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Focus on Leadership: Leader Job #3: COACH - Building Engaged People
By Kim McKinnon, PhD

Author's note: this is the fourth in a six-part series focusing on some of the latest things we know about effective leadership - recent research, best practices and a specific approach leaders can use to improve their own effectiveness.

I was terrified! My fourth grade teacher had "invited" five "volunteers" (including me) to go to the chalkboard. Typically this process involved writing two of the 'answers' from last night's math homework on the board for others to view. For those who did not fit into the 'math whiz' category, this wasn't a happy experience. Fortunately for me, this time it was different. Instead of instructing us to share our expertise in math, Ms. Thomas said that we should each "write the name of your favorite movie star" on the board. I was jubilant - no math! This momentary victory was quickly followed by another moment of panic when I struggled to think of a 'movie star' in the no-DVD, few television re-runs and even fewer first-run movies that came to Mesa, Arizona in 1965. And then….in a moment of inspiration … it came to me. I quickly, but neatly, wrote the name of my "star" and was rewarded as I turned around to see that almost all my fellow classmates had listed the very same name.

This actor wasn't a mere ... actor; he was a genuine "hero." And although he played different kinds of roles, he was most famous for being the ultimate westerner / rancher / cowboy / sheriff / rescuer / fast-draw specialist/tough fighter - all rolled into one. He was, of course, 'the Duke" - sometimes referred to in the regular world as John Wayne. And mixed in with all the roles mentioned - he was the ideal "hero leader" - a person who knew all the answers and did not need any help from others to be successful in the various plights with which he was faced. In fact, many of us learned our beliefs about leadership from following his example - we saw that this approach ("do it yourself because you are more capable than others") worked time after time after time.

The problem, of course, is that Mr. Wayne was not a true "hero" - he was an actor; he was really just a man, playing the role of the ultimate westerner / rancher / cowboy…. you get the picture. Another problem was that our assumption that his "do it yourself" leadership style was 'the correct' style, wasn't just incorrect - it was really a recipe for becoming a very poor and very ineffective leader, especially in the brave new world we live in today.

Our topic in this edition of "Focus on Leadership" is the responsibility the leader has to be a great "Coach" - a person who helps others do their best work. Of course, this is the third of five key leadership roles we've titled, "The Fundamental Five." We've described them as follows:
Guardian - establishing trust
Navigator - clarifying purpose
Coach - building engaged people
Architect - strengthening teams
Revolutionary - leading change
The role of the coach - the leader who works with people to help them do their best work - has been summarized in recent years through the term 'engagement.' We've come to define an engaged employee as a person who is 'actively involved in meaningful work.'

While we'd like to think that most leaders are 'coaches' in the way they interact with their employees, experience tends to tell another story. In fact, we find most of our experience, research and wisdom from the experts with the opposite point of view. A few years ago, even noted management Guru Peter Drucker observed:

"Ninety percent of what we call 'management' consists of making it difficult for people to get things done."

And though Dr. Drucker was kind of joking, he was kind of serious as well.

The work of Buckingham and Coffman in their book, First, Break All the Rules provides research evidence which is consistent with Drucker. Their research separated employees into three categories - "engaged," "not engaged," and "actively disengaged." Unfortunately, their results for US workers were as follows:
Engaged - 26% (actively involved in meaningful work)
Not Engaged - 55% (going through the motions of work)
Actively Disengaged - 19% (actively working - to "not work")
These findings - confirmed with follow-up research - shows that about three-fourths of workers in the United States reported feeling not very involved in their work. Although specific numbers varied a bit for other countries, the overall results were the same - most people do not feel engaged.

In order to address this widespread dilemma, it's important to understand two very important categories of information:
What Not to Do
What To Do
Here's what you need to know - and do - in each of these areas.

What Not to Do - "Dumb Practices which Dis-engage Employees"

Two popular (but terribly ineffective) practices which emerge again and again - and seem to be quite common among those who are new to the leadership role - can be summarized as follows:

Dumb Practice #1: Be sure to keep the really interesting or important projects for yourself

Consistent with their old role of being a "doer" (not a leader), some leaders horde the good work for themselves - sending an "I'm not confident you can do the work" message. Of course, the leader's job is not to do the work - but to get the work done through the efforts of others. This practice results both in less engaged employees and an ineffective leader.

Dumb Practice #2: Make sure people know who the boss is - keep them on their toes

This approach to leading can be summarized as consciously deciding to be a jerk. If there is one rule which ought to be taught in every course on leadership, is it this - "Don't be a Jerk!" The supposed sense of power that accompanies those in authority who belittle their employees is always short-lived. Those in leadership positions who try to lead as tyrants or extra-tough bosses are really just demonstrating why they can not be trusted with the organization's most valuable resource - its people.

The result of using these dumb practices to leading others is always the same - and it's always bad; you get what you deserve: employees who are not engaged. This also means that you have failed in your role as a leader - a person whose most fundamental job is to get work done through others. These others will not trust you or offer to do more than is absolutely required - because you have failed them.

What To Do - Smart Practices Used by Smart Leader Coaches

Smart Practice #1: Provide Clear Expectations

Buckingham & Coffman's research was based on the results of surveys conducted with many thousands of people worldwide. Their survey - entitled the Q12 - included only the twelve most important questions. The very first item those responding rated was:

"I know what's expected of me at work."

Although this seems to be a somewhat simple item, its importance cannot be overrated. Buckingham & Coffman confirmed what other researchers who had previously asked similar questions found - that most workers aren't as clear about what they should be doing as they'd like. A study by Ferdinand Fourier found that even the leaders know this problem. When asked, "Why don't subordinates do what they are supposed to do?" - 99% of responding leaders said, "Subordinates don't do what they are supposed to do because they don't know what they are supposed to do! (Of course, the leaders realized that they were being self-critical - of course it's the job of the leader to ensure that their subordinates know what they are supposed to do).

The point: be very, very clear with your people what their work priorities are; be clear regarding the standards (what is good work; great work) and also be clear with deadlines (November 15th).

Smart Practice #2: Provide Lots of Feedback

Leaders often have a number of people who report to them. A natural consequence of this "one leading many" situation is that communication isn't as frequent as it could be - as it should be. And the one kind of communication that tends to suffer most is feedback - communication to the employee about how they are doing. This is a problem because employees really do want feedback!

One recent study discovered that leaders think they are doing a better job in this area than they actually are. In the survey, leaders were asked to respond to this statement: "I let my team members know when they are doing a good job." Employees of these leaders were asked to respond to a similar statement: "My leader lets me know when I am doing a good job."

The results, using a 5-point scale (5 was high) were like this:
Leader's Self Rating: 4.3
Employee Rating: 2.3
Employees consistently rated their leader much lower than the leaders themselves. Again, employees want to know how they are doing. Good leaders provide on-going, continual feedback. This is at the heart of being an effective leader coach.

Smart Practice #3: Focus on Learning and Growth

Supporting your employees in their professional development is a core activity for really good leader coaches. Particularly with younger employees, investing in learning and development makes good sense. Not only does this result in a higher quality of work but it also brings about - engaged people.

Professional development is important for you, the leader, as well. One emerging approach to leader development is the practice of leader coaching - sometimes referred to as executive coaching - where the leader and a well-qualified coach work together in assessing needs, designing a plan and then implementing the plan. And, since you are reading this article - here's an offer for you: a 30-minute, complementary (free, sample) leader coaching session. Simply contact me through my email and mention offer AMCA-3. I'll respond to your note and arrange a convenient time for this telephone coaching session.

In Conclusion…

Becoming a great leader coach is as much about what not to do (remember, you can't do everything yourself and you can't lead if you are behaving like a jerk) as it is about what you should do. Using the Smart Practices of providing very clear expectations, sharing specific feedback on a regular basis and supporting your employees as they learn, grow and improve is a very wise investment.

In the next newsletter, we will focus on the leader as an Architect - a person who builds effective teams.

Kim McKinnon, PhD is a leadership development consultant and executive coach in the Phoenix area and has worked with dozens of ACMA members. In addition to his consulting, he also is on the faculty at Arizona State University and the Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara. Kim has enjoyed the feedback he's received on these articles and can be reached at: McKinnonConsulting@Cox.Net or through his website: McKinnonConsulting.Net.
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