COACH Approach to leadership

Build a stronger team with the COACH Approach to leadership

We’ve recently redesigned a one-day workshop that helps leaders use a coach approach when leading or managing others. It’s called a COACH Approach to Leading and Managing and it’s been so successful, we thought you’d like in on some of the secrets.

Some folks I talk to are hesitant to try to “coach” their employees because they worry it requires a lot of rigorous training. Let’s start off by clarifying there’s a big difference between “executive coaching” and using a “coach approach” with your team members.

Executive coaches like the certified coaches here at Padraig have dedicated time to intensive study and specialized education with practise working with leaders. It’s our profession.

However, we help leaders use some specific coaching techniques so they can take a coach approach to leadership. You can learn these techniques quickly to help encourage and develop the best qualities of your team members.

What is the COACH Approach?

Basically, any coach approach means leaders move from telling people the answers to helping them find their own answers. We call our program The COACH Approach because COACH is an acronym for the steps to follow.

Specific steps aside, once you learn a few techniques and get in the habit of using them, your perseverance will pay off.

The two main things to remember when you want to try coaching your staff are:

  • Shift from solving problems to asking questions, and
  • Cultivate a sense of curiosity about everything.

For now, let’s keep that as the core technique – ask questions, don’t give answers, and be genuinely curious about the challenge and the person.

How does it help your leadership?

When you use our COACH Approach, your team will be affected in many positive ways. The best part? Not only do you bring out the best in them, but your leadership strengths are noticed when you have a well-functioning and effective team.

When staff are led by someone using a coach approach, we typically see some of these wins among team members:

  • They innovate – brainstorming new ideas, generating questions that lead to exploration of new methods
  • They’re self-reliant – instead of always seeking guidance or consulting the leader, staff solve their own challenges (coaching can help with figuring out barriers to success)
  • They are more confident – especially as they realize they can achieve success independently
  • They set goals – with coaching, team members will establish goals and set out to achieve success
  • They’re engaged – taking initiative, growing in confidence, and setting goals means staff are off the sidelines and contributing (not just when asked!)
  • They take responsibility – when team members are involved in goal setting and can take initiative they also own the solutions – and this means they have more accountability

Does that sound like a list of attributes you’d like to see with your team? Well, guess what? You’ll likely see that, and more, with our COACH Approach.

Over and over, we see that using a COACH Approach builds relationships and encourages effective communication at all levels. In this environment, team members are productive and work well together – which also leads to increased job satisfaction for everybody.

Adding the COACH Approach to your toolkit

So, how do you start using the COACH Approach?

The first thing to do is let the team member know that you’re thinking that a new approach might help with the challenge. If you just dive into using a coach approach, they might not know what’s happening and maybe even react negatively! If you’ve always been the boss with all the answers, and an advice-giving machine, it will be surprising and maybe uncomfortable for people when you stop doing that.

Share with the team member that you’re going to use a coach approach to help them work through this challenge. This means you’re not going to give them solutions or directions at this point, but rather than you’re going to ask a lot of questions to help them figure out for themselves what they need.

If a team member doesn’t understand how the COACH Approach to leadership explores issues with questions, all of your questions could feel like an interrogation. That’s why it’s important to be clear that you’re helping them discern what the roadblocks are so that they can figure out how to move past them.

Remember, too, that as you’re learning how to use the COACH Approach that you’re practising. You might not ask questions in quite the best way in these early days of trying these new techniques and it will be good if they know you’re trying something new.

For example, asking, “Why did you do that?” could come off as abrupt and implying blame. Asking, “Tell me more about what led you to do that?” may sound more interested and encouraging.

Here are some ideas for bringing a COACH Approach to your leadership:

  • Get the discussion started: Get clarification through questions like, “What would success look like when we’re done discussing things?” so your team members can sort out what needs to be done. They might brainstorm solutions and new approaches or what actions need to be taken. Sometimes they might realize they just need you to listen.
  • Think questions, not solutions: Remember, your role is to listen and question when you see opportunities to stimulate ideas, not to jump in and solve problems or give advice (even though that’s probably been the reality of your entire career!). Ask questions to help your team find their own answers.
  • Listen to learn and understand: Being eager to know more and curious will help you with asking questions that encourage valuable conversations. I often tell folks to silently start asking a question with, “I’m curious about…” If you hear someone say something interesting or unusual, find out more by asking something like, “You just mentioned XYZ. What else can you tell me about that?” might uncover more information than otherwise.
  • Stay quiet: It’s hard, but stifle any urges to chime in or direct things (even if discussion falls silent). As leader coach, you are helping the team uncover answers – not providing them. If you have to, pretend you’re not sure what the solution is and don’t fill in gaps in conversation because silence can be a really good thing. Let them ponder and work out what to do. You might be amazed by what they come up with when you sit through the uncomfortable silence for a while.
  • Use open-ended questions: Some questions lead to specific answers – very often yes or no – whereas open-ended questions result in unpredictable answers. For example, asking, “Were the research results good?” will likely get a yes or no answer (and many times people will answer in the way they anticipate is sought). Instead, ask, “What was the most interesting result from the research?” and you’ll get an opinion with ideas and facts; open-ended questions encourage discussion.
  • Check-in every so often: Make a point of checking in with the team member or team to see whether the COACH Approach is helping their exploration. Instead of asking, “Do you feel you’re making progress?” (the yes or no answer!), ask, “How are we doing toward your goal of XYZ?”
  • Re-establish commitment: As you’re winding down a conversation, confirm that there is commitment to solving the challenge. This could be as simple as asking, “After everything we’ve discussed, what next steps are you committed to taking?” or you can seek more clarification. For example, you could say, “I feel we’ve got to A,B,C. Would you agree?” You can also ask for further clarification, for example, what is the timeline for this or a deadline for completion.

Any time your team member is struggling, remember that using the COACH Approach will help you guide them to finding their own solutions. To do this, ask questions such as, “What would help you achieve this?” or, “What could make it easier to commit?” or, “What do you need to stay on track?”

There may, of course, be times you need to be a bit more directive. It’s fine to switch out of the coach approach, for example, to confirm the corporate deadline required for the proposed solution.

You could say, “We need to be sure that XYZ is complete by the end of the month. Can you commit to that deadline?” If you need to check in on accountability, ask, “What do you need to stay on track?” or, “What will you do to hold yourself accountable to that timeline?”

When to use a COACH Approach (and when not to!)

Add the COACH Approach as one more tool in your leadership toolkit. It is handy to have to use along with other tools, such as mentoring (sharing your experience to guide), directing (telling what to do) and teaching (telling how to do something).

Depending on the situation, you might employ other tools, like turning difficult conversations into Essential Conversations and building conflict around ideas.

With so many different leadership tools, how do you know when the time is right for using a COACH Approach? Because it helps your team members build on their strengths to achieve success, it’s best to use with a motivated team member who is ready for professional learning and growth.

For this reason, a COACH Approach works very well with high performers – especially those ready for a bit of a stretch. It is also ideal for situations that require innovation or a new approach.

Additionally, a COACH Approach can work well when problem solving is required, planning needs arise or goals need to be set. It can also work when someone is struggling with another team member and wants to figure out how they will address it.

It’s important to note there are times when a COACH Approach is not the best choice. For instance, if someone is learning a new skill. That requires teaching, mentoring or a directive approach.

Further, while a COACH Approach could definitely help with a struggling or under-performing team member who needs extra support, it is not a good approach for someone already at the point of disciplinary action.

I started today by talking about our new COACH Approach to Leading and Managing workshop.  If you think you and your team would like to try the COACH Approach, why not give us a call to explore whether this one-day workshop might work for you? It’s a great way to truly learn the techniques and get your team members supporting each other at the same time. 

COACH Approach to Leadership Journal

COACH Approach to Leadership Journal

Check out our recently released COACH Approach to Leadership Journal.  

The Coach’s Questions

What makes you hesitate about trying a coach approach? What would help you feel more confident in trying it? What would it take for you to dive in and give it a try?

You know, I always end my posts with some Coach’s Questions but rarely hear anyone’s answers. Please reach out to let me know ( or even better, make a comment below so others can join in the conversation too!