How do leaders motivate their people

The Coaching Leader is a crucial and under-appreciated leadership role. Take motivating team members. Today’s coaching leaders have mostly quit using carrots and sticks. They’ve already noticed that they don’t always work. Nearly fifty years of research says the same.

Net-Net: This post is about…

CoachinngLeader -Net net on motivation

21st century leaders look to three intrinsic sources of motivation to build up and challenge team members. The first is autonomy.

But to balance building up team members with challenging them takes individual attention and regular tuning. Coaching is the best way to tap inner motivation and sustain it over time.

Rewards are not the best motivator

Remember your pal Abraham Maslow from Psychology 101. He proposed that we are driven by a hierarchy of needs. After our most basic needs are met, we aspire to address higher needs. Self actualizion is the highest.

Here’s how this is relevant in rewarding people at work. If they feel that they’re not being rewarded fairly, their attention will be stuck on the unfairness. The need is for basic equity. This issue calls into question whether needs for safety and security and self esteem are being met and respected.

Basic need? Autonomy

So what is a source of greater satisfaction than basic needs? Research shows that we consistently and naturally want to carry out work with as much autonomy as possible. It seems to cut across all our other needs.

A mounting pile of studies confirms that we’re inherently self-directed to seek out a meaningful challenge. It doesn’t feel like work. We derive a lot of pleasure from it. It’s basic to our day-to-day experience. Think of a time when you didn’t feel confident or secure at work. Now think about the moment when you felt you took charge of your work. If you’re like a lot of people, you also felt more secure and confident. This drive is a force for good. And it is surprisingly easy to thwart it in complex organizations.

Leaders usually have good intentions when they want to cut the risk of potential project failures. Some leaders, exercising a natural desire to help, support, and even coach the team can have a controlling effect on the essential elements of autonomy: what people do, how they do it, when they do it, and the people they do it with.

Preventing failure can crowd out great autonomy

Autonomy is the antidote. Imagine the mental terrain produced by a goals. Somewhere in the future a well-defined accomplishment stands waiting. The more completely it’s quantified, the more the route from here to there looks like a straight line. These kind of goals can help achieve efficient results when the work is linear and decisions are binary. But less and less of it is.

Now imagine laying out a different kind of playing field. Where the goal was, there’s an objective. The difference is that it’s defined by outcomes or qualities rather than time and distance. The boundaries of the playing field are fairly broad. It’s shaped like the widest funnel you can imagine – wide at one end and only a bit narrower at the end where the objective stands.

Many ways to the finish line could be twisty. Backtracking might be good for the final result. Cross the finish line on the right or the left. It doesn’t matter. “Success” is much more variable than finding the square peg that fits in a predetermined square hole. Your team might surprise you. Notice your reaction as you read that. Excited? Uncomfortable?

People are energized by the chance to exercise their innate desire to stretch, grow, and deliver using all of their best qualities. Offer them autonomy and coach them to keep that desire alive. More on that to come.

  •  How have you tried carrots and sticks? How are they working?
  •  How have you protected team members’ autonomy?
  •  What effect has autonomy had on their work, or mindest at work?

Really big transformation? It’s happening today

Look at that

Does leading start from the inside or from the outside? Is it what I think or what I do? What about the company, the people I work with?

I am confident that if you’re the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company, it’s not too late for you. If you’re an engineer with an idea, you too could be the founder of startup that almost launches. You can be more effective and there are many ways to get help with that. Maybe you’re just beginning to recognize that you could do more than you’ve done until now.

 Leading is a commitment to transformation.

It takes time, yes, and it is happening today. You can guide the course of transformation in yourself and the world around you today.

Three ways simple gratitude can change your leadership

Here comes that gift again

Gratitude isn’t easy for me. I can’t help but notice how similar the word is to “platitude.” I have thought of it as thin, perfunctory, forced. I am changing my mind. And that’s changing the way I lead. It can change the way you lead, too.

What is it? Gratitude is acknowledging that something has been given.

Even before you go on reading, what do you notice when you read that sentence? This is not a rhetorical question. Keep the question fresh in mind and notice: what’s given?

Let’s assume for a moment that some things are given: they just happen. That’s no reason to be grateful in itself. Some of those things are problems, tragedies, or idiotic annoyances.

Whatever the causes, things that just happen are happening uniquely to you. When something happens to me, everything that went before contributes. That’s why it may feel familiar.Here comes that gift again

Yet, the sheer complexity of things means that no two moments are the same. Right now, we’re handed a once-in-a-lifetime gift. You could say that complexity conspires to give it to us. I didn’t make it happen. I can be grateful for that. It wasn’t a sure thing. But here it is.

Every one of these moments carries an opportunity to do something with it. It’s fresh and different from the one before. Sure, that’s subtle. But here comes another. And if I don’t act now, I can still act. Now. Or even now.

The three ways

Practicing gratitude turns our attention to opportunities. It helps us become more aware. “Here’s a moment that I can do something with, right now.” As a leader, I have choices.

It helps is develop faith in opportunity even if we feel have few or no options. We do have options. In this moment, or the next one. As a leader, I stay hopeful. Circumstances aren’t conspiring against me. They’re just circumstances.

Gratitude can also help us be a little more forgiving when we or others let a crucial moment pass. There’s another moment coming with its opportunity inside. So as leaders, we use that awareness of opportunity to encourage folks to act now. Or now. As a leader, I build up people to ensure they use their opportunities well.

I’m learning to worry less about leading skillfully. This moment is unfolding an opportunity. Developing awareness helps me recognize the slight differences that create them. It’s not just about what I should do, and not at all about what I can do perfectly. It is a new habit – or practice – that involves recognizing that a moment is unfolding an opportunity, which is the chance to take an action that will fit it.

And if I don’t get it just right, here comes another one for me to open.

Coaching Manager: How to keep the conversation on track

Coaching Manager conversation map

“It’s not my fault,” she explains. Is he crying a little? She won’t take a next step. When these, and other situations pop up, the coaching manager can feel like he’s in the weeds.

When managers start making a concerted effort to add developmental coaching to their repertoire, they can worry about getting off track into issues they’re not equipped to address. That’s reasonable. Coaching manager basics are easy enough. But people are complicated, which can lead to surprises. That’s why everyone who coaches needs a map.

A Coaching Manager conversation map

Here’s a secret. If you know someone who’s good at coaching team members, they use a map, even if they say they don’t. They may use it unconsciously. That map helps the most experienced coaching managers on track. We can rely on it when we’re starting. And it should be sturdy enough to hang new, more refined skills on it as practice makes us more adept coaching managers.Coaching Manager conversation map

When people are ready to learn, there are three things the coaching manager does with them during the coaching conversation:

  1. Discover priorities
  2. Narrow the focus
  3. Take action to learn

From 10,000 feet, these three phases describe the territory. The closer we get, the more important the details of the terrain become. I’ll share more of them in future posts.

Uncover people’s real priorities

Discovering priorities will test our ability to be a good listener. Yeah, I know. You’ve heard this before. Hang in with me. This advice can have positive effect on every relationship.

At work, we’re valued for our ideas, action, and judgment. We may leap to good ideas. But the coaching manager assumes that she doesn’t know much. She listens for what the other person believes and is interested in. Your team members live in their own world (of course, so do you). You are listening for what’s distinctive about their world.

That’s why listening calls on you to put aside distractions, inferences, conclusions, and judgments as much as you can. While you’re “just” listening, the other person might hear herself say something she didn’t know she believed. That’s great. But at the least, you are sure to begin to agree on what’s important to her. That gives you both a solid footing.

Two listening tips

Practice being curious. What stands out when the other person describes what she is after? When people are enthused and drawn to stretch themselves, try “Say more about that.” Inquire about the things they have chosen not to investigate, consider, try. Through practice, you’ll find a natural way to express curiosity.

Shear the shaggy dog story. Some people find real meaning in the (many) details of their story. Help them back onto the path with a respectful nudge. “What do you make of all that?” may work. For others, “What’s the bottom line for you?” Then practice curiosity again.

You may notice that practice is the common element in listening. Practice also the core commitment in coaching managers make. That’s how we become comfortable and confident using this style of managing and leading.

It can be helpful to get some outside input on what you may be missing. Look for opportunities to compare with other coaching managers. You can find focused training programs that will give you a big boost. Of course, you can learn one-on-one from someone whose primary job is coaching. Regardless how you learn, the more management and leadership responsibility you have, the more important it is to practice becoming a coaching manager.

In the next post…

What it means to narrow the focus of the coaching conversation and tips about how to do it.

Three ways to get learning into your bones

Forty eight percent of employees say they receive no formal training. You’re thinking, “That’s not good. But taking in the big picture, it’s conceivable.” So what?

First, get pragmatic. You have a fifty-fifty chance of getting formal training at work. Ask for it. Seek it out. Find programs outside the company and ask for funding. But don’t blame the company (or any “them”) if it’s not going to happen. And don’t hold a grudge.

You can build your own curriculum. Dorie Clark has offered some great ideas for DIY professional development. Shout out to her for pointing me to the Accenture study in which the opening data point is found.

Some learning is more challenging, though. You could call it the adaptive challenge of learning. We need to change our minds, but also ourselves. Some learning has to be chewed slowly and patiently if we’re going to really digest it and use all its nutrients.

Put hindsight to work and test it with foresight

Start holding your own regular after-action review. I call it reflection-in-action. Schedule it least once a week. Look back over the week, pick its high point and low point, and take a wider view of events.

The after-action review (AAR) comes out of military training. It’s designed to provide a well-rounded picture of what happened. The first step: review without blame or prejudice. Start with you.carrying a leg

Notice that the AAR focuses on what happened in the concrete world of objects and actions. You can go one better by adding what you thought, intended, felt, experienced. Mindset drives the choices we have and the choices we make. What can you see now, or imagine might be true, that you could not see then?

You can’t know what others thought or felt. But you can develop a hypothesis about what they were trying to achieve and why. Here’s where foresight helps. Set up a test of your hypothesis. Ask questions. Or plan to try a different approach in a similar situation. This is a test, so stay open to new data.

Bundle the learning with peers

You are not alone. Whatever you find challenging, others are struggling over it now. Others need to know what you want to learn.

Find some friends or people you trust. Decide on a a method for a small group peer coaching. (Here’s one good example from Marshall Goldsmith.) Start meeting regularly. For a small investment, you could even hire a coach to teach you a peer coaching method. In a couple of hours you will know the process and have seen how it works.

The kind of learning that gets into our bones will make us (very) uncomfortable from time to time. You want to work with peers who will both support you and keep you honest. If you don’t find a dream team immediately, don’t give up.

Get expert help but share the cost

I know that people get great value out of working with a coach individually, but you might say I have a bias. If you can enlist a few people with similar challenges and intentions, hire a coach for the group. It’s more economical and you’ll still get some individual attention. The big benefit in group coaching is that you don’t need to run the meeting. You can focus on the slow and steady digesting of learning and change. The coach will be responsible for focus, facilitation, and creating a productive discussion for learning.

What have you done to digest deep learning or big change and get it into your bones?

Coaching Manager: What kind of coaching are you doing?

You’re already a coaching manager. You’re using your best instinct, experience, and training and that means you maybe sending mixed signals.

What’s this Coaching Manager doing?

For each of the questions below, get a read on whether you rely more on performance coaching or developmental coaching by deciding whether each is typically true or false for you.

My first objective is to communicate my faith in their abilities.
I’m interested in discovering the limits of their talent.
My goal is to get them to be as effective as possible as quickly as possible.
We may have more than one conversation before my team members identifies a goal.
I have a clear idea of the outcome they need to produce.
My experience is a necessary ingredient in helping them become more skilled.
I sometimes feel that I’m not doing much. I ask a lot of questions.

Check your answers below.

Be clear

All coaching is founded on a relationship between at least two people: the coach and the person being coached. (Sometimes an interested, mostly-supportive third party sponsors the relationship.) And both people know who’s doing what. The coach can also coach a team. It’s true in sports and it’s true of executive coaches and leadership teams.

You will find many similar definitions of coaching in the wide world. Because performance coaching is so common and familiar, here are the definitions I’m using.

Performance coaching

Performance coaching is expert, often real-time support about how to do the right thing in the right way at the the right time. The focus is ability.

What that means is that the skill, the outcome, and the manner of doing it right are well known. If you’re performance coaching, folks need your expertise to recognize how their performance can be improved, including how it’s falling short. And everyone can tell when the person is doing it right because it’s having the intended effect. It involves telling people how to improve.

Pause here for a moment. You may be thinking, “That’s what I do. That’s my job. That’s my role. And that is what I should be doing.” You may be right. But seriously. Pause for a moment. When do you use it? When does it not work? What do you do instead?

Managers rely heavily on expertise. It’s what got us where we are. As you and your career develop, expertise is not the most important part of your role. Developing others and making sure that they develop themselves grows in importance as “managing” matures.

Developmental coaching

Developmental coaching broadens and deepens people’s repertoire of abilities. The focus is capability. The person is developing capability for doing something new in practically unique situations using resources and skills in new combinations. It involves raising the person’s awareness of their abilities, resources, and tendencies so that they can practice having a positive impact in ambiguous and uncertain conditions. It’s about learning at the edge of our comfort zone.

The person being coached is responsible for the pace and outcomes. With help, she identifies objectives that inspire her. Developmental coaching makes work a learning lab and company goals the context for individual goals. The coach’s role is companion, ally, and supportive observer. The results include greater self awareness, responsibility, perspective-taking ability, and capacity for reflection.

There are real challenges built into coaching team members and direct reports. But they’re worth it. Next time, I’ll review those issues and suggest tactics for addressing them.

Now you know

If you found that you’re using performance coaching more than developmental coaching, that’s not a failing grade. It may be the right way to support some or all of your people. Choosing between those two will be influenced by timing and context. Now you know that expanding your repertoire to include developmental coaching skills may be part of your learning plan as a manager and leader.

Using a model to guide the conversation will help you stay oriented when it feels like you’re not doing much. I’ll describe a conversation model for Becoming the Coaching Manager in an upcoming post.

Watch for still more on Becoming the Coaching Manager at, and on Twitter at @johndroberts and #coachingmanager.

Keep up the good work. Incorporating coaching into your repertoire, helps you practice coaching skills, helps create new expectations in your people, and moves the team toward superior results.

Coaching quiz: Best answers

My first objective is to communicate my faith in their abilities.

Best answer: True

If true, you may be performance coaching OR developmental coaching. Genuine faith in your people’s ability, and expressing it, helps them muster motivation for the learning ahead.

I’m interested in discovering the limits of their talent.

Best answer: False

If you’re evaluating the person, you may be engaged in performance management. Or you may believe that “talent” is a fixed commodity in people. If you do, pause here and consider whether you believe others can change, grow, or develop? Do you believe that you can develop and grow?

My goal is to get them to be as effective as possible as quickly as possible.

Best answer: False

If true, you’re doing performance coaching. If the route from unskilled to skilled is direct and can be accelerated, you are performance coaching. Developmental coaching almost always includes some uncertainty about what the person will learn when she tries new behaviors on the job.

We may have more than one conversation before my team members identifies a goal.

Best answer: True

If true, you’re doing developmental coaching. If you and they are committed to identifying clear and motivating goals, it may take a while to home in on them.

I have a clear idea of the outcome they need to produce.

Best answer: False

If true, you’re performance coaching. When the outcome is clear and the aim is to help the other person produce it, you are performance coaching. Or you may be doing training. So, if you’re development coaching, the opportunties for learning will become clearer through discussion and the outcomes will emerge through realistic experiments in which team members try new approaches.

My experience is a necessary ingredient in helping them become more skilled.

Best answer: False

If true, you’re performance coaching. When you’re recommending that the person do what you did and expecting them to use your mental model of what works, you’re performance coaching. Developmental coaching may lead to experiments in new behavior that you have not completely mastered.

I sometimes feel that I’m not doing much. I ask a lot of questions.

Best answer: True

If true, you’re probably developmental coaching. Most managers are in the habit of answering questions and solving problems. Initially, developmental coaching feels as though you’re not doing much. But you’re doing just fine.

Becoming the Coaching Manager: The Hard Way

Are you a Coaching Manager?

Research points to managers (and leaders) being the cause of up to 30 percent difference in financial results. (Hay Group). Let me emphasize the point. Managers can influence results by up to 30 percent – increase or decrease – using the right leadership style at the right time.

Personal experience tells me that’s not easy. At one organization, my efforts to develop a high performing team were messy. I’m sure that the people on that team have even more colorful descriptions of it, and of me. I meant well. Still…

Managers imitate their models

It’s normal to try to become a manager like inspiring managers we have worked for. I believed in my vision, strove to set an example, and coached my people, just like my favorite boss. But I was not her. I would have to learn how to do it my own way using my own inner resources and learn new skills. I thought that coaching could set me apart from managers around me. That seemed important at the time.

By coaching, though, I mean that I talked with team members about what we, and they, needed to do. I taught, trained, supported, challenged, and encouraged them. How does that sound? It seems like a rough and ready definition of how to coach our people, right. I can see now that I expected them to do what I wanted. Often, I expected them to do it my way.

Cause and effect: Oops

The effect was that they had a shrinking definition of their success. They were right to resist and challenge me. Eventually I got help, thanks to my manager. But it required me to admit reluctantly that my efforts to be a certain kind of manager had created a stalemate with team members. It was the opposite of my intention.It took some figuring

I can see now that I was so not coaching. I would have said that I saw untapped potential in my people. But in fact, I had a hard time valuing what they brought to the team. It was different and didn’t look like my own abilities. I could not see the narrowness of my expectations. They saw what I did as an encroachment on their role and responsibilities as qualified professionals and adults at work. It would be great if they read this: I apologize.

As a starting point, I was muddled about what I was doing. No matter how talented you are, you can’t do everything and you can’t do it all at once.

What about you?

Are you doing performance coaching or developmental coaching? Or maybe it’s not coaching at all?

What effect is your coaching having on your people? Are you noticing whether it’s having an impact?

In my next post, I’ll describe the difference between performance coaching and developmental coaching. You’ll also learn how to set expectations about the two kinds of coaching so that you and they are clear about your roles.

Global themes in talent management


Feedback failure can affect results

Research shows that local department or team culture – think “climate” – is driven by the leader’s ability to provide high, balanced levels of flexibility, responsibility, standards, rewards, clarity, and team commitment. Feedback clarifies what leaders expect of their people.

Unclear expectations undercut productivity, team engagement

“Half of all respondents [to a survey of Federal Agency leaders] ranked their continuous feedback process as below where it should be, with 15 percent calling their efforts flatly unsuccessful.” *

What can you do this month to review the expectations of team members, discover areas of ambiguity or uncertainty, and work together to clarify expectations? Once the pattern is established, continue using the process that led to greater clarity. Because expectations change over time, keep the dialogue alive. Capture agreements in a place where you and they can easily refer to them.


“How we do things around here” doesn’t work

To me, culture always sounds diffuse, blousey, and evolutionary, which means that it may change but it will take generations. In layman’s shorthand, it’s “how we do things around here.”  Ed Schein calls it, in part, “..a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by  a group … which has worked well enough to be considered valid….” (What a lot of us experience is that culture does not work well enough for us any more.

“…Eight in ten respondents cite the culture of their agencies as the biggest barrier, other than budget, to creating positive change and reaching their talent management and performance goals.”

Global talent management

Rapid change and volatility plagues leaders

Hong Kong companies’ leadership challenges have a familiar ring: “…managing a multi-generational workforce, high talent mobility, and critical talent scarcity.”

What can you to do create opportunities for potential hires and your company to experience working together for a time before making a long term commitment?

What stands in the way of creating lower barriers to leaving and rejoining your organization more often?

Building capability in supply chain managers for today and tomorrow is a key concern of global businesses dependent on emerging markets.

“The Institute for Supply Management recently released a statement that urged all businesses to become more aggressive in their procurement of skilled professionals who can handle more complex and volatile situations.”

How is your supply chain organization setting up processes to harvest what it learns and instill it in others and the organization itself?

Diversity, inclusion, equity

Factor age into diversity and inclusion talent management strategy

“Whereas Millennials’ number one priority is flexible work conditions, companies believe it is employee development. Organisations also underestimate the extent that Generation X and Baby Boomers value training, coaching, and feedback.” See a couple more surprising preferences of the generations here.

If different strategies are needed for developing, retaining, motivating, and engaging the generations at work, how do you develop managers to adapt their approach to generations and individuals?

Set the diversity and inclusion agenda through strategic talent management

A great summary of considerations and actions by a former colleague of mine, Marjorie Derven.

Executive coaching is about situational awareness

Where are you now and what does it mean? That’s the simplest way to describe situational awareness. What’s going on around me that might be relevant: what’s changing, who’s in and out, are things getting better or worse, what was the impact of the last change? You’ve got it.

What about your situation? Yes, the objective parts, but also you, in your mind and thoughts, and among your most important goals?

  • Are the unproductive meetings I have with the team a problem, or a symptom of a problem?
  • Is it possible that my assumptions about what’s right and best are holding me back?
  • Does my sense of accomplishment make me confident or complacent?
  • Am I using problem-solving approaches that aren’t sophisticated enough for our complex problems?

In the world of people, places, and things, situational awareness can be difficult to achieve. But it can be learned. How much more challenging is it to assess your situation in terms of assumptions, beliefs, biases, hopes, and dynamics with other people? Many people struggle through on their own. And many make real progress.

What is now ≠ What is possible

But some make the mistake of thinking that their limits are insurmountable obstacles. They’ve tried to get better or do things differently, only to learn the same lessons again. This can be especially hard for leaders and managers. Performing – getting better – is important to their careers. It’s also important to satisfaction that we all take from work.Climbing obstacle

If leaders can be honest, they’ll also admit that leading or managing well is important to the way they think of themselves. Obstacles that they can’t vault raise obvious questions: How can I fix this? But the hard question is, “If I can’t meet this leadership challenge, who am I now?”

Develop situational awareness faster

Leadership situational awareness can also be learned. If change – planned or otherwise – has made performance in a new situation critical, choosing an executive coach can help you see a wider perspective, interpret it’s meaning (and threats and opportunities), and experiment with targeted, meaningful action.

You may already have wise support among colleagues. But if not, the process can save the time of trial and error. You’ll learn a few things you might not have thought of. It can also help you make more of the lessons to be learned from new behavior. The coach you choose should be equipped with methods to raise your awareness and help you plan to take action using those new approaches.

The first question is still “Where am I now?” Armed with new insight, leaders can investigate “What does it mean?” which is the first step deeper into awareness of their situation.