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What does it mean to bring a coaching mindset to your leadership role?

I spent the first 15 years of my career working with governments, civil servants, civil society and businesses in countries where I wasn't born or a citizen and, in most cases, where the countries' levels of per capita income were far lower than Canada's (or the UK, where I now call home).

I experienced (and accepted unquestioningly) the expert phenomenon during that time. If you have ever worked as a consultant, you have probably experienced this. It is the assumption made by everyone in the room or organization, usually including the consultant, that they are the subject experts. It is seldom the case, but that assumption and the power that stems from it is dangerous and intoxicating.

And yet, over sixty years of global experience have demonstrated that technical expertise (an expert mindset) is insufficient to solve a problem. If only expertise were required, global poverty would have been eradicated decades ago, organizations wouldn't struggle with change, and everyone would follow expert advice on what it means to be healthy. Yet none of these things happen. These problems cannot be broken down into a series of steps and relationships to be addressed in sequence to create the desired outcome. Most of the problems we face are complicated, and there is no blueprint for addressing them. Instead, they are complex and don't have a single answer to produce the 'right' outcome.

A technical problem requires technical expertise. You look at the blueprint, ensure you have the right resources, and then solve it using your or someone else's authority to get something done. Fortunately, and unfortunately, our world is far more complicated than that. Yet, we default to the intoxicating simplicity of the "expert mindset" to solve problems - companies, organizations, governments, and individuals all look to hire experts to solve their challenges. But what if our reliance on technical expertise only perpetuates a cycle where the underlying problems - usually tied up with individuals' values, beliefs and self-image - go unaddressed?

From my vantage point in the UK, you don't need to look any further than the National Health Service to see how reliance on technical solutions leaves the much more significant and more challenging conversation on what the NHS is and should be unaddressed. In the long term, without a conversation across British society on what the NHS should be, it will be impossible for the NHS to change to meet the challenges it faces effectively.

Finding another way - leadership as the shift from an expert mindset to a coaching mindset.

There is another way - it starts with us shedding the reliance and focus on an expert mindset and being curious about our problems and challenges. I'd call this a "coaching mindset", but you could call it being actively curious. The best way to understand this is to experiment with someone you are working with or meeting in the next few days. When you go into this conversation, actively choose to listen for at least five minutes. As you do this, refrain from asking clarifying questions. Try instead (if you say anything at all) to ask "and..." or "what else".

This exercise is often done as part of coaching courses or leadership training to highlight how difficult it is not to offer advice. It also demonstrates how the emerging insights are much richer from listening than advice. I find it really hard to restrain my desire to give advice. Yet, it is in our sincere curiosity to understand and not to solve that we can work together to find solutions to our most complicated problems. It is about being curious about the person in front of you and their challenge, with the full belief that they probably also have a solution for it - one which they will be much more likely to follow through on than anything an expert provides.

We know genuine curiosity, or a coaching mindset, significantly impacts how individuals, organizations and even nations engage with each other and find solutions. Take, for example, the work that Adam Kahane has written about in his book Solving Tough Problems. Starting with the experience of bringing groups of people together in South Africa to create a vision for the future they wanted, all by being curious and creating space to listen. Guy Itzchakov and Avraham N. (Avi) Kluger studied the power of active listening to encourage greater group collaboration and problem-solving. Unsurprisingly, they found that better listeners and techniques to encourage real listening significantly improved collaboration and engagement at work.

But, it is challenging to shed the expert mentality, especially in a leadership role.

Despite knowing that curiosity, questions, and exploration hold the key to unlocking complicated challenges, we struggle to shed our desire for experts - to find the correct answer to the problem. And yet, finding a way for more people to be curious about the problems their organizations, communities and colleagues face has never been more critical. From climate change to AI, the challenges confronting individuals, organizations, and society are only becoming more complicated and far less solvable by experts.

Anyone who has ever had a kid, worked with kids, or been a kid, can probably recall their or the reaction of the young people around them to being told what to do by the adult "expert"—resistance, especially when you like what you are doing. And yet, this is the challenge we face: finding solutions that involve change for most of us - change that potentially means giving up things we like and value for a longer-term benefit.

So, what can we do to become more curious leaders?

First, we can practice curiosity. Strange as it sounds, you can actively work at being curious. When you are in a conversation and are tempted to provide the answer or make a suggestion, stop yourself and ask, "Can you tell me more about ...". It's a simple act that can rapidly improve the quality of your listening and help your team or colleague find answers they can implement more quickly.

Second, watch out for advice in disguise. We all love to ask questions that are statements of advice. For example, "Have you thought about x?" and "Do you think you can do y?" These questions are not curious. They are trying to tell someone what to do. And sometimes, it is valid and even desirable to provide your opinion. When you think it is, ask. Check in with the person you are working with to see if they would value your advice in this situation or if they need to keep thinking themselves.

Third, don't be silent. It might seem counter-intuitive, but you can't be silent if you are trying to build a culture of curiosity. As Mark Green notes, "In our silence, we are culpable." In all situations, power dynamics are at play, meaning some people won't feel able to speak up or contribute. Or worse, they will be spoken over. Your job isn't to stay silent but to call out these behaviours and create space for the thinking to go on. This doesn't have to be confrontational. You can set up meetings with rules that create the space for this - for example, that there is a no-interruption rule.

Shift your leadership thinking from an expert mindset to a curious mindset.

Moving your thinking from an expert mindset to a coaching or curious mindset can benefit team engagement, how organizations work, and the quality of your conversations. It is challenging to do. We're raised in a society that values people being right, and being certain remains a prised leadership trait. It doesn't have to be and shouldn't be this way. The most challenging problems we face require uncertainty, curiosity and a desire to bring diverse and different views to the table. Curious listening is the only way to achieve this.


Let's connect.


If you found this blog engaging, have questions about ordinary leadership or want to chat about leadership in general, it would be great to connect.


I set aside two weekly hours to make new connections and renew old ones. We have half an hour to discuss whatever you want - how we could work together, your projects and ideas, or something else. It's space for connection.

You can book a slot here, and there is more background here.

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