Think back, do you remember a time when you received your work back from someone – a manager, a colleague, or a teacher perhaps – and there were red pen markings all over the page? How did that make you feel? I remember this happening on many occasions throughout my life and career.
When one of my executive leaders told me that he doesn’t own a red pen – it ended up being a huge life lesson for me, a real eye-opener and aha-moment. It basically caused me to reflect and then re-think how I was using my own red pen(s) with the people in my life and work, and helped me make a shift as a supervisor.
This executive leader was an engineer – a technical expert – who had worked his way from an engineer-in-training right out of university to the executive level with over 35 years of experience. At the time, I was doing research and was interviewing him for my master’s thesis on “building the business case for coaching” in the workplace when he shared this insight with me.
He told me about the lesson that he had learned over the years being a technical engineer and then moving into a leadership role. He learned that his role as a leader was to develop people – not to do or correct their work, tell them what to do or micro-manage them in any way. He talked about the process of getting rid of his red pen at some point in his career where he stopped being a manager and started being a leader. He acknowledged that this shift didn’t happen overnight and there was a significant transition as he learned to let go of control.
As a leader however, he focused more on engaging in dialogue with people and supporting people to think out loud and talk through options and solutions. He also described the importance of creating an environment where learning from mistakes was okay and a valuable part of each person’s development!
The “I don’t own a red pen” concept that he described aligned with the coach-approach – or the coaching mindset that I was researching – and it continues stand out as one of the key insights that I carry around with me today.
Robert Hargrove, in his book Masterful Coaching, writes that “coaching is about expanding people’s capacity to create the desired future. It is not telling people what to do, but asking them to examine the thinking behind what they’re doing so it is consistent with their goals. Coaching is about giving people the gift of your presence, asking questions, and listening.”
This idea is further supported in a Financial Post article where Brett Wilson, a Saskatchewan-born entrepreneur, philanthropist and former Dragon’s Den star discusses the importance of coaching and mentoring. He says that “a big part of mentorship is encouraging people to find the answer as opposed to giving them the answer. Ultimately, to be sustainable, you need to empower the entrepreneur to think for themselves.”
Brett, who is also an engineer, has a life coach and says that his coach “challenges me to think about my thought processes, about where I am, where I want to be, passions, setting goals, priorities.” In a video interview he succinctly reports that his coach helps him organize his thinking! Check out the interview by Step Up Coaching.