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27 Apr 2017

73. QUESTION YOUR APPROACH

When you need action and results fast, it’s tempting to simply instruct and direct your team. But according to Jeremy Snape good leaders educate at the same time.

Whether you are a football manager, a FTSE leader, a rugby coach or a teacher, your job is essentially to get each member of your team to improve their performance. One of the biggest challenges for leaders in football, though, is managing the balance of focus between preparing people to win the next game and bedding in deeper knowledge and skills towards longer-term goals.

In this battle for the manager’s attention there is often only one winner; faced with the expectations and demands of a club’s various stakeholders and the manager’s own desire to succeed, the priority is usually gaining points. After all, the survival of both the team and its manager depends on it.

This need to get results now rather than sow the seeds for later is a human response to pressure and expectation that is far from exclusive to the football industry; I’ve witnessed it as much in city boardrooms as I have in changing rooms.

When faced with a binary win or lose result, the natural response for a leader is to tell everyone what is needed and how to do it. Clarity of roles and strategy are key enablers of success, so this directive style sounds sensible and works well when things go to plan.

EMBED THE LEARNING

The problem is that when the balance shifts too much towards achieving performance in the short term, both leaders and followers get older without necessarily becoming wiser. As the saying goes, ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’.

To achieve true sustainable growth and improvement, leaders need to show courage and consider themselves to be educators of people, rather than just directors of the action. When you simply tell people what to do, the best you can hope for is compliance, i.e. they carry out your orders. But with so much pace and change in the modern game and in many fields of business, we need more than this, we need genuine engagement.

How, then, do we fast-track things and ensure we develop old heads on young shoulders? For me the answer is to create a new style of learning environment, one that develops knowledge as well as skill. Managers and their support teams need sometimes to override the instinct to simply ‘tell’. They must ask themselves, ‘Is this session making my team members better in the long term?’

THE ART OF QUESTIONING

The best coaches I have seen at work understand the power of questions and, like the Swiss army knife of coaching, have them at the ready wherever they go.

Why are questions so powerful? Well, when you ask someone a question it gives them a voice and shows them that their opinion counts. Questions also allow you to check people’s understanding and can be useful in breaking up the dynamic of a team chat before people start to lose focus. Questions also hold people accountable for their answers and actions, a little like a social contract.

It’s important when asking questions of your team to not be scared of handing over control; rather, your targeted questioning allows you to remain in charge. Also essential when introducing questions into your coaching is to create safety, because questions may be seen as a test or a threat; nobody wants to be exposed or shown up in front of their peers.

A good strategy is to give some of your team members advance warning that you intend to ask their opinion on a certain issue. This will give them a little time to prepare and will help avoid any awkward silences in front of the group.

For example: “Right, now we’re going to look through some footage of the opposition’s performance and afterwards I’d like the back four to give me a few observations.” Then follow up, “So, what did you notice about their form?”

The key thing once you’ve asked the question is to have the courage to keep quiet. The better the question, the longer the recipient will need to reflect, digest, consider and then prepare their answer. You may be tempted to fill the silence, but it’s important to give them time, because this pause is where the real learning takes place.

There are various possible outcomes once someone has given their answer. They may get it wrong, which is fine so be positive in your response. Everyone in the group needs to see that they won’t get burnt if they give a silly or incorrect answer.

For example, “Yes, good thinking, but I was wondering more about this specific aspect of their performance. What did you notice there?” Then, when they give you the answer you steered them towards, praise them so they are encouraged to contribute again in the future.

They may get the answer right straight away, in which case you can praise them and then bounce the question around the group. For example, “Great – so who else can tell me how we might exploit that?”

Everyone in your team has a professional obligation to have an opinion on how they might improve. High performance is not passive, it’s a quest, an obsession, but it does take courage to face questions in front of your peers. It also takes courage for a leader to step up to the role of educator, ask the right questions and create a learning environment that can bring not just short-term wins but long-term improvements.