Leading with Curiosity; How Leaders Use Executive Coaching Skills to Develop Others and Create a Competitive EdgeNov 03, 2022
Leader as Critical-Thinker and Problem-Solver
If you are a leader, how much time do you spend problem-solving? How often are you responsible for getting things on track, answering difficult questions, remediating poor performance, and addressing broken processes? These essential leadership duties create a mindset of critical thinking. Over time, most leaders perfect an approach of assessing situations, processes, and even people with the goal of identifying an efficient way to fix things. This skill draws on the leader’s experience, knowledge, and intellect. It places the responsibility of resolving issues on the leader.
Often, meeting with an employee to remediate a problem or address a weak skill is called coaching. The leader prepares for these types of coaching conversations by assesses the issue and determining an acceptable outcome. The approach relies on the leader determining what is best and helping the employee embrace a pre-determined solution.
Coaching to Empower Others
Executive style coaching, on the other hand, is a collaborative process of goal setting, action planning, and follow through. It requires an open, curious mindset. Coaching conversations are centered in the assumption that the employee has the wisdom and ability to resolve problems. The leader as coach is a curious guide, helping others tap into their insight and potential. Effective coaching, in this context, relies on the leader’s ability to suspend judgment and withhold advice. Success comes from a genuine curiosity about the coachee’s perspectives, concerns, and goals. Active listening and insightful inquiry are leadership skills that replace critical thinking and problem-solving.
This type of coaching empowers employees, boosts resilience, and improves performance. Coaching from a curious mindset increases confidence, competencies, and job satisfaction. It builds individuals’ job-related skills and enhances their well-being (Grant, Curtayne, and Burton, 2009). These benefits create meaningful outcomes for the employee, leader, and organization
Leaders who coach from curiosity develop followers’ capabilities, foster trust, enhance engagement, and promote accountability. They develop highly effective teams that deliver results. More effective staff, enable more effective leadership. As direct reports gain competence in problem-solving, leaders can allocate more time to strategy and proactive initiatives. Organizations benefit from improved employee engagement, resilience, and job skills. These benefits combined with enhanced leader effectiveness create a competitive advantage.
The Leadership Challenge
Although the benefits of coaching to empower staff are evident, there are challenges to developing leadership coaching competencies. The greatest coaching challenge for leaders lies in shifting away from a critical mindset to a curious one. The habit of assessing and fixing problems is an essential part of the leadership landscape. Coaching to empower followers requires an intentional move away from assessing and fixing.
Leaders as coaches develop a genuinely curious mindset. Effective coaching involves suspending judgment while embracing the coachee’s agenda, perspective, and goals. Curiosity, active listening, and insightful inquiry replace leadership habits associated with problem-solving. This is not to imply that critical thinking and problem-solving won’t continue to be valuable leadership competencies. Rather, leaders will add coaching competencies to their tool box and begin to choose the appropriate competency for a given situation. When followers are able to expand their skill set and own outcomes, leading through coaching empowers. It builds capacity at every level of the organization.
The foundations of executive coaching are rooted in positive psychology. They include self-awareness, self-empowerment, collaboration, responsibility, action-planning, and accountability. Trust is essential to the process and is established through integrity, respect, and confidentiality.
Shifting to Curiosity
Curiosity is the spontaneous desire to explore, question, investigate, observe, or experience something new or interesting. It requires moment by moment presence without judgment or expectation. With curiosity, leaders approach coaching conversations and employees with a sense of wonder. Above all, leaders are interested in the coachee’s perspective. As coach, the leader’s goal is to facilitate followers’ sense-making and action-planning. The leader’s advice, perspective, and suggestions are suspended to make space for the coachee’s discovery and growth. In this non-judgmental space, the employee feels safe to explore their concerns, ideas, and options. Their confidence and competencies grow as the leader asks insightful questions that expose various dimensions of a situation and possible solutions.
The leader also benefits because curiosity boosts well-being and resilience. Being curious releases the feel-good hormone dopamine, and enhances a leader’s ability to connect with followers and to creatively solve problems. In the context of leader as coach, curiosity is the gateway to collaboration and insightful questions that truly transform the coachee. Leaders who practice curiosity feel reinvigorated in their role and gain a fulfilling sense of connection to their staff.
Shifting to curiosity is a mental practice that takes discipline. It begins with an intention to approach coaching conversations with curiosity. Self-awareness plays a key role in noticing when expectations and judgments overshadow a genuine interest in the employee’s perspective. Intuition and situational awareness guide the leader as coach. Self-regulation enables leaders to shift away from advising or recommending solutions. Active listening and the ability to ask relevant, thought-provoking questions round out the leader’s coaching skills.
Insightful inquiry is a powerful process of transformation. It applies a curious mindset and coaching framework to help followers define goals, brainstorm possible actions, create action plans, and move forward. Insightful inquiry is grounded in the coachee’s needs and perspectives. This powerful transformation process leverages the coachee’s talents and resourcefulness. It operates under a solutions-oriented focus that creates forward motion. Powerful questions reveal possibilities, generate insight, and create momentum. Insightful inquiry encourages an honest account of the current state and clarification of priorities, values, and motivating forces.
A simple, proven coaching framework for insightful inquiry is the GROW model. The model was created by John Whitmore in the late 1980s and has been used for problem-solving, goal setting, and performance improvement ever since. (Clutterbuck and Megginson, 2016)
It begins with the coachee identifying a meaningful goal for the conversation and ends with the coachee committing to a way forward. Throughout the coaching conversation, the coach asks questions to help the coachee consider their current reality and options for achieving their goal. The coachee is the source of the solution. The leader, as coach, guides the discover process.
Below is the GROW model with sample questions. As leaders build their coaching competencies and lead with curiosity, they begin to navigate GROW with ease and agility. They are able to listen actively, and ask insightful questions to effectively guide their employees to a way forward.
Learn more about Resiliency Well’s Coaching Competency leadership development program and explore our coaching services.
(Whitmore, 1992; Grant, 2011)
About the Author
Beth Guyton works with individuals, leaders, and organizations to boost resilience and performance. She has a passion for developing others and helping organizations create positive, productive work environments that drive results. Her expertise includes executive coaching, resiliency, mindfulness, leadership that fosters commitment, and empowerment through accountability.
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Clutterbuck, David, S. A., & Megginson, D. (2016). Beyond goals : effective strategies for coaching and mentoring. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315569208
Grant, A. M. (2011). Is it time to REGROW the GROW model? Issues related to teaching coaching session structures. Coaching Practiced, 29-40.
Grant, A. M., Curtayne, L., & Burton, G. (2009). Executive coaching enhances goal attainment, resilience and workplace well-being: A randomized controlled study. The journal of positive psychology, 4(5), 396-407.
Whitmore, J. (1992). Coaching for performance. London: Nicholas Brealey.
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