Newsletter July 2024

The Leader as Coach: Helping Employees Determine Priorities

There are probably as many leadership styles and approaches as there are possible coffee combinations at Starbucks: situational, authentic, emotional intelligence, relational, servant, shared, connective, adaptive, strategic social change, transformational, strength-based, and coaching – and this list is not exhaustive. Each style has its strengths and drawbacks and each one has its right place at the right time.

I personally believe that one of the most advanced leadership styles is “The Leader as Coach.” Why? A coach asks questions, listens without judgment, and encourages the client (i.e., the employee) to self-reflect and figure out the solution on their own. It would be so much faster just to tell someone what or how to do something. Coaching employees may take time and patience, but the ROI is high because it cultivates a growth mindset. The employee’s self-esteem grows, and so does their ability to tackle future challenges with more self-confidence.

In this blog, I would like to share one tool that may help you coach your employees in setting priorities and finding focus. In the post-COVID, new ways of working era that we are in, the number of meetings has skyrocketed, and possibilities to stay connected are endless. This has led to distractions, wasted time in needless meetings, and confusion regarding what is really important.

The tool is called High-Valued Activities and looks like this:

The pyramid shows that activities in the last two layers add no real value to what we ultimately want to achieve. Activities in the top two layers add value, both short- and long-term. There are two essential keys to this model. One, you need to know what you want to achieve. Two, you need to know what you need to do (on a daily basis) to achieve those goals. It sounds so simple, but I have met countless clients who cannot answer either of those questions. They wind up running around putting out fires but don’t seem to really accomplish anything of substantial value at the end of the day. This leads to exhaustion and frustration.

Here is a case study from a recent coaching session that demonstrates how this tool works.


Susanne is a 26-year-old process engineer who just completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She is the line leader in the production area of a worldwide leader in the beverage industry. She was inundated with meetings, faced constant interruptions from employees and peers with “I just have a quick question…” and she went home at the end of the work day wondering what she had actually done that day.

I asked her what her ultimate goal was as a line leader and process engineer. She thought for a moment and replied, “I was hired to increase the efficiency of our line and boost the quality of our products.”

My next question was, “And what specifically do you need to DO in order to reach that goal? I’m talking about actions or activities, Susanne. Look at the pyramid. What long-term and middle/short-term ACTIVITIES do YOU need to do to boost efficiency and increase quality? Which ones truly add value? And what activities contribute little or no value to reaching that goal?”

Susanne slept on it a night, and the next day, she came back and said, “Long-term, I need to build trust with my employees. Most of them are old enough to be my father and have worked here longer than I have been alive. They don’t take me seriously. Moreover, we invest a lot of money in continuous training for our employees. My impression is the training is like water on a duck’s back. Employees fall back onto old habits and aren’t interested in my knowledge. If I build trust and strengthen my relationship with them, we can share knowledge. In addition, they may be more receptive to skills training.”

I replied, “Building trust isn’t an activity – it’s a result or outcome of an activity. What can YOU DO to build trust?”

The key here is what Susanne can do – not what she expects her employees to do.

Susanne replied, “I can do a walk-through every morning at the beginning of the shift. I’ll show more interest in their work – instead of dishing out unsolicited advice – and ask questions to learn from them. This should take 30 minutes. This is not a quick fix, but it will help build mutual trust over time. I can dedicate myself to doing this every morning.”

I asked, “Are there other things you can do to reach your goals?”

“Yes,” she replied. “I need about an hour each day to go through yesterday’s KPIs. These KPIs help me spot the potential for improvement. I’m trying to do that now, but I am constantly interrupted by calls, knocks on my door, messages on Teams, and emails. This one-hour activity can easily stretch into four hours. It’s constant multitasking, which leads to mistakes and revisiting numbers I just looked at. It’s exhausting when you can’t think straight!”

“So,” I replied, “If you invested 1.5 hours each day, you would ultimately reach your goal? That’s about 20% of your day. You would have the rest – 80% – to do other things.”

We looked together at the lower/no-value activities: meetings she was copied into out of habit, Cc of emails that she didn’t need to read, “quick questions” from peers that caused her to multitask, etc.

In the week that followed, she sat down with her manager and worked out a plan. They identified meetings that she didn’t need to attend, addressed the email culture, etc. She also started blocking 60 minutes for her KPI analysis, which her manager was décor with. She works in a glass cubicle above production, and this, however, proved to be quite challenging. This took training her employees and peers not to knock when she had the “do not disturb” sign on her door. She also explained what she was doing and why she needed the uninterrupted time.

Research has shown that our true high-value activities take about 20% of our day, which goes back to the Pareto Principle: 20% of your activities generate about 80% of your value.

If you have employees who are struggling to focus and seem to just be putting out fires, this tool may help you coach them. It may help you coach yourself. Who knows? The clue here is that they need to identify the activities and work out a plan. It’s about what they personally can do. It’s important to remember that some lower-valued activities for you may be high-value activities for others. In reality, we can’t get rid of them all – many are part of the job. BUT – figuring out what the top priorities are and the ACTIVITIES that need to be done to reach them makes this model a hidden gem. It only works, however, when you have their backs and provide support in, for example, figuring out what meetings they need to attend, what to say yes to, and what to say no to. Would you like to learn more? Please get in touch with me!