyone wins!

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About the Author

Philadelphia-based leadership/executive coach Lisa Kramer, PCC is founder and president of Leading with Intention, a coaching company that partners with organizations to achieve greater business and personal success through leadership and executive coaching, and coaching skills training. For more information about Leading with Intention, go to: www.leadingwithintention.com and follow Lisa at www.linkedin.com/in/lisagkramer.