As members of the C-Suite, we wear the mantle of leadership in our companies. A mantle is a loose, sleeveless cloak which when you add a light sabre, conjures up images of the Skywalkers. Who doesn’t want to be Luke or Leia Skywalker? Maybe, you already are. Or maybe you are a young Padawan in the order of the Jedi. Either way, you decided to be a leader. And with that leadership comes the responsibility of managing people towards successful outcomes for your business.
One of the most important ways we show up as leaders is with the observer mindset. How do we observe behaviors in our teams and people so that we can bring out the best in them? In the agile software development world, we have a well known practice called Retrospectives. This takes place at the end of a development sprint and creates an opportunity to provide feedback on how the sprint went. Chances are that most participants in the technology development cycle, whether they be software developers, hardware engineers or product managers are well trained in this feedback cycle.
The leader will be forgiven for assuming that with taking up the mantle of leadership, they are already adept at the art of giving feedback. Or by way of career experiences, feel like they already know how to coach their people. But feedback in and of itself has many pitfalls. In the same way, coaching is a widely misunderstood practice that is often confused with consulting. In this article we will deconstruct these skills so that they become powerful tools that affect change and transformation in your organization.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, feedback is defined as “advice, criticism, or information about how good or useful something or someone’s work is”. We have all felt the impacts of feedback. It is quite possible that you took on the mantle of CTO leadership because of a former boss or mentor’s consistent and constructive feedback. It is also possible that you did not continue with another profession or skill due to the negative or hurtful feedback you received from careless comments.
When we provide feedback we give someone an instant and clear picture of what we think about their performance. That picture could be a hot mess. It could also be a wonderful painting of what the future could look like. But in all cases, feedback considers what a person has done and places that in the context of our own experience to formulate an opinion on how to do, or not do the same actions in future.
What is Coaching?
Our world is filled with seasoned professionals calling themselves coaches. Someone builds an e-commerce startup that has a successful liquidity event which leads to the founder giving talks and becoming a coach to aspiring entrepreneurs. Or a Rugby World Cup winning captain becomes a coach to the national side after they retire. These progressions make sense and our psyche is well programmed to understand what coaching looks like.
There is a psychological bias at play in which the sum of our experiences in a field or discipline lead us to believe that we can speak to all aspects of said field or discipline. This bias is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect which simply put, states that we are unaware at how our own incompetence in a field leads us to an over inflated self assessment of our skills. This bias is rampant in the coaching world.
Said bluntly, we think we’re better coaches than we really are.
So let’s take a deeper look at what coaching is and how it can be a transformational leadership skill. The International Coaching Federation defines coaching as “a partnership with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership.”
The coaching mindset gives the executive leader the opportunity to partner with their people in improving their skills with a focus on the ‘here and now’. It is an engaging process in which we resist the urge to solve problems with one quick chop of the knife. Instead we take time to help our people discover what they see and explore how they want to improve. We are unattached to the outcome. We look for context instead of getting stuck on the content of their challenges.