‘Coach your employees by asking powerful questions, and finding answers together’ – author Ruchira Chaudhary on leadership

In this extended interview, we cover the key dual roles of internal and external coaching in a company’s journey.
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Ruchira Chaudhary is the author of Coaching: The Secret Code to Uncommon Leadership (see my book review here). The book’s lessons are particularly useful for organisations in turbulent times like the pandemic era. Conventional command-and-control practices are yielding to more agile, collaborative and emergent models.

See also YourStory’s Book Review section with takeaways from over 300 titles on creativity, entrepreneurship, innovation, social enterprise, and digital transformation.

Ruchira Chaudhary is a business coach and consultant with a background in mergers and acquisitions, organisation design, culture, and leadership. Her two decades of experience span Medtronic, AIG, Commercialbank of Qatar, Qatar Telecom (Oredoo), and TCS. She is also affiliate faculty at SMU, NUS, and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

Ruchira joins us in this extended chat on startup founders as coaches and coachees, the growth mindset for future success, and coaching as a life skill. Edited excerpts of the interview below:

YourStory [YS]: In the time since your book was published, what are some notable new findings or examples you have come across of coaching in action?

Ruchira Chaudhary [RC]: I was never a fan of virtual coaching – to the extent possible I made attempts to always meet the leaders I was coaching in person. This often meant juggling travel plans to ensure I was able to meet those that lived in different corners of the world.

I also advised the leaders I was coaching to do the same with their people – to the extent feasible for there truly is no substitute for face-to-face coaching conversations. I had not talked about this aspect of coaching when I first started to write the book in 2019.

By the time the book was ready to go to print, the world, as we know it, had completely changed. My publishers held back the book for close to six months, and in that time, I added an afterword on Coaching in Corona Times, and introduced some fresh concepts about not just leading but also coaching in turbulent times. I’ve devoted many paragraphs in the book to Coaching and Enabling in a WFH world.

Now we are faced with yet another altered version of this reality – the return to the physical office (though perhaps not entirely). Coaching and leading in a hybrid world comes with its own set of challenges and complexities. 

Given our fading interpersonal connections, leaders need to think of ways to provide a sense of belonging afresh. They also need to make focused efforts to find that sweet spot between providing people with the flexibility they desire, while providing the structure and direction they are seeking.

Ruchira Chaudhary

[YS]: How was your book received? What were some of the unusual responses and reactions you got?

[RC]: The book has received some very positive press, and excellent reviews both in India and overseas. I was fortunate enough to have been covered by most mainstream media in India, and many overseas media outlets have carried excerpts from the book or interviewed me. The book is releasing in Singapore and Southeast Asia at long last in late June so I am looking forward to that.

Unusual or perhaps unexpected responses – LinkedIn posts with a picture of my book cover by a GM of a hotel chain (someone I was not connected to) describing the book unputdownable; a medical doctor in the US recommending it on social media to his colleagues; and most of all a 21-year-old student, just out of college who sent me a note saying how grateful he is for the actionable insights

The book in his own words has had a profound impact on him – he has been blogging about it and putting it on Twitter.

[YS]: What are three success factors for a healthy relationship and interaction between an employee and their coach?

[RC]: A good leader coach needs to do a few things to ensure the coaching relationship is healthy and fruitful. My top three:

First, the coach needs to be more self-aware of their own blind spots by constantly seeking feedback and coaching for themself, coaching and leading others starts by knowing oneself.

A good coach builds trust – perhaps the most critical element in this mix. You can only expect someone to open up, be candid and be vulnerable if they trust you. And remember, trust goes both ways.

Third, a Growth Mindset – the belief that everyone can grow and develop; the potential is nurtured not predetermined, and despite any misgivings or apprehensions, the conviction that your employees have it them to succeed.

Ruchira Chaudhary

[YS]: How can boards of directors take a more active role in spotting the coaching needs of an organisation, and acting on them?

[RC]: Boards can play a key role in determining the coaching needs of the CEO and not the organisation in its entirety. A leader is key to cascading a coaching culture and mindset ie, an ecosystem where leaders at all levels believe in enabling and coaching others. An organisation’s accent on, and enabling/building leaders (or not) is more often than not role modelled by its leadership team as we well know.

I am on the board of a not-for-profit institution, and we have taken concerted efforts to ensure that we have a robust performance management system in place that places a premium on ongoing informal, and formal coaching sessions with the head of the institution. The Board president meets with him every fortnight to discuss his challenges, and how we as a board can best support him.

Proactive boards will often recommend external coaches for their CEOs ensuring the leader has the support, someone who plays to their strengths and is the non-judgmental sounding board he/she needs.  

Boards, while they should encourage the use of a coach, should also promptly back off. The leader should steer this coaching relationship, and approach the board for developmental needs or professional aspirations. 

I also strongly recommend all boards get coached or understand the basics of Coaching, especially the board president.

[YS]: How should startup founders approach hiring external coaches, and when should they start being internal coaches?

[RC]: I believe the entrepreneur has to play a dual role and their startup journey has to be a blend of providing coaching (to colleagues, peers and team members) and as well themselves and receive coaching from investors, peers or even an external coach.

I cannot impress enough the advantages of both giving and receiving coaching in a world that is so dynamic, where our work lives are anything but structured and thriving not just surviving in ambiguity is of paramount importance.

Providing coaching – from the very start, they have to be leaders that coach, enable, and elevate. Receiving Coaching – first-time founders who probably can't afford external coaches should seek coaches in their own ecosystem; an ex-client or boss who can push them harder and ask the tough questions.

Perhaps even find that successful entrepreneur through your networks. Founders of expanding firms would do well to invest in external coaches while receiving mentorship and advice from senior investors. 

Rohan Mirchandani of Epigamia who features in my book, swears by this approach. He also talks about how he built a culture of enablement by always being accessible but letting his team members come up with their own solutions.

Successful entrepreneurs can give back by coaching young founders. If you invest your time to build those that you believe in, you will elevate your own leadership skills.

[YS]: There still seems to be some confusion between the terms coach and mentor. What are the key differences?

[RC]: The terms mentor and coach are often used interchangeably but there is a significant difference even though there can be some overlaps. Here is how I have attempted to define the difference.

Mentors are usually older; they influence and guide. They provide direction to their mentees, allowing them to become more like them. Coaches, though, don’t offer directions or answers. A good coach instead helps the coachee come up with their own answers.

Simply put, the mentor offers advice, the coach asks.

Mentors will often say: Here’s how to do this. I‘ve been there and done it many times before. Let me break it down for you. A coach will, on the other hand, say: You probably know this topic better than me; let me ask you questions and you tell me how it’s done.

In essence, a mentor guides your (career or life) journey, whereas a coach guides your (current) practice.

[YS]: Is there such a thing as the time or age to become a coach, or can one pick up the coaching mindset and skillset at any time?

[RC]: I think of coaching as a life skill not just limited to a practice adopted by individuals who lead teams. Coaching is the act of bringing out the best in others by enabling them through a series of non-directive conversations.

It is a great skill to have whether you are a student just starting out on your journey, a young manager who has recently taken on a supervisory role or one who has been around the block; or someone who aspires to be a manager soon. Coaching is great for someone looking to start their own venture, or for a highly skilled individual contributor or perhaps a gig worker.

One can pick up coaching skills anytime, but I personally believe a coaching mindset needs to be developed early in life. It gets harder as the years roll by for coaching is not necessarily about learning something new, that’s the easy part. The hardest bit is unlearning or letting go of your old beliefs!

[YS]: In some business cultures like India, coaching is yet to gain significance or recognition. Why is this the case, and how can the situation be improved?

[RC]: In cultures like India – there is never a lack of advice – solicited as well as unsolicited! Managers often believe they are coaching when in reality they are simply telling employees what to do, instructing and occasionally advising.

This prescriptive approach is the antithesis of coaching because we know that coaching is all about Asking not Telling.

The situation can be fixed to a large extent by greater awareness and accent on coaching – what it is and importantly what is not, and also by ensuring employees regardless of the level are imparted coaching skills. 

However, merely focusing on learning (or teaching) coaching skills is insufficient. Leaders must also communicate and model those skills, ie, transform this individual skill into an organisational one by developing that capacity in the people they lead, and work with.

In short, coaching needs to become a culture.

[YS]: How should people deal with conflicting advice from different coaches and mentors? What is your advice on how to take advice?

[RC]: For starters, a coach does not/should not advise – a coach Asks, does not Tell. A coach gives more power to the question than the answer and by asking probing open-ended questions to help the coachee find his own path/solution.

If you are however are in a position where you have received conflicting advice – I would ask you to pause, self-reflect, press on and ask Why you should do what you’ve been advised to do.

Be curious, press for specifics and look for those grains of truth in the feedback you receive.

Or go seek a coach who can help you by providing more clarity, and self-awareness, build your self-confidence as you contemplate the next steps.

[YS]: It is hard for many managers and leaders to accept failure – what are some approaches to convert these failures into coaching stories and moments?

[RC]: Often in my leadership coaching sessions – leaders tell me they are frustrated because team members don’t take decisions independently and they constantly have to supervise the quality of their output leading to micromanagement.

My response is – have you told them explicitly that it’s okay to fail?

When people are worried about retribution and punishment, they tend to not take chances—chances to grow, act independently and take the lead. Managers who want to drive better results need to demonstrate openness, an allowance for imperfection.

I also urge them to take inspiration from the agile project management methodology and the fail fast principle of freely experimenting and learning while trying to reach the desired result. By quickly finding the failures, leaders can catapult learning and optimise solutions to reach desired objectives.

Unless leaders create safe spaces and de-risk risk-taking, bridging that capability gap (between where their people are and where they want them to be) will always remain a challenge.

[YS]: How can social entrepreneurs and non-profit organisations make use of your coaching frameworks? Are there some examples you can cite in this regard?

[RC]: In all candidness, I do not see a difference in how non-profit firms or for-profit firms can utilise my coaching frameworks. My 4C+ Model© attempts to provide a simple framework for key coaching outcomes.

It helps a coach understand how their coaching makes a difference and where to focus their coaching support and interventions around four cornerstones: clarity, capability, consciousness and confidence.

Good leader coaches focus on building/enhancing individual capability, giving them self-belief and confidence to go forward, Clarity, direction and consciousness or self-awareness that helps them understand your strengths and weaknesses. 

The ultimate goals of the organisation and the individual destination may be different (vis a vis a for-profit corporate organisation) but the coaching journey needs to be the same.

I very recently facilitated a very memorable session on Coaching (and the key learnings from my book) for Dasra - a pioneering strategic philanthropic organisation. I was most impressed by their PDN-Explorer system, an organisation-wide pairing of members, where the PDNs (professional development managers) hear from the experiences of their Explorers, who are typically junior employees. PDNs help these employees navigate work-life and the organisation at large.

Dasra is very keen to leverage this architecture as a platform for coaching and nurturing younger leaders. My advice to them – since careers in the development sector are often not linear or vertical, the accent has to be on reframing or rethinking career ladders as career frameworks. It’s time to stop viewing careers as having a single trajectory.

The inspirational Sheryl Sandberg who has graced the cover of my book with her endorsement says it simply “Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder.” For ladders are limiting—people can move up or down, on or off. In a jungle gym, however (I call it a framework), you can venture down different paths and explore numerous possibilities on the way to achieving your goals. This is true for many domains, but certainly befitting the not-for-profit world.

[YS]: Much has been said about ‘reverse mentoring’, e.g. younger employees mentoring senior managers about digital skills. So is there something like ‘reverse coaching?’

[RC]: Sure. I have not seen that term used anywhere but I don’t see why not. I think of Coaching as a life skill that individuals regardless of their levels or roles in organisations should imbibe. Coaching is all about helping individuals become the best version of themselves and this skill can benefit anyone and everyone.

Entrepreneurs could do well to coach their colleagues or peers and vice versa. Similarly in matrixed with dual reporting (two bosses), or where project constantly assemble and dissemble, where founders and entrepreneurs need to constantly build on the expertise of others, where it’s not about the number of people who report to you but the quality of work that gets done, where a workforce of millennials is leading the charge – it’s time to rethink how we build and develop others. 

My own experiences as an independent consultant corroborate this – I learnt that my ‘ask, not tell’ way of working helped me immensely in my consulting journey.

In many strategic assignments, the more views I sought from team members (despite being that expert brought in for a certain project or task), the more people came forward to give their best and stretched themselves in pursuit of our articulated objectives. I also ended up with friends, and reverse coaches, I guess.

[YS]: Are there plans to launch a digital version of the tools and frameworks mentioned in your book?

[RC]: Yes, that is the plan. I am very excited about putting my proprietary (and other recommended) digital coaching assessment/diagnostic tools, and Coaching frameworks online.

My hope is that people will use these tools to become better coaches, and leaders and that they continue to elevate others while elevating themselves, and their organisations.

[YS]: What is your current field of research and practice in coaching?

[RC]: Currently I am focusing on how leaders can continue to Enable, Coach and Lead in a hybrid world. The University of Chicago Booth School of Business is organising a webinar to coincide with my book’s release in Singapore.

Prof Michael Gibbs, my mentor has just written an excellent and timely paper (featured in The Economist and several leading journals) that WFH has meant for most of us - more meetings, less networking, less productive/ uninterrupted work time and fewer 1:1 meeting with their managers.

We will use his research and marry them with my book’s learnings to focus on how coaching today is no longer just a good to have, but a need to have skill for every leader who wants to succeed and flourish.

I am also exploring what key coaching constructs we can put in place to elevate more women to leadership roles. I had a most fascinating conversation with Suresh Narayanan, the CEO and MD of Nestle India recently as part of the RedFM podcast series where I interview Uncommon Leaders that feature in my book.

He is doing some truly pathbreaking work in Nestle that can set the gold standard for other firms that are keen to enable and empower women leaders.

[YS]: What is it like to be a consultant in coaching? Where is the excitement, and what are the challenges?

[RC]: My tryst with Coaching was serendipitous as I have mentioned in the book’s preface. I was and continue to do work in the leadership, organisation design and Mergers & Acquisitions consulting space.

However, once I embarked on this journey, I have found it to be an extremely rewarding experience. It gives me a great high to help leaders untangle the knots in their heads and transform these knots into distinct patterns giving them more clarity, self-awareness and the confidence to go forward and achieve their goals – personal and professional.

The challenges are of course several – coaching takes mind space, often it takes courage to say it as it is including asking tough questions. For me personally, I think the biggest challenge is getting too invested and involved in my coachee’s journeys. I don’t know when to cut off and often do mini-coaching sessions long after our formal arrangements have ended!

However, my biggest high – a leader that I coached years ago circling back and saying Thank you – I owe you this success/this job/this clarity. 

Just last week, a banker from BNP Paribas who stayed in touch with me for years while living in Shanghai, called from Paris to say he has finally found the perfect career for him, and in many ways owes it me. That’s the most fulfilling part.

[YS]: What is your next book going to be about?

[RC]: I have many ideas, and thoughts that I am currently researching. I am also in conversations with a few leading publishing houses. Enabling and building women leaders is a topic something I am keen to explore in depth.

My interactions with inspiring leaders like Sheryl Sandberg, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and Kathleen Hogan, who have all strongly endorsed my book and amplified its message of leaders as coaches has a lot to do with that, I guess. Will keep you posted!

[YS]: What is your parting message to the aspiring entrepreneurs and leaders in our audience?

[RC]: These VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) times demand more from our leaders than ever before.

Today, as the world grapples with a pandemic of mammoth proportions, we need leaders who are decisive and brave—who can admit their mistakes and course correct swiftly. Leaders that are empathic, and take others along in this journey. Today, more than ever, we need leaders that coach and enable in the following ways.

Giving people a voice: No one individual can have all the answers especially in these crisis times. Listen actively, and give people a platform to voice their ideas, and suggestions.

Focusing on the Trust Equation: Trust your people to do their jobs especially in this new WFH, and soon to be hybrid work reality. Everything is that much harder. Give them space, time and set clear boundaries between work and play.

Asking, not Telling: Move away from instruction to motivation. Coach your employees by asking powerful questions, and finding answers together.

Edited by Kanishk Singh