Fisherperson or Coach?

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“My team members are always coming to me with problems they want me to solve. No one seems to be able to come up with their own solutions. It’s exhausting!” If this sounds familiar in some form, this blog post might be for you. The central question is focused on what type of leader you want to be. Will you be a fisherperson or a coach?

Fisherpeople (not Merpeople; that’s a totally different blog)

A fisherperson is out there doing the work. They are setting the lines, casting them out, and reeling in the fish. They are very busy, producing results, and never have enough time. One fisherperson we worked with would often say, “These two team members never seem to have any answers! I’ve been doing this work so much longer. It’s just easier for me to pick up where they left off and get it done.” Do you know a leader like this in your organization? Are you that leader?

Habits of fisherpeople include taking over projects “for” their team members because “it’s just faster if I do it”. Or being so involved in these tasks that there is no time left for actual management of the team. Another habit of this group is “in the moment” leadership, where there’s little advanced planning or big picture awareness. The focus is just on completing all the tasks.

Some might argue that this is a leader cranking out lots of results. Yep, their basket is full of fish. But they can’t tell you the first thing about what else is happening in the lake or on the docks. Their focus is narrow. Their results are very limited. And they are doing nothing to develop their teams.

Football Coach? Personal Trainer? What?

None of the above but we do share some traits. A coach, or coaching leader, is someone who is pulling out the best of each person on their team. A coach does not presume to have all the answers. Their focus is on a belief that each team member has that capacity. They see their role as helping pull those ideas out and help set their team up for success. They encourage, ask a lot of questions, and are slow to give answers or solutions.

Coaching leaders have a particular style. They are constantly stepping back, evaluating the big picture, finding connections, and developing people. Their approach is more intentional and measured. It’s designed to look for the best in people, and to see past limitations to potential. These leaders are also creating results. But those results have a much broader reach and impact because they come from the whole team. Not just the leader.

These results are achieved through acting with more intention. A coaching leader makes planning and reflection a priority. They spend time meeting with members of the team individually. They assess what each person needs and help clarify how that individual’s work connects to the bigger mission of the organization. They ask a lot of open-ended questions. Here are a few examples—

  • What are your ideas about this?
  • What do you need?
  • What would that look like?
  • If you had to make a decision right now, what would you do?
  • Who can you go to for support?
  • What’s in your control that can make a difference here?
  • If you were sitting in my seat, what question would you want me to ask you right now?
  • What is the first next step?

Setting the Stage

While some coaching leaders ask those kinds of questions in more informal settings, they tend to work best in a one-on-one conversation. And those conversations produce the most results when some thought is given to three other aspects.

  1. What’s the purpose of this conversation? Are you trying to educate or inform this team member? Inspire or motivate them? Move them to take specific action? Something else? Clarifying the purpose helps define the outcome on which you are focused.
  2. Why does your team member think you’re meeting? Agree to the outcomes and purpose at the beginning of the conversation is critical.
  3. What is your team member’s starting point? What beliefs, attitudes, fears or prejudgments do they have? Are they friendly, hostile, wary or something else? Based on that, what is the best place to start the conversation?

From there, use those open-ended questions to go forward. Be slow to give answers or solutions. Encourage your team members to use their resources and talents to develop creative ideas. Believe in them when they are unsure of whether or not to believe in themselves. Be a coach. Cheer them on. Tell them what they need to hear. But make them get out there and play the game themselves.

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