Why Coaching Is A Necessary Leadership Style In A Matrix Organization
Coaching has become a valuable asset in many corporations. Managers are asked more and more to engage direct reports in coaching conversations. The expectation with poor performance is that coaching can be used to address deficiencies and as a follow-up to a formal performance evaluation. With average performers, coaching may be used to address developmental opportunities and create a learning plan. With high performers, coaching may help in terms of retention.
However, coaching direct reports has both challenges and advantages. Direct reports might appreciate the support of their managers yet might be reticent to show transparency and vulnerability. The challenge of the manager will be to refrain from making assessments and evaluations while maintaining a coaching hat, where the focus is the development and learning of the coachee. The advantage, given the reporting relationship, is the recognition that coaching conversations between managers and direct reports are expected if not welcomed.
A different picture emerges when the relationship is a peer-to-peer relationship or a matrix organization where there are no clearly defined reporting lines. Offering formal coaching conversations to peers and, in some cases, a more senior person might be awkward and unwelcomed.
Given that matrix organizations are more and more the norm, how is the organization going to benefit in supporting a widespread coaching style without depending on direct-line reporting as the key to creating such conversations?
The first step is the opportunity offered by embodying a coaching leadership style. This does not require creating a formal coach/coachee relationship, but rather, leading by example: the cornerstone behavior of a coaching style.
A coach has a specific mindset that can be embraced by leaders. This mindset is one of trust in the resources of the colleague. The coach knows that there is a champion who can be awakened, affirmed and supported in the colleague. Such a mindset promotes a learning style rather than a teaching style, where the answer lies within the colleague as well as the pathway to solutions.
Curiosity in understanding the other overtakes wanting to advocate one’s point of view. It is not “He/she needs to understand;” it is “I need to understand.” It is not “They need to be clear;” it is “I need to be clear.” The yardstick here, in the words of a very accomplished teacher, is that the success of the conversation is measured by how much I have learned, not by what I have taught. It’s about creating a learning environment where I set the example of being an ongoing learner rather than creating a teaching environment where someone is in front of the room telling others what needs to be done in the correct way.
This mindset has a specific intent: to support the success of the other. It’s a genuine focus on the other while facilitating the person reaching his or her goal and dreams. There is an unwavering confidence in the capability of the other to grow, learn and manifest a potential even beyond what one might imagine possible. The listening that takes place is a listening “to understand” rather than a listening “to respond.” Questions asked are thought-provoking and open-ended, and an invitation to grow without the shadow of evaluations. They promote awareness and reflection rather than judgment, inviting the perspective of the other with an indisputable interest in their point of view and in their solutions.
The coach’s actions and behavior are easily perceived as freely giving without a hidden agenda or self-interest. It is a “giver” style, not a “taker” style. There is empathy and challenge. There is asking for permission and vulnerability. There is generosity rather than scarcity. There is an authentic appreciation of the value that the other brings as well as the contribution. When feedback is necessary, it is always presented as one’s own perception without impacting the respect for and value of the other.
If a leader, or for that matter, a team member, exhibits the behaviors and mindset described above, others who are part of end-to-end teams will respond out of sincere appreciation. They will recognize the nonjudgmental, empathic and authentic position taken by the leader, and possibly seek out that leader for more individual and in-depth coaching/mentoring conversations. Hence, without asking, the seeds are sown for coaching conversations to be a critical component in matrix organizations without requiring direct reporting lines.
Matrix organizations paradoxically might be the best environments for coaching, as coaching conversations do not need to be suggested or recommended, and the coach does not risk equivocating due to a direct reporting line. This creates the ideal condition for coaching to be a sincere desire and a style that inspires appreciation, if not gratitude.