How to coach others from good to great

This is how leaders can help their people become workplace stars

In The Engineering Leader Within, authors and WeWork members Jean Hsu and Edmond Lau—the co-founders of CoLeadership—interview engineering leads from companies like Etsy, Interstellar, and Splice to get their best strategies for being effective leaders. This wisdom goes beyond engineering—it’s actionable advice for anyone leading a team or at a startup or a global company. In this excerpt, the authors interview bethanye Blount, founder and CEO of Compaas, a compensation-organizing platform, about how to help your team achieve maximum greatness.

Even before founding Compaas, bethanye Blount had an impressive background leading infrastructure and systems teams at companies such as Linden Lab, Facebook, and Reddit. But it’s not just her résumé that is impressive—she also has a unique perspective on her job as a manager: She strives to help people be the “most badass” versions of themselves.

To Blount, that means “being able to imagine a more awesome version of every single person you work with,” and helping them get there. A lot of management theory from the ’70s talks about things like fixing weaknesses in people,” she explains. “I think the idea that you would look at somebody as something to be fixed is fundamentally problematic.”

It makes a lot more sense, she says, to look at somebody as on a journey, and know that you can help them along the way. “That’s helping people be more badass.”

So how exactly do you help people become the best version of themselves? Blount shares her strategies.

Advocate for individuals first

When thinking through how to make decisions, Blount has her priorities in the following order: the individual person, then the company, then the team, then you. She offers a classic example: “If somebody wants to leave the company, and it will hurt you, but you really know this is a great opportunity for them, then you need to let them go and be happy for them,” she says. “If somebody wants to move to a different team and it’s gonna hurt your team, but it’s good for them and it’s good for the company, suck it up. That’s the order. The individual, then the company, then your team, then you as a person.”

Prioritizing individuals first and foremost is the most effective way to build a high-functioning team, says Blount. “The people on your team will pull together to be greater than the sum of its parts when they believe that you really do have their back,” she says. “And one of the ways you signal that to them is by advocating for them as individuals first.”

Build trust in your value

Depending on people’s previous experiences, their trust in management may differ. “When people are suspicious of management,” Blount says, “it’s because they’ve been working with someone who wasn’t there for them.”

Your job, she says, is to change how they view “management” by delivering on actually being there for them. “It’s difficult to help people be more badass when they are determined that you have no value,” says Blount. She demonstrates her dedication to her team by doing things like showing up reliably for one-on-ones, and advocating for them in all situations.

As they learn they can count on you, they’ll see you as an asset and ally, and accept your support and guidance. Eventually, says Blount, “they will start talking to you. And this is pretty amazing.” That’s when you can have the hard conversations about what holds them back.

Tell them what you see in them

In Blount’s experience, when people aren’t achieving their potential, it’s likely because they think that they’re not ready or need more experience. “I want people to have options—to be able to choose that future for themselves and not opt out prematurely from something because they’ve decided that they can’t do it,” she says. “It’s my responsibility to imagine a more badass version of that person.”

To help them see what she sees, Blount might say to someone:

  • “I think you’d be really awesome at this thing—I really think you’d be great at it. And if it’s something you want to try, I’ve got your back. Let’s talk about a plan to get you there.”
  • “That fear might be holding you back. We’ll work together on that. Let’s do baby steps together.”
  • “You can do this. Let’s do a test. Just do a project. Do this one project. I think you’d be good at it. If you hate it, it’s fine.”

Stop self-sabotaging behavior

Self-sabotaging behavior may show up as bad social behavior that’s tolerated for a while, says Blount, and then when that person wants to accomplish something that requires the cooperation of others, people have no interest in working with them.

This is another place where a manager must establish trust before they can increase awareness and change that behavior, says Blount. They need to believe that the feedback you give them is all in service of helping them achieve the outcome they desire.

Blount doesn’t shy away from tough conversations, asking, “Do you want to accomplish this goal? … Because your behavior says different.” She likes to both point out self-sabotaging behavior, as well as ask questions that teach people how to debug it on their own. She might ask:

  • “Walk me through why you’re making that decision. Why are you doing that?”
  • “What do you think are the repercussions of that?”
  • “What do you think this person is going to do? What are you going to do then?”

By helping people analyze their own human behavior, she says, you can help them form hypotheses on what will happen, do post-mortems to see if their theories were correct, and then let them find their learnings from there. “You do a lot of debugging and eyes on the prize, eyes on the prize, eyes on the prize,” she says.

Bring out the best in your team

Four ways to start to practice leaning into this perspective:

  1. Make a list of direct reports or peers. For each person, think about their strengths and what it would look like if they leaned into those strengths fully. What would a more awesome version of that person look like?
  2. Share what you see as possible for someone. What is obvious to you may be obscured for someone else.
  3. Find alignment—see if what you imagine as an awesome version of someone resonates with them. If not, are they shying away from it because it is unappealing, or because they don’t think they’re ready for it?
  4. Make a plan. What are some baby steps you or that person can take to help move them forward?

For more leadership strategies from Jean Hsu and Edmond Lau, including how to prioritize your emotional energy in the workplace, head here.

Jean Hsu and Edmond Lau are members at Berkeley’s WeWork 2120 University Ave.

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