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A Coach's Playbook for Leaders
Jim Clemmer
All organizations have access to more or less the same resources. They draw from
the same pool of people in their markets or geographic areas. And they can all learn
about the latest tools and techniques.
Yet not all organizations perform equally. There is a huge gap between high- and
low-performing organizations. What accounts for this huge gap is leadership.
Leaders develop and bring out the best in people. This dramatically expands the
performance capacity of an organization. With a strong leadership foundation,
management systems and processes, as well as technology and technical expertise,
expand to their full potential.
That's why coaching has become such a key management development topic in so
many organizations. Too many managers are bosses, technicians or even bullies.
They kill team spirit, arouse mediocrity and suck the energy out of the room. The
results are poor morale, loss of talented people and low performance.
Effective leaders, by contrast, develop people. Rather than running around solving
problems, while overflowing e-mail and voice-mail boxes suck up huge amounts of
their time and energy, strong leaders empower and enable others to solve daily
operational problems.
Of course, successful leaders also direct and control when needed. But mostly they
teach and engage people throughout their organization to reach ever-higher
performance levels.
Strong leaders don't just see people as they are. They coach people into becoming
what they can be.
Here are the best practices of leaders who provide the best coaching to the people in
their organization:
Clarify roles and goals
There's an old saying that teaches, "the clearer the target, the surer the aim." It's
common sense: We can't achieve top-level performance if we're not clear what it
looks like.
However obvious this critical coaching strategy may seem, many managers fail to
practice it. Unclear roles and goals is a primary cause of job dissatisfaction.
Effective coaches are masters at helping people set the performance bar very high
by aligning organizational, customer and team needs with the individual's personal
goals. While jobs may be shifting and roles evolving to meet changing conditions, a
strong leader will get everyone involved in a continuing process of redefining and
resetting roles and goals. Strong leaders build upon successes and string together
small wins to boost confidence about what can be achieved.
Build on strengths
Abraham Lincoln once said, "It has been my experience that people who have no
vices have very few virtues." Dwelling on our own or another's weaknesses rarely
improves them. And it sure doesn't do much for self-confidence, passion or
commitment. Like a good hockey coach who has specialty players or lines for specific
situations -- such as power plays or penalty killing -- a strong leader finds people
whose strengths most closely match the requirements of the role (and whose
weaknesses are less important) in a given situation.
Rather than defining the ideal role and trying to find a perfect person to fit it,
effective leaders find someone who meets most of the key criteria. He or she then
tailors the responsibilities to align with the individual's strengths. Strong leaders give
people a chance to do what they do best every day.
Confront poor performance
When performance problems arise, they need to be confronted. Like porcupines in
love, such discussions can be painful for both parties. That's often why managers
avoid them.
Leaders, however, know that poor performance is like a highly contagious disease.
The longer it goes unchecked, the more everyone suffers.
Confronting performance problems is generally more humane than letting the
individual and his or her co-workers suffer. An underperforming team member is
often unhappy and likely mismatched to his or her job.
If training, developing or some of the other coaching approaches don't appreciably
improve performance, helping the individual find new work inside or outside the
organization will put everyone out of their misery.
Servant leadership
So much of what is done by a mediocre (or worse) manager makes it difficult for
people to get their work done. "I am from head office and I am here to help you"
sends the snicker meter over the red line in many organizations. Too often managers
have made it harder for people on the frontlines to get their job done.
Strong coaches start by building agreement or buy-in to roles and goals. Then they
flip things around and serve their teams and organizations.
In his book, The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership, University of Southern California
president Stephen Sample writes, "If a would-be leader wants glamour, he should try
acting in the movies. However, if he in fact wants to make a consequential impact on
a cause or an organization, he needs to roll up his sleeves and be prepared to
perform a series of grungy chores which are putatively beneath him, and for which
he'll never receive recognition or credit, but by virtue of which his lieutenants will be
inspired and enabled to achieve great things."
Give good feedback
Effective leaders are effective communicators. And an essential part of this skill is
the ability to deliver useful feedback.
Good feedback nourishes growth and development. Without it, the leader as coach is
unable to clarify performance targets, develop skills and abilities, reinforce progress
or build on strengths. Strong, relevant and useful feedback shows how much leaders
care about the growth of people on their team.
A core element of corrective feedback is to objectively focus on the problem, issue or
behavior and not the person. Through guiding self-reflection or giving behavioral
observations, good coaches provide balanced feedback that helps people clearly see
what they should keep doing, stop doing and start doing.
Ask and listen
Asking and listening are fundamental to strong leadership. They are learnable skills.
Whether we choose to develop them or not depends upon our values.
Managers will claim they care about people in their organization. But their failure to
seek out and really listen to other views or ideas tells the real tale. What comes
across is, "If I want any of your bright ideas, I'll give them to you."
Many managers feel that the people in their team or organization have misguided
views or petty issues. "That's just their perception," is a common response to input
that they don't agree with. "We need to show them the reality of the situation,"
they'll often counter. Attitudes are something to be adjusted rather than probed for
underlying improvement opportunities. Weak managers often believe that customers'
perceptions are to be changed rather than better understood and learned from.
Often, internal or external partners (such as distributors, other agencies or
departments and suppliers) are classified as whiners who just don't get it.
Asking probing questions and listening attentively to the answers is a key sign of a
strong leader. Mediocre managers do all the talking. They would rather be wrong
than be quiet.
Leaders, on the other hand, listen. They know that coaching and developing people
is impossible without paying attention to others.
The old bromide, "They don't care how much you know until they know how much
you care" illuminates the base of mutual respect so fundamental to good coaching.
It has been said that there are only two types of people who thrive on being
recognized for their achievements: men and woman. We have all experienced the
incredible energy of getting recognition or appreciation from people whose opinions
we respect. We cherish notes, cards, awards, trophies or the warm afterglow of a
A common complaint of people in low-performing organizations is that they don't get
recognition and appreciation from their boss. They feel like a piece of furniture. It's a
huge contributor to declining levels of morale and self-motivation. It's one of the
reasons people leave an organization to work elsewhere.
Effective coaches understand the power of sincere recognition, genuine appreciation
and celebration. These are what provide the atmosphere of encouragement that
develops confidence and builds on strengths.
This encouragement needn't come from the leader. It can be just as meaningful
coming from peers, customers, team members and other partners.
But it's the leader who sets the emotional tone and atmosphere for recognition,
appreciation and celebration in his or her organization.

Originally appeared in The Globe & Mail, adapted from Jim's bestseller, The Leader's
Digest: Timeless Principles for Team and Organization Success. View the book's
unique format and content, Introduction and Chapter One, and feedback at This book is a companion book to Growing the Distance:
Timeless Principles for Personal, Career, and Family Success. Jim Clemmer is an
internationally acclaimed keynote speaker, workshop/retreat leader, and
management team developer on leadership, change, customer focus, culture, teams,
and personal growth. His web site is

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