What do the terms “coaching” and “mentoring” mean in your organization? Do they suggest discipline or are do they convey growth and support?
No matter how these terms are defined in your setting, it is likely that your leadership role calls for your active involvement in the growth of others. When we partner as mentors and coaches with our staff, we become “leader coaches.” When we serve in this way, we can become welcome sources of knowledge, skill, inspiration, and encouragement. Our learning partners can develop trust in us as advisors and creators of a safe space so they can practice difficult conversations and new behaviors, share concerns and explore fresh ways of managing and leading. Once we have earned their trust, we can provide mirroring and insight they might not receive otherwise.
These learning partnerships are critical for leadership success, and just one reason is that nurse and health care leaders at all levels crave feedback. Needing thoughtful and objective feedback isn’t just the province of younger, less experienced leaders. It’s a truism, but for most of us, the higher up we go, the less feedback we receive. As a “trusted advisor,” you can offer feedback and many other gifts to your learning partners.
But what about your own growth? Is the business of being a leader coach a one–way street? Certainly not. For example, if your staff have become more skilled because of your guidance, that could be reward enough. You could even say that the purpose of your coaching has been achieved.
But many leaders know that mentoring and coaching others also give us “psychic and emotional” benefits. Just one is that we witness the beauty of the human spirit when it is “tended.” When we intentionally engage as mentors and coaches, we take the time to see the world from another’s point of view. And when it’s called for, we share a slice of what we understand about that person’s world, and we offer perspective
about how they operate within it.
Within the trusting container of the relationship we create together, our learning partners can stop and think. They can ask themselves honest questions like “Is this how I want to show up?” Or “what have I forgotten to learn, own and/or share that changes the picture?” As leader coaches, we can ask ourselves how our partners see their circumstances differently than we do. Or, we can stimulate their imaginations with fresh views as they reflect and craft their visions for moving forward.
These conversations are rich dialogues in which we as leader coaches witness the commitment and vulnerabilities of our partners. We learn that we can maintain our own perspectives while also being enriched by others. We can also be challenged by unexpected ideas that force us to open our minds and leave the comfort of our own “box.” The learning goes both ways.
We may know our managerial roles very well, but do we know how to best engage as leader coaches? What areas of expertise do we need to sharpen so others can blossom into the leaders they are capable of being? In turn, what capacities will help us be more successful on our own journey to leadership excellence?
Here are a few skills that will go a long way toward these ends.
- As leader coaches, our greatest gifts are our presence and our attention. Coaching and mentoring don’t have to take a lot of time, but they do require some. After all, we are investing in others—and in ourselves. It’s a 2–way investment. We can even consider it an act of self-care.
- We want to be conscious and deliberate as we fulfill this role. From the “leader coach” stance, our job is to listen, to respect, and to offer ways in which our partner can develop. It is our responsibility to understand, to mirror, and to gently challenge when that’s appropriate.
- We need to be honest with ourselves when we have negative judgments or feelings about the “coachee.” If we feel that way consistently, we are not the right coach for this situation. But if our disapproval is sporadic, it’s worth asking ourselves if we can get beyond these occasional feelings. Can we be open, and
do we want to better understand this person? Are we willing to let go of assumptions that may be incorrect? If we can do this, we can shift from being negative to wanting to learn more. We can ask curious, open–ended questions that will allow us to see our learning partner more clearly. We also may be able to better recognize our own biases.
- As “leader coaches,” we can fulfill these responsibilities when we enter the dialogue refreshed and aware that we are there to be of support. We may truly want what’s best for the other person, and in
that case, we are relatively “agenda free.” Or we may have an agenda such as wanting this individual to
lead more effectively or take on more responsibility. In that case, we can own our goal, and at the same
time acknowledge and honor that the other person is in charge of their own path.
- Finally, we can let go of our commitment to “being right.” As I have described elsewhere1, attachments to having the right answer come naturally when we are skilled, experienced, and bright. But being convinced we are right does not serve us or anyone else when it prevents us from hearing other points of view and listening with respect. As effective coaches and mentors, we succeed when we offer guidance and allow others to find their own voice, whether that voice is the same or different from our own.
Mastering these skills can take a lifetime of practice, but it’s worth it. Your impact cannot be overstated: your colleagues can flourish with your help, and your hearts can truly fill with joy.
1. Robinson-Walker C. Leading Valiantly in Healthcare: Four Steps to Sustainable Success. Indianapolis, ID: Sigma Theta Tau International, 2013.