Questions & answers

Last week I noted the growing interest in coaching among business people and other professionals in Africa. It’s hugely positive trend because most of those getting involved aren’t ageing lions of industry putting a legacy gloss on the end of their business careers. Instead, they are people who can see that the old ways of management are fast becoming obsolescent. Even before HR departments began to wail about the ‘shiftless’ ways of the Millennial, our tradition of top-down, directive leadership was looking a bit threadbare. It no longer cuts the mustard in highly developed market economies that are blossoming across Africa these days.

So, having managers with coaching skills in your organisation is a good way to learn whether there’s any talent beneath the senior executive layer. Among the wider employee base and, in particular, among bright young employees who, traditionally, would have faced a twenty-year wait before contributing their ideas.

Coaching managers can open up discussions that reverse the contribution flow. Balancing a top down (my way or the highway) culture with the green shoots of initiative from the bottom up. They do it by listening better than traditional managers, who only hear content and look for opportunities to judge. If they’re good at it, they learn to demonstrate respect for the speaker – no matter how junior. This builds a rapport which makes productive, fear-free conversations possible. How refreshing!

There’s even a third level of listening which coaches learn, and some master. This goes beyond listening to the words, and taps into the fine distinctions of emotion that are revealed by the pace, tone and energy of the respondent. Managers who are able to do this are very valuable, because they can mine the underlying values and motivations in teams and individuals.

Of course, when you set out to listen within traditional work environments you often encounter the sound of silence. That’s what happens when people have grown up waiting for the most powerful person in the room to speak. They are conditioned to avoid the risk of speaking against what the senior person might say. They are, in fact, praying to whichever God who will listen to them to be spared the agony of being nominated to speak. And that is a shame – on a human level – and a waste of resource – on an organisational one.

Managers who coach actually have the keys to unlock the silence. They come in the form of powerful questions, that cannot be answered with ‘yes, sir’ or ‘no, madam’.

What value might it give you, if I was to explain this further?