How Small Business Owners Can Get The Best from Their Staff: A Coaching Approach to Leadership

Unless you want to be the only person in your business who can make a decision, you need to help your employees learn how to problem solve and find solutions on their own. Here’s how the coaching approach to leadership can help you empower employees so they become self-sufficient.

For owners of small businesses, things can seem overwhelming. As you spend all your time working in the business, it’s hard to be able to work on the business. Yet this is a crucial step if you’re looking to scale your organization. The most effective way to be able to do this is to have your people step up, so that you can step back. Here are some practical ways to achieve this.

Google’s research on the most effective leaders have found that the two most important characteristics are:

  1. they’re good coaches and
  2. they empower their people and don’t micromanage.

If your people are able to make decisions without coming to you first, they will feel more engaged and motivated. Equally importantly, this will free up your time, so you can focus on thinking up new ways to grow and improve the business. Taking a leader-as-coach approach is one of the most effective ways to achieve this.

“Command and control” leadership doesn’t scale

If you are a subject matter expert in your field, you probably know “the answer” to any issue your team brings to you. However, every time you tell staff what to do – even if your instructions are 100% correct – you’re also sending them two subtle yet destructive messages at the same time:

  1. They are not empowered to make decisions for themselves; all significant decisions have to be made by you.
  2. They are not capable of coming up with effective solutions themselves.

This turns you into a decision making bottleneck, which prevents your business from scaling effectively. It also deflates your people and prevents them from growing and developing.

Fortunately, there is a better way…

A better way: taking a coaching approach to leadership

As the owner of a small business, your aim should be to help your people become the best, most productive and empowered versions of themselves, as fast as you can. It’s like the old proverb: “Give someone a fish and you feed them for a day. Teach them to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.” Coaching your people is teaching them to fish … so that you can focus on captaining the ship!

The RARA corridor-coaching model is a simple and incredibly effective 4-step process to coach your people. RARA stands for Recognize-Ask-Reframe-Actions.

Step 1: Recognize – Decide if this is a coaching opportunity.

Next time one of your team approaches you and says “Boss, I have a problem. What should I do?”, ask yourself, “Is it worth investing 10 minutes right now to coach them to come up with an answer for themselves? Will that make them more productive and effective in the long term?”. If the answer is “no,” then it isn’t a coaching opportunity, and you should simply tell them what to do. However, if the answer is yes, then proceed to step 2. 

Step 2: Ask questions to get clear on the problem.

When a staff member comes to you with a problem, spend plenty of time asking them questions to make sure you understand exactly what the problem is. This can be trickier than it sounds.

Often, the presenting” problem is actually a symptom of a deeper underlying issue. For example, if a prospect is balking at signing a proposal, you’d want to understand why before trying to come up with solutions. Spend plenty of time to really dig into the problem until you and your team member have a clear, shared, specific understanding of the issue they’re grappling with.

The Five Whys

One way to get clear on the root cause of an issue is the “Five Whys” technique, which was originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda at Toyota. This technique is involves simply asking the same question: “Why is that?” (up to) five times in a row. For example:

Team member: “Acme Corporation won’t sign the digital marketing proposal I sent through, and I don’t know what to do.”

You: “OK, so Acme won’t sign. Why is that?”

Team member: “Because they say we’re too expensive.”

You: “And why is that?”

Team member: “Because they say that our digital marketing isn’t delivering a return-on-investment to them.”

You: “And why is that?”

Team member: “Because they haven’t implemented the tracking software we recommend that would allow them to connect the leads we generate with the sales they make. We’re confident that we’re delivering great results for them, but the way their systems are set up means they can’t attribute those results to our marketing work.”

You: “Why haven’t they implemented the tracking software?”

Team member: “I think it’s because the marketing director can’t convince their head of finance to approve the investment to put the tracking system in.”

Now you have a better understanding of the root cause of the problem.

Reflecting Back

At the end of Step 2, it is generally a good idea to reflect back to your staff member your understanding of the problem. This ensures you are both on the same page regarding the problem before you move to Step 3 and start coming up with possible solutions. Building on the conversation above, reflecting back might look something like this:

You: “OK, so if I understand correctly, the issue is Acme can’t attribute their sales results to our marketing activity, because they haven’t implemented a system to link our marketing activity with their sales. And the reason they haven’t done that is that the marketing director can’t get the CFO to sign off on the investment needed to implement the system. Is that correct?”

One you are both clear on what the actual problem is, you can then move on to step 3.

Step 3: Reframe for solutions

The objective for Step 3 is to challenge your staff member to come up with as many possible solutions as they can. It’s as simple as saying to them:

“What do you think you should do to solve this issue?”

When they come back with a suggestion, ask them again:

“Ok. And what else might you do?”.

Keep asking them the same question over and over until they have come up with every single idea they can possibly think of to address the problem they are facing.

Occasionally, the solution to their problem is completely obvious, and they’re just looking for your reassurance. If this happens, quickly say “Yep, that sounds good – go for it, and next time, you don’t need to come to me with a problem like that. You already know what to do.” 

For trickier problems, people will typically come to you with two or three ideas they’re already thought of – but aren’t really satisfied with. They will quickly share those ideas, and then will stop. Physically, you’ll often see them scrunch up their face or look up to the ceiling, as they struggle to come up with genuinely new ideas. When this happens, the key is for you to stay silent. This will feel uncomfortable – for you and for them. If you are feeling uncomfortable then you’re doing the right thing! Don’t give them advice (even though I can guarantee you will be sorely tempted to do so!). Don’t step in to help them. Just let them struggle internally for a while. You – and they – will be amazed at the creative ideas they will often come up with in those moments. From a neuroscientific perspective, the tension you are creating is shifting their thought processes from the logical left hemisphere of their cerebral cortex to the more creative” right hand side of their brain, which is where the innovative ah ha! ideas come from.

If they are really struggling to come up with solutions, it can often be because the problem hasn’t been defined clearly enough, or it may have been defined too broadly to tackle effectively: they’re trying to boil the ocean. If this happens, you might need to go back to Step 2 and spend a bit more time getting clearer on the problem, or chunking the problem down into more bite sized pieces, before returning to Step 3.

Once they have come up with every possible solution they can come up with, you may step in and offer some advice if there’s an obvious solution they’ve missed. However, nine times out of ten, this won’t be necessary. They’ll have come up with good solutions themselves.

Step 4: Action planning

Once they’ve generated a whole range of possible solutions, ask them which of these they think are the best ones. If you agree with their proposed approach, then do some straightforward action planning with them. If you disagree or have any further questions around their proposed course of action, then have a collaborative conversation with them about this, until you are both clear on what actions they’re going to take, and by when. At this point, they will have a clear path forward.

More importantly, they will realize that they have actually answered their question for themselves!

Conclusion

If you apply this approach consistently, you will find that that your people become more empowered and autonomous. They will be more engaged in their work and you’ll probably see an uptick in morale. Importantly, they will no longer come to you for advice on mundane issues, and will only involve you when the problem is genuinely challenging or above their pay grade to resolve. This will free you up to focus on growing your business, rather than being buried in doing the work. In short, a coaching approach to leadership is the key to enabling your business to scale up to the next level.

A final word: as with any new skill, the RARA coaching model is easy to understand, but challenging to master. You will find yourself giving in to the “advice monster” and telling your people what to do from time to time. However, the model’s power to transform your leadership and your business is enormous, so stick with it. Tell your people that you want to take a more coaching approach to leadership, and are going to be trying out a new model where you’re going to help them to come up with answers for themselves rather than telling them what to do. Set yourself a target of having at least one RARA coaching conversation each day. It is well worth the effort.

Revel Gordon is a Sydney-based executive coach and leadership expert. He is also a Director of the International Coach Federation Australasia.

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