Manageable Guides

Expert views on topics relevant to all leaders and teams.

Farley Thomas is the Co-Founder of Manageable. He is also a CEO coach and adviser. He's run global business units and functions at one of the world's biggest banks. In this guide, he shares his views on why a coaching style is important, what it is and how to acquire it.

I'm Farley Thomas, the co-founder of Manageable. For this guide, I'm drawing on two quite distinct career experiences. First, I've spent many years as a manager and a leader in a large, complex organisation. At one point, I was responsible for teams in over 30 countries worldwide. As a practising manager and leader, I became convinced about what works and doesn't work when it comes to getting the best out of teams. And whenever I did what works, the results were impressive and people felt like they were thriving, rather than just surviving or at worst, just doing time. Everyone was really engaged.

My second career experience is working outside organisations, of all sizes and shapes, from start-ups to global corporates.I retrained over many years as an accredited master's level executive coach working predominantly with CEOs and their teams to help them thrive. As a result, I'm sharing my thoughts on the importance of a coaching style, what that style is and how you can acquire it. I'm Farley Thomas and this is my Manageable Guide to leading with a coaching style.

Whether you're a first-time manager, or a veteran CEO, the case for a coaching style is compelling and beyond doubt now. Two firms in particular, Google and Cisco, have gone to great lengths to study the characteristics of their best performing and most engaged teams. Google has also scientifically studied the characteristics of the managers of its best teams, the teams that are the most engaged and deliver the best performance. The results surprised them. Top of the list of the eight original items that Google studied was coaching and a coaching style. Last on the list was technical ability. At the level of the team, individuals reported feeling psychologically safe to take risks with each other, to express their opinions without fear of being shut down or ridiculed, to bring up challenges or new ideas that were listened to rather than shut down. Managers of these teams created conditions for excellent performance and well-being. They created high levels of engagement, and employee engagement is now very well established as a driver of performance and well-being thanks to the work of organisations like the ADP Research Institute, and Gallup, the global analytics firm. They've looked long and hard at the issue of engagement, studying 10s of millions of employees worldwide. Based on their work, we can be fairly certain that 70 plus percent of the difference in engagement between teams is down to the manager. Not the CEO, not the leadership team, but the managers across the organisation. The data shows convincingly that companies with high levels of engagement enjoy a significant advantage in terms of sales, profits, customer satisfaction, product quality and employee turnover.

I break a coaching style into four Cs, each one building on the other. The first is curiosity. In order to lead effectively, I'd advocate that you're first and foremost curious about yourself. How do you tick? What are your strengths? And what are your blind spots? What's your approach to collaboration and to conflict, which will typically arise in teams? What approaches do you favour and potentially overuse? And what other approaches do you shy away from and potentially under use? What experiments can you try that will help you gradually improve the way you yourself, lead and manage others? In parallel, you're curious about each of the individuals in the team. The same questions apply, how do they tick? What are their values and motivations? What are their strengths? What are the areas that they would do well to strengthen?

If you take the time to understand the individual differences in your team, you can tailor an approach for each person that will get the best out of them. It can be tempting to adopt a one size fits all approach because it's quicker, it's easier. It might even feel fair and equitable, but here's the thing - are you the same as everyone else? Would the same approach that works on someone else work on you? I don't think so. So, it's the same with everyone in your team. They will feel amazing if they felt as if you were adopting an approach that was tailored to them. It might also be helpful to think about the difference between a pushing out of information to the team, or a telling approach, if you like, versus a pulling in of information, or an asking approach, which is far more effective and makes people feel valued and appreciated. Managers with a coaching style, favour that asking approach. They're humble, and always curious to learn and improve themselves as a leader and a manager in the interests of the team. And that inevitably involves asking questions, but not just the clichéd open questions, but powerful questions, which can sometimes be challenging, and are always thought provoking.

The next block is connectivity. Now that you know yourself and others in the team well, you can pay attention, you can be thoughtful about connecting individuals so that you can improve outcomes.

And this is about diversity in the team. It's about connecting individuals in such ways that you can improve creativity, innovation and problem solving. You can also connect the team and individuals in the team to others in the wider organisation. This could, for example, be a mentoring relationship, or a cross-team project or initiative that individuals are assigned to, so that they can grow, they can stretch, and they can spread their wings. Connectivity helps people feel like they're part of something bigger, beyond the team. They feel as if they're in a discussion about what to do and the purpose of it rather than just feeling like they're given tasks without any context. As a manager, paying attention to connectivity also improves inclusion, because you're looking across the team at those that are perhaps dominant and thinking of ways to defuse that dominance and you're also looking at people that are perhaps inadvertently being excluded or on the periphery and finding ways to bring them into the centre. You become in one way, the connector-in-chief for the team. You see your role as helping the team thrive by connecting them to ideas and each other and the rest of the organisation, rather than benefiting at the expense of the team.

The third C is candour. And in part, this is about tough conversations, which unfortunately we all tend to shy away from. But if done thoughtfully and sensitively, tough conversations can achieve amazing changes. Candour is also about something I've noticed lots of managers also shy away from, which is giving people praise and recognising excellent work, publicly ideally. Very specific, timely, candid feedback can help individuals in the team know what they're really good at and do more of that, but also know where they need to raise their game when they're falling short in some way, which we all can do. An important foundation for candour is psychological safety. This is the sense that we can take interpersonal risk. We can call things out, we can speak up, we can express ourselves without feeling like we will suffer some kind of punishment or penalty. We can take risks, and if they don't work out, we are encouraged to learn from those risks that didn't work out rather than being criticised for taking the risk in the first place. We feel respected and accepted, and that encourages us to be our personal best selves at work, rather than put on a mask which stifles us. One tip is to be curious about how psychologically safe others around you feel if you're the manager.

The fourth and final C is change. Managers are very much change agents. They're there to take the team from A to B. If there's one thing that coaching is about, it's change. Change in results, change in wellbeing, change in ambition, change in mindset, change in behaviours. Together, these four Cs' can have a powerful organisation-wide impact, especially if it's not just you, but many, many managers across the organisation simultaneously practising and improving their coaching style. If you get these four Cs' right, what will be the outcome? How will the team experience being in the team day in and day out? Here are some of the things that they do say, based on research into individuals in the best teams. They feel trusted and empowered rather than infantilised. They feel like their strengths are being used every day. They feel like they're being recognised for excellent work. They feel like they have absolute clarity, in terms of what's expected of them. They feel like they can depend on and trust everyone else in the team around them. They also feel like they're getting actionable and specific feedback in the moment that it matters. They also feel like they are being paid attention to, so that the way they need to develop and grow is encouraged. And finally, they also feel like they have a strong sense of what the team is there to do and also how that objective of the team fits into the wider purpose of the organisation.

Coaching is a complex behaviour. And I'm inspired by the parallel with language, which is another complex behaviour that we all acquire. Above all, you've got to practise. You can read all you like you can know about techniques that work, but they will not translate into habit. The only way you create habits is through practice. And there are actually two varieties of practice that are quite important. There's the kind that helps you do the real thing and then there's the real thing itself. And we often learn our most valuable lessons when we're really performing. So, I would advocate that you seek out both kinds of practice. Practice safely with peers with colleagues, but also seek out opportunities to really coach someone and make sure you don't forget to get feedback from them, which is hopefully candid, so that you can learn and adjust your approach iteratively. An important learning mechanism is learning from role models, from mentors, from experts. So, as part of your transition to a coaching style of leader, seek out individuals that are advanced in what you're aspiring to be, and tap into that natural human learning mechanism where we emulate those we respect.

Finally, learning anything challenging, and that includes coaching, will have its tough moments. There will be times when it feels too difficult, you get tough feedback, you feel stuck, you're not seeing the results fast enough and you will be tempted to give up, especially as you're a busy manager. I advocate in order to pull through that, surround yourself with some sources of encouragement on the one hand, and inspiration to keep learning and practising on the other hand. You will make it. To summarise, a coaching style leads to improved performance and wellbeing with compelling evidence for both. A coaching style is made up of four building blocks. First curiosity, leading to connectivity, then candour and all of that leads to change. And each of these can be developed through inspired, intentional and social practice. I'm Farley Thomas, and this is my Manageable Guide to leading with a coaching style.