Q I would like to get better at mentoring and coaching, but find it challenging to not just tell people what I think they should do. Is there a better approach I could learn?
A: A coach approach is simple, but not necessarily easy: Switch from being an answer person to being a question person.
Many people in leadership get there because they are excellent problem solvers. However, this doesn't always transfer to being a leader who helps others develop their own problem-solving ability.
From this perspective, look at your own experience, focusing on your strengths. Odds are that you had to acquire some of your skills the hard way, and you may also have had mentors who helped you along. Think about the ways your most effective coaches or mentors interacted with you — the best move past simply teaching skills to supporting you as you learn to use them.
Now look at your own track record. Reflect on past conversations with team members, especially when you were overly directive. What was motivating you? You may have been uncomfortable with the ambiguity of not providing answers or uncertain that the outcome would be successful. You may have just gotten caught up in the fun of problem solving. Contrast this with the feeling when you've hit a balance you're satisfied with.
Moving to a more consistent coaching style requires awareness and skills.
First, be aware of when coaching is appropriate. If someone is performing a task incorrectly or doing something dangerous, that's not the time for coaching. Nor is a time when a deadline looms — you can revisit it after the fact. If coaching is appropriate, develop the self-awareness to stay out of your own way. Notice if you're rushing in with solutions, even developing some humorous ways to catch yourself: "Oops, here I am again with all the answers."
Second, have a model. One option is a comprehensive and easy-to-remember approach: I see, I can, I will.
I see: Ask questions that help your team members gain new understanding and shift their frame of reference. Think of questions that can be helpful: What's another way to look at this? What else might be going on? How would someone else view this situation?
I can: Focus on questions that elicit ideas for action. While you can contribute to brainstorming, present your ideas as options that may advance thinking, and not as directives. At first, you may need to hold back even more in order to let team members adjust to your new approach. For promising options, encourage exploration of possible barriers and ways to overcome them.
I will: The emphasis is on concrete action planning — when, with whom, what if, and how — to move ideas from concept to plan. Ask for follow-up steps with you, as appropriate. Include ways of celebrating successes, even minor milestones, to help build momentum.
Get a mentor yourself — someone who is good at this approach to serve as a sounding board for you.
Knowing a coaching approach and when to use it, and being motivated to help your team develop, will speed you down the path of a more coaching-oriented leadership style.
Liz Reyer is a credentialed coach with more than 20 years of business experience. Her company, Reyer Coaching & Consulting, offers services for organizations of all sizes.