Advice & News

September 16, 2021

Coach, Counsel, and Cheer: The 21st-Century Version of Leadership


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Nearly every management guru has attempted to describe the role of a leader. Some would say you manage things and you lead people. A new term for 'supervisor' is 'people-manager.' And we cannot even agree upon whether to call a manager a leader or not. It can be confusing and complicated because the most valuable asset of any organization is its human capital. There is no dispute, however, that the way organizations gain competitive advantage in the 21st century is the effective employment and deployment of talent. Therefore, it is in everyone's best interest to attempt to harness this invaluable resource.

I would posit that the role of a person who has the privilege and responsibility to support the employment and efforts of others is to coach, counsel, and cheer them on. The 20th-century notion of a boss is outdated and ineffective. In today's business world, one's knowledge and know-how are the chief currency -- not one's labor. If a leader is not enhancing a subordinate's performance, they are unnecessary overhead. The average professional knows what to do and how to do it. The challenge is how to help people perform at their highest level consistently over time. This is a tall challenge.

Leaders must help their teams get better, perform better, and feel better about their work. Giving someone a performance rating is judgmental and can be perceived negatively. Similarly, traditional appraisals do not leave room for one of the most important aspects of leading: coaching. Performance discussions should be a two-way exchange of information designed to calibrate the pair's understanding, agreements, standards, and expectations of what good performance looks like and how to achieve it. Telling someone is not teaching them. Coaching provides information, training, guidance, and direction. It helps one learn and grow -- to get better.

The next role of a leader is to help their employees perform better by providing support while the game is in play, the performance is on stage, or while the planning, preparations, activities, and efforts are in motion. Criticism and its emotional baggage is a distraction in these moments. I loathe to watch coaches on television who scream at players for making errors. That is bad form, poor leadership, and worse timing. If the player knew better, they would have performed better. Or they are human and made a mistake. Correction with positive intent is far superior to criticism. "Try this" is helpful. "Why did you do that?" or "That was bad," is not. Providing good counsel - suggestions -- helps to unlock good outcomes. Focusing on the future and what can be done now is the better use of one's attention and effort.

Human beings thrive in positivity. There is an entire body of literature known as positive psychology that proves the scientific basis of this simple idea. Especially in years like the past one, leaders should be making extra effort to buttress the mental and physical well-being of their teams. Everyone is tired and haggard from the stresses and strains of a COVID-19 world with all its danger and uncertainty. A leader who provides a healthy dose of 'constructive criticism' will likely be met with a larger dose of turnover. Job number one today is encouraging, cheering on, and cheering up professionals who feel besieged by a volatile and rapidly changing workplace. Even in good times, coaches who are cheerleaders, who revel in the success of their subordinates, who shout-out and celebrate them, who call them just to say, "Thank you," "Good job," or "I am proud of what you have accomplished" are the heroes. They enable the success of others and propel them to their next level of excellence. They help people feel better about their work -- and this is what experts call employee engagement.

The role of leadership and management have changed. It is not about doing stuff; it is about empowering people. It is about building relationships. It is about coaching. It is about servant-leadership, or helping others achieve. It is saying, "I believe in you, want to help you grow, help you do better, and feel better about your work." Great leaders personalize their support and care about the success of their team. Shifting one's role from supervising to enabling future stars to achieve Olympic-type successes starts with being a coach, counselor, and cheerleader.

Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D., SPHR is the author of "Performance Conversations: How to Use Questions to Coach Employees, Improve Productivity, and Boost Confidence (Without Appraisals!)"

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