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Be a Better Leader by NOT Having All the Answers

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By April Townsend
September 10, 2021

“What do you think?” Good leaders ask this question…a lot. Historically, leaders have been expected to have all the answers because their authority was based on the expectation that they knew the most. But now, with government organizations being so complex, it’s unrealistic to expect one person to have in-depth experience and knowledge on every aspect of the business operations they oversee. Effective leaders have realized that their role has shifted from having all the answers to adopting the role of a coach.

What Does That Mean?

First, let’s quickly explore what coaching is NOT. Being a coach is not telling your employees what to do or trying to fix them. It’s also different from providing feedback, where the focus is on looking backwards. Instead, coaching is future-focused on bridging the gap of where the employee is now and taking intentional steps to build toward where they want to be in the future.

As a leader, adopting a coaching style means that instead of always having the answer, you partner with employees in a way that inspires them to maximize their own potential. You connect with employees to increase their self-awareness, support their ability to choose and inspire them to make change by taking action to reach their goals.

Instead of offering advice, you help employees find their own answers and then help them learn how to use that knowledge to move forward. This creates a self-learning, self-reflective process that is much more sustainable than reinforcing the expectation that they should always turn to others for answers. Coaching employees also means holding them accountable for their actions and supporting them toward their goals. How is that done?

Through the Power of Listening

When an employee comes to you asking what he or she should do, instead of immediately offering a solution, you may want to respond by saying, “I don’t know. What do you think?” or, maybe, “I have some ideas, but I’d like to hear your thoughts first.” Encouraging employees to verbalize and explore their own ideas before offering solutions is one of the most overlooked tools in leadership development.

As a leader, you are able to better connect with people and learn when you intentionally listen and show your curiosity in the person and the situation through asking thoughtful questions. Engaged listening is powerful and starts with intentionally creating space to listen and then reflect on what the employee is saying and not saying. This means your laptop is closed, your phone is set aside and that you aren’t allowing your schedule to be a constant stream of back-to-back meetings.

Four Benefits of Adopting a Coaching Approach

The most important benefit is that it allows you to improve your own communication skills through intentional listening and tapping into your curiosity by asking probing questions. It also means using silence more regularly. Instead of jumping in with the answer, learn to sit in silence to allow the employee a chance to offer their own ideas and possible solutions. They may come up with something you hadn’t thought of that will work just as well, if not better, than what you were going to offer.

A second benefit to a coaching approach is that it allows you to gain new insights by stepping back from being in constant problem-solving mode and instead focus on encouraging others to explore their own insights and ideas. Third, your own thinking is expanded because you’re able to consider other points of view as you ask reflective questions. And fourth, using a coaching leadership style is more sustainable by creating an environment where you can empower and develop your team. Through helping your employees find their own answers by reflecting on where they are doing well and where there are opportunities for growth and change, you can help them set goals that contribute to their own—and the team’s—success.

How Do I Start?

As you have your one-on-one meetings, try creating time and space for the employee to identify what they would like to focus on that would be helpful for them. Here are just a few sample questions that may provide you with a starting point on adopting a coaching leadership style:

  • During our time together, what would be helpful for us to focus on that is important to you?
  • What do you think?
  • What would be most useful at this point?
  • What makes this a challenge?
  • What would that mean if you did X?
  • What has you coming to that conclusion?
  • What would help you know what to do?
  • What’s making this a problem?
  • What do you want to do about this situation?
  • What would be most helpful for you to achieve X?
  • What has you in this questioning mode?
  • What might be some other options?

Being an effective leader isn’t about having all the answers. It’s about connecting with people and inspiring them to do their best, while helping them discover their own answers.


Author: Dr. April Townsend worked in local government for over 30 years, holding executive leadership and management positions. She is currently a Scholar-in-Residence with the Utah Women and Leadership Project and owner of Townsend Consulting, LLC, providing leadership coaching and organizational consulting services. She can be reached at [email protected] Townsend.Consulting. Twitter handle: @AprilT2014

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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