Developing Leaders Who Coach

by Dr. Mike Armour

(Part 3 of 3)

Part 1   Part 2


A moment ago you emphasized the importance of coming back to what you called the "coaching question." What I'm hearing you say is that unlike trainers or consultants, coaches are less concerned with imparting information and more concerned with asking good questions. Is my perception correct?


It's exactly the case. I tell my students that coaching is more about asking profound questions than about offering profound recommendations.

Profound questions may also figure prominently in mentoring conversations. In Camelot Arthur recounts questions which Merlin posed in helping him gain a clearer perspective on life. Yet, the very nature of mentoring means that it devotes more time to "telling" than to questioning. The thrust of mentoring, after all, is a veteran sharing insights and experiences with a receptive protege. Thus, creative questions are not nearly so critical in mentoring as they are in coaching.

This is one place where the analogy between personal coaching and athletic coaching breaks down. When athletic coaches run a practice session, they give frequent instruction. Their language is clearly directive.

Our definition of coaching, on the other hand, stresses questions, feedback, and facilitated self-discovery. None of this sounds particularly directive. There are certain books, to be sure, which talk about directive coaching. But in my judgment, what they call directive coaching is more appropriately thought of as one-on-one training. It clearly is not coaching in the purest sense of the word.


This means that to coach well, you must master the art of questioning.


Absolutely. Effective coaching hinges on asking powerful, artful questions which compel the other person to self-reflect. Of course, we all think that we are good at asking questions. But coaching carries the art of asking questions to an entirely new level.

In day-to-day conversation we usually ask questions to elicit information. Coaches do the same. But they interweave into these routine questions another set of questions which are of an altogether different order. These are the "coaching questions" to which I referred earlier. The purpose of coaching questions is not to elicit information, but to effect change in the way that those who are coached see the world, themselves, and their options.

Because they generate such new perspectives, questions of this nature are called "generative questions." They are the coach's craft and trade. Generative questions are designed and framed in such a way that the very process of answering them generates new insights, new linkage between ideas, new levels of understanding, or an expanded sense of possibilities.

In a word, they generate change. And change is at the heart of the coaching endeavor, since change is the means by which we move from the current state to the desired state.

Moments ago I described a conversation with a client about a model in a certain book. This conversation combined routine questions with a generative one. I began with routine questions. For instance, I inquired about whether the client had read the book. Here I was simply looking for information. The coaching question — the generative question — came after we were focused on the model itself. That's when I asked, "In what ways could this model be helpful in your analysis?"

On the surface this sounds like just another informational question. But it's not. The client can only answer after evaluating the issue under discussion through the lens of the model. For the client, this is a moment of forced introspection and an opportunity for self-guided discovery, which is the object of both coaching and mentoring.

Key though they are, not all generative questions are created equal. Some have greater leverage than others in effecting change. The most powerful generative questions, in fact, evoke such wholesale change which they can only be described as transformational.


Can you give me an example of a transformational question?


Gladly. But let me first say that transformational questions must be properly timed and properly set up. Otherwise they can lose much of their clout or become ineffective altogether. So let me show you how such a question, properly timed and set up, generated radical change in a client's self-perception — so radical, indeed, that it salvaged her career.

This woman was highly accomplished, with an illustrious twenty-year track record in demanding positions. Only weeks before I met her, she moved halfway across the country to become a senior executive in a huge corporation. She not only relocated geographically, she also stepped into an industry which was entirely new to her. Then, as a member of the executive committee, she quickly discovered that she was surrounded by peers of exceptional brilliance and skill.

Still struggling to learn the industry, and answering questions daily from these super-achieving peers, she slipped into a crisis of self-confidence. By the time that we linked up, she had nearly convinced herself that her move had been a terrible blunder. Her self-doubt was deep and persistent. No matter what topic we pursued, she always came back to her mistake in taking the job.

For coaching to succeed, this crisis of self-confidence simply had to be overcome. So I asked her to tell me more about the executive team. "From your experience," I said, "how would you rate their decision-making? Are they really good at it? Or do make a lot of decisions which they later regret?"

"Oh, they make really good decisions," she answered. "The reason they intimidate me so much is that they are all so smart."

At this point I leaned forward, looked her in the eye, and with a tone of curiosity in my voice asked, "So, since they are so brilliant and always make such good decisions, what led them to hire you?"

The question caught her completely off guard. For a full 30 seconds she sat in stunned silence, absorbed in thought. I let the silence run uninterrupted while she went inside and processed the implications of my question. Finally she looked up, tossed her shoulders back, and with a radiant smile declared, "I guess it's because they believe I'm up to the job!? In that instant her self-confidence rebounded and her self-doubt fled. Within days her performance zoomed upward.


I see why you called this a transformational question. Can you comment further on what made it so powerful?


The first thing to note is that I began the setup with what sounded like a simple, informational question. I inquired about the team's decision-making ability: Was the team good at making decisions? Or was it prone to decisions which proved to be mistakes? Innocuous as these questions sound, I intentionally framed them to put her in a double bind.

Her self-doubt, you see, rested on two presuppositions. First, that hiring her was a mistake. And second, that she was inferior to her peers, because they were so brilliant. So I created a dilemma for her with my questions.

If she answered that the team always made good decisions, then hiring her was another of those good decisions. On the other hand, if she responded that the team was susceptible to making mistakes, then the team was not so brilliant as she had believed. Either way, she had just devastated one of the presuppositions underpinning her self-doubt.

But I had to be sure that she recognized the full implication of what she had just said. That's why I followed instantly and intently with the question, "Since they always make such good decisions, what led them to hire you?"

To answer this question, she had to confront the fact that her very words had invalidated one of her presuppositions. That's why she went silent in response to my question. She was internally absorbing the full import of what her own words implied.

Let me underscore that the challenge to her presuppositions took the form of a question, not a statement or commentary. I avoided being explicit about the inconsistency between her presuppositions and her answer to my setup questions. Rather, I framed my questions in such a way that to answer them, she had to challenge the presuppositions herself.


I gather then that coaches prefer questions to statements whenever a question can be equally or even more effective.


Yes, at least that's my personal guideline. I might also say that this is one of most daunting challenges for leaders who want to coach. Most leaders are accustomed to telling, not asking. They are more attuned to offering solutions, than to helping people find their own solutions.

Thus, when leaders begin coaching, they can easily forget that we grow and change primarily through what we discover for ourselves. Like all personal coaches, the leader-coach should never short-circuit the process of growth and change by injecting needless commentary.


Can you say more about the kind of change that generative questions are intended to create?


Executive coaching and mentoring basically aim at three types of change: performance, developmental, and transformational. Leaders who coach or mentor are usually focused on these first two types of change. Transformational coaching is less common in business contexts, though quite common in life coaching.

Yet, even in the business setting, there are occasional situations, like the one I cited, where transformational coaching is necessary before performance and developmental coaching can achieve their full promise.


But I'm putting myself in the position of motivated leaders who are reading this book and are reflecting on the transformational question that you posed. I can almost hear them saying, "I would never be astute enough as a coach to create that kind of double-bind on the fly." How would you respond to this reaction?


I would first state that transformational questions, in and of themselves, do not require double-binds. Most, indeed, don't have one. In this instance the double-bind merely gave the question more voltage. But the question itself had transformational potential, without the double bind.

Second, I would reiterate what I said just moments ago, namely, that transformational change is not typically the goal of business or leadership coaching. You could coach in your organization for years and never need high-voltage transformational questions.

But I chose this example because I wanted to show the tremendous power of the right question at the right time. In training coaches, I've discovered that people don't always recognize the power inherent in well-formed questions. Thus they try to coach and mentor without taking the time to master the artistry of framing good questions.

Professional coaches develop a catalogue of thought-provoking questions which they use time and again, to the point that the questions become a habitual response. For example, when talking to clients about their desired outcome, I routinely ask one of these questions:

  • Once you achieve your desired outcome, how will the world be different for you?
  • To get where you want to go, what tradeoffs will be required? Are you at peace with them?
  • Since this outcome is so important to you, how is it possible that you've not achieved it already?

Notice how none of these questions permits a simple, rote response. The very act of answering them requires reflection and a new level of self-awareness. Each one of them nudges the process of change forward, ever closer to the desired future state.


Do you have a final word to leaders who want to coach?


Yes, in the words of Nike, "Just do it!" You did not learn to lead by reading a book or going to seminars. You learned to lead by doing it. The same is true of mentoring and coaching. Read books on the subject, for sure. Go to workshops on coaching and mentoring whenever possible. But the only way that you will ever become a coaching or mentoring leader is to do it.

First Page    Previous Page