Challenge, Coach and Confront: The leader's basic toolkit

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Hey there and welcome to episode 57 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast, this week's episode Challenge, Coach and Confront: The leader's basic toolkit. You may have heard me talk about the hard work of leadership as the process of challenging, coaching and confronting your people. I had quite a few questions from our last Leadership Beyond the Theory cohort asking to explore this in more depth. So today we'll take a closer look at how this works. It's going to be pretty straightforward, so let's get into it.

I just want to start with a little bit of context. Why do we actually do this? Well, challenging, coaching and confronting is essential to a constructive high performance culture and in fact you can't have one without the ability to quickly and clearly set expectations for behaviour and performance with your team. Challenging, coaching and confronting allows you to do this. As with most things that rely on culture, behaviour and people I tossed this around with Danny Hovey, my talent and leadership expert. He always makes me think, and he did remind me of the SCARF model, which I hadn't actually connected this to. Now SCARF is relatively new. It's only been around for about 10 years and it has its foundations in neuroscience, but SCARF is an acronym that stands for Status, Control, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. The research implies that these five social domains activate the same threatened reward responses in our brain that we rely on for physical survival. The challenge, coach, confront process if done well, satisfies nearly all of these fundamental neurological requirements and therefore minimises resistance.

You may have heard me say on a number of occasions that when people walk into work each day, they want to know three basic things. Number one, what are your expectations of me? Number two, how am I going against those expectations? And number three, what does my future hold? This sounds so simple, but it absolutely fascinates me. So I test this all the time. At keynotes, I ask people for a show of hands "Who thinks that their people know these three basic things each day - expectations, progress, and future?" Very, very few leaders actually put their hand up. I would say probably less than 5% of any room I'm in. So this is quite intriguing, right? But when I think about it, I worked most of my career without this level of clarity. I worked for some really excellent people, but they couldn't articulate what they expected and they spent even less time giving me feedback. I guess they figured I knew what I was doing, but that doesn't really help when you're looking for something specific. But this is at the heart of the leadership dialogue. It goes on every day in all interactions, big and small, formal and informal, verbal and written.

It's about people working out their context so they can operate freely and successfully within that context. It gives them the confidence to make good decisions and to just do their jobs. So in general, the challenge and coach phases are critical to building relationships, building trust, and setting the standards for the culture you're trying to create. If challenging and coaching is done well, confronting will be a rarity. However, when it is required, it will be seen as fair. You'd normally spend the vast majority of your time in challenging and coaching. And I would say probably 95% of your time is spent here. So if you're spending more than 5% of your time with an individual confronting them, this is an alarm bell. Either they are not performing the way they need to or you're not challenging and coaching effectively. When confronting is required, you need to be able to slip into it seamlessly, effortlessly, and competently.

But think about your time impost as a leader. Do you spend too much time with the squeaky wheels? You should spend 80% of your time with your best people, not the other way around. So you've got to challenge yourself on this. If you have to spend the vast majority of your time challenging and coaching with a certain individual, it's a sure sign that you should be moving to confronting.

Let's break down the three elements of challenging, coaching and confronting and look at them one by one. So let's start with challenging. This is where expectations are set. You have the opportunity to make it very clear what's required of your people, so you start with the values, the code of conduct, performance standards, standards for behaviour, your cultural aspirations, the level of achievement you expect and your philosophy, excellence over perfection for example.

Simplicity and focus for the work program, performance management and building a high performing team. What are your expectations of how your leaders will behave in any of those circumstances? Documents are necessary but not sufficient. People typically don't read them in any detail. They need to be there to refer to, but you don't rely on them. This is about conversations. People work out your values, not by what's written on the website, but rather the behaviour you model and what you show them as important, when decisions are taken or choices are made. Challenging people is the fundamental process of setting up clearly what the standards are and making sure that people understand how to step up and meet those standards. There are plenty of checkpoints and opportunities for feedback during this process. The biggest mistake I see with challenging is that most leaders are afraid to stretch their people, to demand enough from them.

It's about expecting people to be their best, not asking unreasonable things of them. But we're afraid to stretch people. What if we too hard on them? They might not like us. If we set too challenging goals, they might not succeed. The team might miss its targets, better to set them soft and easy. If we ask too much, we might burn people out or they might get disgruntled and as we all know, happy workers are productive workers. These are all just rationalisations that we use to convince ourselves that we shouldn't take on the risks that come with setting stretch targets and asking people to outperform. But this is about more than just getting the job done. It's about personal growth, impact and self-esteem. Now, I often say, the older I get, the less certain I am about practically everything, but here's one thing I'm pretty sure about.

It's the drive of self esteem. Now, have a think about this. When have you felt the best in your life? Unstoppable. Bulletproof. An absolute world beater. I'm not talking about on a Saturday night after four pints of beer. It's when you have achieved something extremely difficult that you initially thought was out of your reach, yet you achieved it anyway, so running a marathon or childbirth, something in your work environment, I don't know. But when you can achieve something that's over and above what you thought you could, something that put real fear into you and you do it anyway, that's where your self esteem comes from. I found this completely addictive during my career, I got to tell you. And I would take on jobs where success was almost impossible because that feeling of the pit in the stomach where you don't know whether or not you can do something and then you prevail, that's what drives self esteem, that's what drives impact and that's what drives you to want to come back and be even better next time.

Now, interestingly, most people won't do this for themselves. Even really good people need a leader who is going to push them out of their comfort zone to have those sorts of aspirations. But sometimes we worry about putting too much stress on people. Now you may have, once again, heard me talk about Yerkes–Dodson principle, which is about how stress affects performance and stress is awesomely positive for performance up to a certain point. As you increase stress, performance improves until you get to the point where there's too much stress and then performance declines, sometimes falling off a cliff. The challenge for a leader is to find that point just before performance starts to decline. So you're looking for that optimum point between anxiety and boredom.

But if you don't push people to the edge of their limits, you rob them of the opportunity to be their best. You're actually doing them a disservice. And if you think about this, you may be the only person in their lives, whoever does this. Have a think about it. How many leaders have ever done that for you in your career? But once you experience this and understand how the principle works (and you do actually have to experience this to work it out) you can see a change in people that is almost magical. Don't expect it to happen for everyone though. I reckon maybe one in 10 people get this, but when they do, it is incredible to watch. So if you constantly challenge your people to be better, to be more, and to deliver more than they thought they could, it's worth it to change the life of one individual.

Alright let's move on to coaching. As Chief Executive of a major business, by far the largest entry in my calendar each week was for coaching my people, and this is both one-on-one and as a team for the executive leadership team I formed. But helping them to deliver what they had been challenged to deliver was what this is all about. Working on their personal limitations and derailers, helping them talk through the issues they had with both people and business related issues. Realigning their expectations and coming back to the standards all the time. This is the standard we're meeting. Yes, I am expecting you to meet the standard and yes, I'm going to help you. And of course the occasional hard message. But this is all about making sure people have the guidance, the tools, and the support to do what you're asking of them.

Every individual is different, but it's not all necessarily individual. There's a place for team coaching as well. You want to stay close to people without getting into their knitting and this is how you do it. So they clearly have accountability for delivering on their commitments and you empower them to do this in all sorts of ways. You give them clarity of objectives and priorities. You give them resources, you give them the autonomy to make decisions around the things that they're accountable for. But sometimes the coaching can be quite deep and sometimes the messages can be quite confronting. So I'm the process of writing my first leadership book at present, and in one of the examples that I wrote this morning, I was relating a story about one of my direct reports from not too far back. As part of my coaching, and yes, he also had an external coach that the company provided for him. I had to make it clear that one of his behaviours was actually a career killer. I said to him, "Until you work out how to get this under control and manage it, you won't go any further in your career. It holds you back and it holds your team back in so many ways." Now, this was an excellent person who had so much positive going for him, but as his direct manager, I was obligated to coach him on overcoming a blind spot until it was no longer a blind spot. And then of course, until he conquered the issue. But with deep seated behavioural issues, this can take a long time to resolve, if ever. It's also about getting the most out of your excellent people, working out how to give them the observations and insights that will help them to be even better.

So you've got your people who are struggling, you've got your outstanding performers, and you've got everyone in between. You challenge and coach all of them. Now with challenging and coaching, you have to stay close enough to people to know when to intervene. But then of course don't micromanage and this can be quite subtle. So people need autonomy to operate, but with your expert guidance to ensure that they have the scaffolding around them required to operate safely and successfully.

Let's finish off by looking at the confront phase. When people are unresponsive to challenging and coaching, confronting is essential, but this is the tough bit. This is where you have to give difficult feedback, where you have to lay down consequences. And these situations are absolutely by the nature, adversarial and laden with conflict. You may have heard me say before though, if people trust and respect you, there is nothing you can't say to them.

So if you've challenged and put the coaching in place and you've done this effectively, then people will respect you for what you're telling them, and they will see it as being fair. But it does have to be fair and just - you do challenging and coaching well, and it almost certainly will be. But people should be under no illusion as to what is required, both in terms of behaviour and performance. If you haven't done challenging and coaching well or in some cases I've seen, not at all, then confronting will be seen as unfair and it'll have all sorts of negative impacts on your business and culture. Moving into the confront phase, heralds a power shift from influencing to controlling. You go from using your referent power to using your coercive power. Now, if you haven't listened to Episode #5: Using Power Wisely, it's worth going back and reviewing that because I talk about the five types of power that are available to us as leaders, and it's valid to use every one of those types of power in certain circumstances and in the confront phase, it's valid to use coercive power.

Sometimes the threat of consequences is the only thing that really gets someone's attention and forces them to make a choice - up or out. As Al Capone was famously quoted for saying, "You can get a lot further with a kind word and a gun, than you can with a kind word alone." But people need to know in no uncertain terms, that they are risking consequences, whatever they are based on the severity of their situation. So maybe they'll be overlooked for promotion, maybe they'll be moved to a more junior role, or maybe in the worst cases there'll be exited from the organisation. Confronting is all about making sure that we apply the consequences that we say we're going to. Otherwise in the challenging phase, it's all just empty words. So bringing this all together, you can't competently deploy, challenge, coach and confront unless you have a few things in your leadership repertoire.

You need a strong belief in the tenet of respect before popularity. Otherwise you're not going to push yourself to do the hard things you need to do as a leader and have those conversations. You need a burning desire to put your people and the team ahead of yourself. You need a belief in people's accountability for making their own choices about behaviour and performance. And you really need a belief in the infinite value to every individual of affording them the opportunity to bring out their very best. And as I said before, I've seen this truly change people's lives, not just their career trajectory. As a leader, you need both the skill and the will to interact with people in the most difficult and challenging of circumstances.

Alright, so that brings us to the end of Episode 57. Thanks so much for joining us and remember, at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So please share this with your network as this is how we reach even more leaders and improve the world of work. I'll look forward to next week's episode where we'll unpick a few more listener questions with a Q&A episode.

Until then I know you'll take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.