How to excel at skills that don't come naturally to most people.
Over my almost 20 years as an executive coach, I’ve worked with and assessed lots of smart, experienced senior leaders. And with each assessment I did, a pattern began to emerge. I noticed that there were several important competencies that almost always are among their weakest.
This pattern is interesting because these leaders are very smart, have many years of industry experience, and are responsible for many millions of dollars of revenue and profit. They’ve been CEOs, presidents, owners, CFOs, CTOs, VPs and directors. And yet these competencies regularly show up as some of their weakest competencies.
These three competencies are their ability to coach and mentor, their ability to influence others and their ability to resolve conflict.
Why are these competencies so often among the weakest? I believe it’s because the skills necessary to excel at them don’t come naturally to most people – regardless of intelligence or experience. Here’s why these three competencies are so critical to a leader and how to go about improving each one.
Coaching and mentoring
One of the most important responsibilities of a leader is to develop the people below him or her. There is tremendous opportunity and satisfaction as a leader in developing others. By effectively developing the people around us, we elicit excellence in a number of impactful and far-reaching ways.
Study after study has shown that an important factor in driving engagement is having the opportunity for professional growth. When a person becomes stagnant, they become bored and disengaged. As a leader helps someone expand their skill set and knowledge base, they make them more valuable and more versatile.
In addition, when a leader coaches and mentors someone, they demonstrate their belief in them, their abilities and their potential, which nurtures loyalty and responsiveness. One additional benefit of developing others is that it allows a leader to groom someone to take their place thereby paving the way for the leader’s promotion.
Given the impact and far-reaching implications of developing others, it is critical to master this important function, and adopting a "coach-like" attitude and manner is the fastest and most effective means of accomplishing that.
What does a coaching style of leadership look like? Coaching embodies a number of competencies and strategies. Many of us, in an effort to help someone "get it right" (and in the name of expediency) tell others what to do and how to do it. And while this does get the work done, it does little to develop the other person, their skill set and their confidence.
The alternative - the coaching approach - is to ask rather than tell. Instead of starting off by telling them what to do, ask them what they would do and how they would do it. This strategy serves a number of very important functions.
Firstly, it demonstrates that you have an interest in what they have to say. When you listen to someone, it acts as a sign of respect because it demonstrates that you value what they have to say.
The next benefit of asking is that their answers will give you a sense of how they think. The answers will reveal their level of insight and judgment and will illustrate their problem-solving abilities.
And lastly, listening to the answers to your questions will provide clues as to how best to help them develop. It helps you understand which aspects of development they need help and guidance with.
Mastering the ability to influence others is critical to the success and effectiveness of a leader. A strategy, no matter how well thought out, will get mediocre results if there isn’t strong buy-in. A leader will always get compliance because of his or her authority. But compliance and commitment are two different things.
If people are compliant, they will generally do just enough to keep from getting fired. The consequence is that a strategy will get results, but not nearly to the level of a strategy executed by a committed team.
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How do you influence people? How do you change their perspective so you get buy-in? People “buy” emotionally. It’s true whether you’re selling TVs, cars, ideas or strategies. They buy emotionally and then rationalize logically.
There are two tools to employ in order to change someone’s perspective. They are the use of question-asking and the use of analogies.
Asking good questions is an art. It took me many years to master it, with lots of practice and plenty of missed opportunities. I’ve found that there are two sets of questions that need to be asked.
The first set of questions are those that give you insight. They are curiosity questions that help you better understand why someone sees things the way they do, thereby allowing you to effectively change or correct their perspective.
The second set of questions are those give them insight. They are questions that help them rethink things.
The second tool for influencing people is the use of analogies. Analogies are an excellent vehicle for bringing someone around to your way of seeing things. Generally, you’ve been giving the issue at hand far more thought than they have and therefore have a deeper understanding of the problem and/or solution.
Using an analogy helps people “see” and “feel” the concept you’re talking about and does it in such a way as to keep them from becoming defensive with respect to their position.
Once you’ve come up with a meaningful analogy, it’s much easier for someone to shift their thinking and their perspective.
The ability to resolve conflict is essential to a leader’s effectiveness. If conflict is allowed to fester, it erodes engagement and erodes the respect a team has for its leader.
Workplace conflict tends to arise from poor communication, unmet expectations, differing perspectives and stress. Ultimately each can be minimized or eliminated by improving interpersonal skills, setting clear expectations, shifting people’s perspectives and helping to reduce stress.
But the stage has to be set before the issues can be resolved.
The blueprint for resolving conflict starts with acting to avoid further escalation. The more frustrated and upset a person is, the more difficult it is to resolve a situation.
The next step is to de-escalate the situation. I’ve found that an excellent way to begin that process is to state the obvious. Stating the obvious means simply to acknowledge that the frustration and/or disagreement exists.
It’s often the perfect way to open the door to resolve conflict. Just by starting with, “Look… we’re both frustrated by this,” sets the stage for a resolution. It acknowledges that you recognize the other person is frustrated, it doesn’t point a finger at them and it implies that you’d like to work things out.
Once the stage is set for coming to a resolution, the next step is to understand the other person’s perspectives and or motivations. As I mentioned, the most effective means of accomplishing this is through the use of good questions.
In this case, a good question is one of curiosity about why they feel the way they do, phrased and asked in a manner that keeps them from becoming defensive. A simple example of what a good question might be is, “What am I doing that frustrates you?,” followed by, “Why does that frustrate you?”
In contrast, a question that would cause them to become defensive would be, “Why do you have to get so angry?” Once you gain insight into the underlying issues, you can work together to resolve the conflict.
Michael Beck is a Portland-based executive coach, business strategist and author of the leadership book, "Eliciting Excellence.