September 2022

Coaching to Empower Your Team

by Jay Pullins

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It was my first week in my new Air Force squadron in Alaska. My new commander invited me to his office to meet with him for the first time. I was a little nervous, not knowing what to expect. After a few pleasantries, he said something to me that will stick with me the rest of my professional life.

"Jay, do you know the difference between me and you? I'm not more talented or smarter than you. Really, the only difference is, I'm older than you, so I got here first. The best thing I can do for this squadron is get you ready to take my place when I leave."

He then laid out a plan for appointing me to lead departments I was unfamiliar with and crews during various deployments and training exercises. At the end of that first meeting, I wasn't sure whether it was more appropriate to feel honored that my commander would make this professional investment in me, or nervous for the challenges that would be coming my way. As it turns out, both responses were appropriate. I experienced more professional growth in those four years under his command than at any other time in my Air Force career.

Not only did my commander recognize the value of coaching for succession planning and creating a deep bench of qualified leaders to fill various squadron leadership roles, but he also had an intentional plan for coaching his officers, and he was focused on finding opportunities for carrying out that plan. He provided opportunities for me and other leaders to take on more leadership responsibilities, to upgrade our skills, and for professional exposure and recognition. He even temporarily loaned me to a higher headquarters office at the expense of his own squadron, so that I could have exposure to our most senior commanders on base. All the while, he coached me through those experiences to help me succeed.

I've learned from some great leaders over the years that the fundamental role of great leaders is to make more leaders, empowering them to become great leaders themselves. And they've taught me that making more leaders entails calibrating two important characteristics.

The first characteristic of leaders who are great coaches is HIGH INVITATION. They make room in their work lives for those they coach and function as role models. They make their own work habits visible and reproducible. This requires personal transparency and genuine care for those they coach.

In addition to high invitation, a coaching leader infuses HIGH CHALLENGE. They raise the performance bar for those they lead. They train them to perform beyond their current capabilities, challenge them to develop new skills, hold them accountable for great results, and ensure that they are recognized accordingly. They don't worry about being out-shined; in fact, they hope to be.

One of those two characteristics without the other can be problematic, however. A coaching relationship characterized by high invitation and a lack of challenge is often a cozy environment with little accountability and low standards, despite feeling welcoming and comfortable. On the other hand, a coaching relationship characterized by high challenge and a lack of invitation is often stressful with little reward and low morale, despite the benefits of high performance. An excellent coaching leader calibrates both high invitation and high challenge to empower their people to achieve great things and reap the rewards.

How about you? How do you encourage those you lead and invite them in close enough to learn from your example? How are you challenging your people to achieve more than they thought they could?