Leadership Coaching Focused on Strengths

Not long ago I spoke with a mid-level executive who had been asked to participate in a 360 feedback process.  As a result of that exercise he found, to no one’s surprise, that he had several vivid strengths along with several noticeable weaknesses.  The coach he was working with spent time discussing those strengths; the executive’s direct manager, also made aware of the results, began to speak to him instead about how to shore up his weaknesses.

As business and executive coaches, we are commonly engaged to work with leaders who have the potential to grow into the next level of leadership. And often the leader’s manager positions the coaching engagement as a means to help the leader get there. The rub is when it starts to become evident that there is an undercurrent where the organization really wants to bring in a coach to “fix” a leader or, in the case of my client’s experience, to focus on the weaknesses that his manager observed. His manager came from a place of “solving a problem” versus enhancing a strength.

We know, however, that there is true power in emphasizing strengths, building from those strengths, and using “appreciative” tools and techniques. By focusing on strengths and providing our clients with the means to recognize them, practice them and deepen them, our clients develop an even greater appreciation for the strengths in themselves and, ultimately, in others.

So how do we bridge that gap?  How do we work not only with our clients, but with the other relevant stakeholders, at least some of whom expect us to “solve problems?”

In my own coaching, I have had occasional meetings with organizations who were shopping for a potential coach, yet it soon became evident that the manager’s objective was to fix a leader’s weaknesses, to get them to stop doing the things that the manager sees as deficient behaviors.

My recommendation, in those cases, is to offer a dyad coaching approach — coach the leader to demonstrate and build upon his or her strengths and, concurrently, coach the manager around recognizing, observing and optimizing the leader’s strengths — both with an intention of goodwill and of deepening their working relationship. The conversations practiced and the subsequent outcomes are a win for both — recognizing and building skill and practice around strengths.

What are your thoughts about shifting a request to work on weaknesses to an intention towards strengths?


What Would Love Do?

I was delighted to learn this question while attending Georgetown’s coaching certification program a couple of years ago.  The simplicity of the question gets to the heart of choice, a choice to tap into the basis of human love and commitment for another person’s well-being, allowing love to lead what happens next. A choice where, if love was leading the way, what might it look or sound like when all is said and done?

Love orients our intentions to a place of goodwill for others and being fully present for what they might need or want from the experience.  Love’s orientation opens the space, safely allowing them to discover and deepen their capacity to change and learn, even during the most difficult of conversations.

I am faced with a difficult decision – what would love do? I am in conflict with another person – what would love do? I’ll be having a difficult conversation with an employee today – what would love do? I want to coach my team to take more initiative – what would love do?

Leading by love gives us opportunity to grow, as well. It helps enhance and deepen our leadership presence. When our orientation is focused keenly on the other person – shifting our perspective from ourselves and our egos – we learn from another’s perspective and by how they come to conclusions. Love’s leading deepens the quality of the questions we ask and the guidance we provide. It changes us just as much as it changes them.

Today is Valentine’s Day, a day dedicated to love. What opportunities do we have to let love lead the conversations we will be having? What choices will you make?


Beekeeping and Leadership Effectiveness

Honeybees fascinate me.

I recently crossed off one of my “bucket list” items and spent time at the Heifer Ranch in Arkansas learning about beekeeping. Everything I knew about bees and beekeeping up to now came strictly from books or documentaries. No hands-on experience. So I heeded the nagging nudge and gave it a try.

Suffice it to say, I’m hooked.

Sue Hubell tells us in her book, “A Book of Bees, And How to Keep Them”, “The end of one honey season is the start of the next, and autumn is a good time to start with bees…Summer’s end is also the new beginning of a new cycle for bees. It is then that they prepare for the winter ahead, and their preparations, along with the help a beekeeper can give them, determine how good the next season will be.”

I learned a lot that week – how to calm the bees, extract honey, build and repair supers – all good, practical activities. The most impactful for me, though, was what I learned by observing the master beekeeper, Chuck Crimmins, as he lovingly cared for his bees.

It’s said that bees learn to recognize their beekeeper’s voice and the rhythm of his or her movements. Bees will react, either aggressively or calmly, depending on what is happening around them. Vibrations unnerve them. They can sense apprehension and smell fear.

Watching Chuck’s quiet and gentle movements was like watching a movie clip in slow motion. Bending to rest his ear on the side of the hive, he listens for the buzzing hum. Are the bees active? Quiet? He slowly removes the hive cover, gently pulling out each frame, holding them up to the sunlight to check the bees’ health, and tenderly uses his breath to blow them aside to look for the queen. Bees are landing lightly on his arms, flying around him – he works the bees all the while without wearing gloves! It was inspiring to watch Chuck’s quiet and slow approach how, as beekeeper, his role as helper, he held and cared for the space where the bees calmly work their magic.

Reflecting on Hubbell’s words and spending time with Chuck that week made me think about leadership and how we leaders can often get it wrong. We think our teams need us more than they actually do. We lean into our position, our expert-ness, our thinking that our way is best. We over-care and overbear, fill voids with our voices and opinions, stomp heavily on ideas outside our own – whatever it is, we get in the way of possibility and the creative magic that our teams can create.

Beekeeper-like leadership – this is a notion that I’d like to ponder a bit more. What opportunities do we have to lead our teams like a beekeeper tends to his bees? What are the ways we might lightly step in when needed, gently check-in to assess health, and then confidently assume that our teams are competent to learn from mistakes, perform and deliver? As Susan Scott talks about in “Fierce Leadership” – instead of holding them accountable, hold them able!” How significant a shift might that make?

Honeybees don’t really require our help; they’ve been collecting pollen and making honey for thousands of years. Perhaps the people we lead have an intuitive sense about how to work in ways that we can only imagine, if we only make way for their intuition to take hold.

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