The Times continues its series on leadership styles with a review of coaching leaders. "Coaching" is a very popular style and most leaders will say they use it, but the truth is often they do not. Many leaders are directive types or pacesetters who expect people to do what they’re told (or shown) to do; others are affiliative types who are quite happy having a friendly chat but aren’t nearly as good at offering firm guidance when problems need to be sorted out.
What defines the coaching style? Coaches work to understand the strengths and abilities of each member of the team and look for ways to help them to grow and develop over the long term. They talk a lot with the team members and the team as a whole, discussing hopes and expectations, then build and shape the work that they give them to meet those needs. They think carefully about who gets which assignment – it may not be who is best for the job but who it will stretch, who will grow with it.
An example from when I started as a soccer coach with under -9 girls was when I asked the girls initially what positions they played and then proceeded to put them where I thought they would do better and learn more. One girl told me she had always been a defender (she was very tall and strong for a nine year old); I put her as goal keeper because I saw that she had great courage and was ready to take risks. I could teach her how to catch but I could not teach her how to be brave; the combination would then be very effective. However, I discovered that that fearlessness started to dissolve (not so unnatural for a young child) when the other team scored and she felt that it was her fault, no matter how hard I and others said "there were 10 other players out there to stop the shot". I then put her as a striker, where her speed, courage, and risk taking soon transformed her into a phenomenal goal scorer and that is where she played most of the rest of her career through to high school varsity level (where she also became an excellent lacrosse player). This same process meant that players accepted the principle of learning to play all positions and developed in new positions as they changed physically and mentally, and sometimes during a match. The sweeper on my team was the smallest player by far, but amongst the most intelligent, eventually going to a school for gifted mathematicians and scientists.
People tend to like working for this type of leader but this doesn’t mean that they’re a soft touch--it's not about being nice. It has to do with facing challenges. The Times uses the example of Gordon Ramsay (the chef): he thinks about people’s vision for their restaurant and helps them to reach their goals; most of the time he does very little cooking himself.
Coaching can be "harmful" when used with a team that lacks confidence, drive or ambition. My girls soccer team became very hard to coach when they reached mid-adolescence (around the ages of 13-14) and their focus shifted to boys and getting to high school, but when some also wondered if they would quit the sport to do other activities.
If overused coaching can lead to the development of talented, capable staff whose ambitions and skills do not align with those of the company; it can also create a pleasant working environment that is supportive of individual development needs. In truth, it’s hard to overuse because it’s one of the most effective long-term styles, but it needs to be complemented by other elements.
When working for a coaching leader avoid not knowing how you want to develop your career in the organisation, and being unable to take feedback in a positive spirit. With that in mind, I tried to develop what I called an "incentive sandwich" to make feedback easier to stomach, so to speak. Better to say "What you did was alright, but it would be much better if..." [neutral plus positive], than "That's not right. You need to do this." [negative plus negative]. You need to remember that it's only in maths that two negatives make a positive.
You can impress a coaching leader by doing some self-analysis and being very clear about your strengths and weaknesses. "Do you understand what you were trying to do and do you understand why it did not work?" are two useful questions.
My favorite coach and coaching leader is Tony Dungy (head coach of the Indianapolis Colts since 2002). He became the first black head coach to win the Super Bowl in 2007. Prior to that, between 1996 and 2001, he was the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He has honed his style with a strong Christian religious base (see video clip). This helped him weather the tragic death by suicide of his teenage son, James, in 2005. One of his impressive remarks is "give someone the encouragement they needed", and he believes it's important to have an impact on one person at a time.
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