As a new parent, I am increasingly getting sucked into the polarizing debate on how to best raise children these days. Should I adopt the more heavy-handed “helicopter-parenting” model, or should I run with the lighter-touch “free-range parenting” approach?
Coincidentally, as a leader who is driving change in a large organization, I face a similar challenge — I have to negotiate the fine line between being a “helicopter” leader and a “free-range” leader. I know that I would disempower my team if I micro-managed them, and I would most certainly turn into a people manager if I disengaged from the details of the content.Neither of the two options aligns with who I aspire to be as a leader.
What if it was not about choosing between being heavily involved and being completely hands off? I have had some success resolving this tension by thinking of each interaction with my team as an opportunity for, what I like to call, micro-coaching. If you think about it, micro-managing is ultimately about retaining control over the team’s outcomes; whereas, micro-coaching is about getting your hands dirty alongside your team with the intent of growing them so that they can get to the best outcomes. You may think that this is not a scaleable model; however, I have found that investing in your talent early and often will actually help you scale fast without comprising quality in the long run.
Here are some micro-coaching principles I have put into practice when working with my team.
Teams are closest to the content, so honor their expertise. As a coach, you need to lead with open-ended questions to rapidly catch up with where the team is. It means that you, as a leader, are willing to ask seemingly dumb questions. By doing so, you not only better understand the foundational assumptions the team is making, but you also show up as a vulnerable and safe thought partner who is in service of the team. As Intuit’s CEO Brad Smith always says, “as leaders, we work for the team, not the other way around.”
ELIMINATE THE NOISE
In their pursuit of getting to the best solution, teams often get too close to their content area and become myopic. Your job is to help them see the forest for the trees. As a coach, you should keep the bigger picture in mind and help the team sort through the noise, whether the noise was created by various stakeholders or self-inflicted by the team itself. There is something very liberating for the team when the coach maniacally helps them focus on what truly matters. It’s not about you narrowing on the final solution, but rather about helping the team let go of unnecessary information that might be causing analysis paralysis.
A very effective way of eliminating the noise is helping the team reframe the challenge at hand. Oftentimes, teams find themselves solving for an apparent tension between two different ways of looking at the problem. Your job as a coach is to help them see a third way that breaks frame and helps them unlock new creative ways of viewing the challenge. I have found that provoking the team to think of analogies or metaphors prompts them to think differently.
ASK FOR A SOLUTION
This one might be a little controversial amongst design thinking practitioners since we don’t like to jump to solutions too early. Many teams get stuck at the synthesis phase of the design process, at which point they need to extract key insights from their vast learnings and answer the ultimate ‘so what?’ question. I have seen many teams getting overwhelmed by the task of synthesis, leading them to question themselves and everything they have learned in the process. When I see teams doubt themselves, I know it’s time to intervene. In these situations, I often ask for 30 minutes of the team’s time to do what I call a gun to your head exercise, which essentially requires each team member to quickly craft the overall narrative of what they have learned and what is their conclusion (the so what?). Once everyone shares their narrative, the team quickly sees that they are collectively closer to the solution than anticipated. Of course, this exercise does not get you to the final solution, but it dramatically accelerates the team’s progress towards the solution and helps them trust their intuition again.
HAVE SKIN IN THE GAME
Being a coach is not a role that should be taken lightly. The coach not only helps the team stay true to the vision of the work, but is also there to protect the team from organizational hazards. We all know the usual suspects — too many stakeholders with different opinions, not enough resources, and compressed timelines just to name a few. The team needs to know that you have skin in the game and that you will be part of the team in good and bad times. You own the outcome as much as the team does. In other words, you cannot disassociate yourself from the work if things go wrong. I always like to compare my role to a coach in the NFL or the NBA. Who is the first person to get fired when the team does not perform well? The coach is. The team needs to know that you are part of the team.
I’d like to leave you with a quote I once heard from an inspiring leader I worked with — I believe he was quoting Coach Krzyzewski. It went something along these lines:
“You know you are not a team when you blame each other. You know you are a team when you save each other.“
I hope these principles will inspire you to try new ways of working with your teams. Micro-coaching has been a key component in helping us build a strong team while generating high quality, actionable content that the team can be proud of. I really encourage leaders to put on the coaching hat (and a whistle if you want) and give yourselves permission to strike the right balance between being a “helicopter” leader and a “free-range” leader.
Would love to hear from you about other coaching tips that you have tried with your teams. While you’re at it, throw in a couple of parenting tips, I could use it 🙂