Why Coaches Make the Best Leaders in a Hybrid World
By Nancy Settle-Murphy
Tuesday, 11th July 2023

'Leaders need coaching skills like never before if they want to engage, motivate and retain top talent, and yet relatively few organizations have given managers the coaching skills they need to succeed in today’s hybrid world.'

The cafeteria on the 9th floor is mostly empty as James and Ceci plunk down their trays at a table near the window, out of earshot.

They began on the same day six months ago, both newly-minted grads starting their careers in the company’s corporate marketing department, working for different managers.

As new employees, they’ve been “strongly encouraged” to work in the office 2-3 days a week. Even though their managers and teammates are rarely around whenever they come in, they enjoy catching up with each other at lunch and –they hope—to make connections with people on other teams.

While they begin to pick at their food, the difference in their energy levels is stark. “I had the best meeting with my manager yesterday,” exclaims Ceci. “She always asks such great questions! Yesterday she asked what I like best about my work and what kind of support I need. When I told her I’d like to shadow someone I can learn from, she suggested a few different people, and offered to help set something up. I'm learning something new every day!”

“That’s pretty much the opposite of my experience,” says James glumly. “My manager cancelled our 1:1 meeting again, saying that if I need anything I should ‘feel free to reach out.’ I’m always waiting on him to tell me what I should be working on, and I get no feedback on the stuff I do. He’s constantly forgetting the goals we set during my first few weeks here. It’s almost as if he forgets why he even hired me! I’m gonna start returning recruiters’ calls.”

Same department, same start date. Different managers, different mindsets. One manager is committed to see her new employee thrive, and the other is on the verge of never seeing his new employee ever again.

Leaders need coaching skills like never before if they want to engage, motivate and retain top talent, and yet relatively few organizations have given managers the coaching skills they need to succeed in today’s hybrid world.

Why are coaching skills so important right now, especially for younger workers?

  • Many feel a profound sense of disconnection and isolation, battling stress, depression and other mental health issues in record numbers
  • The opportunity to learn and grow is often the biggest draw for new hires, and many have no idea how to identify and capitalize on those opportunities, especially when working remotely
  • The line of sight between employees and managers is mostly missing, making it hard for employees to learn from others
  • Younger workers crave autonomy and need the knowledge, skills and guidance of a “thought partner” to develop self-sufficiency
  • Getting help to advance their careers can be a make-or-break factor for younger workers
  • Unambiguous frequent feedback can help reduce stress and provide needed confidence

What coaching skills are most important and most challenging in a hybrid workplace?

Here's how more than 100 coach/managers responded when I asked what they see as the most important coaching skills that are especially tough to pull off in a virtual/hybrid world:

  • Demonstrating empathy, curiosity, caring
  • Motivating, inspiring
  • Building rapport
  • Ability to create psychological safety
  • Trust building, relationship building
  • Having tough conversations, delivering feedback
  • Instilling confidence, empowering, creating a sense of autonomy
  • Coaxing people out of their comfort zone

What does a great 1:1 coaching conversation look like?

  • Establish a regular cadence and duration. Most manager/coaches said they met with their coachee once a week for 30 minutes or monthly for an hour. Never postpone these meetings, they said, other than in the case of real extenuating circumstances, and never simply cancel.
  • Make sure both of you have an undistracted setting for a private conversation. Know that some people find it easier to listen deeply without the distraction of a camera. Clear everything off your desk and turn off audible notifications to stay completely focused. Have a pad and paper on hand to allow you to take notes either during the session or immediately afterwards.
  • Have a predictable yet flexible agenda, with enough structure so that both of you have an idea what you'll be discussing so you can come prepared. Build in enough flexibility so that either one can bring up topics or ask questions that weren’t planned in advance.
  • Come with questions to prompt meaningful conversations. For example, you might start by asking what three things the employee is proudest of, and three things that are challenging right now. Beyond that, have a series of prompting questions that build on your prior conversation. (Example: “Last time we brainstormed ideas for XXXX. What action have you taken since?” Or “I know you’ve been shadowing Josie over the past couple of weeks. What about her job is most appealing?”) For a compendium of dozens of coaching questions, click on the first link below.
  • Make professional development a part of every conversation. For example, you may ask what development goals they have for the next quarter and how you can support them. You might want to suggest a specific activity such as facilitating the next team meeting to help cultivate certain skills.
  • Conclude each session with agreed-upon actions and ways each of you will follow up. For example, you may promise to connect them to a leader in other department or to sponsor them as a subject matter expert at an upcoming conference. They might commit to trying role-playing techniques for managing difficult meeting behavior and then reporting back. Establish a timeline whenever possible.

Where to start?

  • Assess the relative importance of certain coaching skills and aptitudes throughout your organization. This can be done a number of ways, including through engagement surveys, 360 feedback, and focus groups. Then determine where you see the most glaring gaps, and start there.
  • Choose a couple of skills to begin with and consider how each might be best learned and applied in real-life situations. For example, having difficult conversations might be best done through role-plays, while a quick reference guide might be the best way to learn how to craft engaging questions.
  • Offer a combination of learning activities, including relatively brief instructor-led virtual sessions, self-paced modules, reference material, peer groups and more.
  • Invite your rock star coaches to act as role models for others, whether by leading a training session, recording a few brief how-to videos, or unpacking their knowledge for instructional designers to work from.

Need evidence that coaching skills have never matterd more?

In a recent Gallup report, 49% of employees quitting their organizations say no one had spoken to them in a meaningful way about their performance in the previous three months. And a scant 15% of employees believe that any recent conversation with their manager inspired them to achieve. Employee engagement can leap from 33-80% if managers hold just one meaningful conversation a week with each employee. If that doesn’t make a compelling case for action, I don’t know what does!

If you want to brainstorm ways your leaders can develop coaching skills that can help engage, develop and retain your employees, send me an email to schedule time to talk.

Founded in 1994 by Nancy Settle-Murphy, Guided Insights (formerly Chrysalis International) is a facilitation, training and strategic communications consulting firm based in Boxborough, MA - just 35 minutes from Boston, MA and 20 minutes of Worcester, MA.

The company's virtual team of seasoned facilitators, organizational development professionals, trainers and strategists is committed to helping teams achieve desired results more quickly by collaborating more successfully. A special area of focus for the firm is helping virtual teams who work across various cultures, functions and time zones.


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