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Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast #70: Are You Telling, Teaching, or Coaching?

January 8, 2020
Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast #70: Are You Telling, Teaching, or Coaching?

Do you know the difference between telling, teaching, and coaching? In Episode #70, Chris and Perry explain the 80-10-10 rule of telling, teaching, and coaching, and how applying it to your leadership can boost your team’s performance and engagement.

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Read Transcript Below:

Welcome to the John Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast, where our goal is to help you increase your reputation as a leader, increase your ability to influence others, and increase your ability to fully engage your team to deliver remarkable results. Hi, I’m Perry Holley, a John Maxwell facilitator and coach, and I’m Chris Goede, Vice President with the John Maxwell Company. Welcome, and thank you for joining. As a reminder, if you would like to learn more about the 5 Levels of Leadership or perhaps bring one of us in for a 5 Levels private workshop for your organization, we would love to do that! Please leave a comment or question for Perry and me on the John Maxwell site. We would love to hear from you. Also, we now offer Learning Guides for every podcast episode which can be found on our website.

Well, today’s topic is interesting. Perry and I got this idea when we were on a call with a client about their leadership. Perry asked them a question, and I told Perry that it might be a good topic for a podcast. I think he was more excited about the fact that someone was actually listening to him than the fact that we were going make it our next podcast! But I absolutely love this topic. Hopefully, this discussion will add value to your leadership. So today’s topic is, “Are you telling, teaching, or coaching?” Perry, take it away.

One day, it occurred to me that early in my career I had a tendency to tell people what to do a lot. As a parent and as a leader, I’ve grown since then, and I’ve found that telling is really all about you. You’re just dumping information on someone else. Teaching can also about you, but it’s a little more involved than telling. You’re telling someone else, and it tends to be one way. Coaching is more about the other person. It invites them into the learning process.

The way I look at it, there is a time to tell, for sure, and there is a time to teach. But most of the time, we want to be coaching our people. I call it the 80-10-10 rule. We want to get to where we are doing 80% coaching, 10% telling, and 10% teaching. There are going to be teaching moments, and there’s definitely going to be telling moments. But be aware of how you apply those in your leadership communication style. Focuing on coaching tends to help drive engagement, buy-in, and commitment from team members, because they feel like it’s about more about them rather than you.

I don’t know if our leaders that are listening really think about how they’re leading. The 80-10-10 rule is a simple goal we cam all shoot for when we’re thinking about communicating and leading our teams. It’s powerful. If I think about my leadership right now, I don’t know that I’m totally following that 80-10-10 ratio.

Let’s unpack this a little bit. First, the two 10s, and then the 80, and hopefully we’ll give you some takeaways that may help you through the process of improving your 80-10-10 ratio. The first 10% is telling. You know, 10% might be a bit high if you really want to be a really effective leader, but for me, there are times it’s part of my communication style. It’s occasionally necessary, but I make it my last resort. I always want to start by asking myself, “is this a coaching moment?” This applies to parenting, too. I can easily tell my kids to do something “because I said so,” but I could also take a coaching approach and try to make it a teaching moment.

Telling someone what to do leverages your title or position. We call that behavior Level 1 in the 5 Levels. It can easily lead to disengaged team members if it’s done too much. People do not, in general, like to be told what to do. But there are times when you need to. It’s funny, I was with an organization last week, and we were talking about the 5 Levels of Leadership. One of the leaders raised his hand and said, “But there are times that I’m just going to have to tell him.” And I said, “Absolutely.” I told him, “You will probably need to use Level 1 authority three, four, maybe five times a year, but that’s it.”

John says the higher you go in the 5 Levels, the more trust your people will have in you, and so they won’t question you coming in with a with a ruler once and a while. However, if you “tell” too much, if you don’t work your way through the 5 Levels, if you fail to “coach,” you will have a disengaged team.

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If you’re only ever in telling mode, you’re setting yourself up for leadership failure. It breaks my heart that a lot of leaders don’t use the 80-10-10 percentages. Most of them just stay at Level 1. All they’re doing is telling their team. If you’re in that telling mode, there’s no doubt it will reduce your team’s long-term morale and engagement. By the way, if you’re going to be a leader who just tells, you’d better have the skillset to back up what you’re telling your people to do. If you don’t, they’re going to completely discount your credibility. They’ll think, “Perry has no idea how to do that. He’s sitting there telling me what to do 80% of the time.” I want people to understand that if you follow the 5 Levels of Leadership model, during those times when you have to come back to Level 1 and tell, you can do it right because there will be trust. You can say, “Don’t make me go Level 1!” It’s funny, but that’s the common language in use!

The second 10%, is teaching. You might be thinking that teaching sounds pretty good, so isn’t 10% a little low? It sounds positive, but teaching, just like telling, can also lead to lower engagement and poor results because it’s still really focused on the leader. It’s about me showing off with an “I know what you don’t” attitude. However, there are times for teaching when it adds value to certain situations. It comes down the question of, “Is this a telling moment or a teaching moment?”

So, let’s discuss the difference between teaching and telling. When you communicate something in telling mode, you don’t really receive any feedback. There’s really no facilitation past you telling someone else what to do. Teaching involves more interaction with your team. You faciliate the learning and make sure your teaching is affective. You’re going to get greater buy-in from your team when you allow them to interact with the learning process. So, while we like teaching more than telling, there is a place for both.

Let’s move to the big one, the 80%: coaching. This is tough for me personally—going between coaching and teaching. I know that I should be coaching because it draws the person in, but sometimes I just feel like I will add more value by teaching. I’ve taken a lot of time to learn things, and I want the person to know what I know! But that’s not a good long-term approach. It causes that “sitting back.” I’ve noticed, when I teach, people sit back and listen. They like what I’m saying, they listen, but they’re not involved. Think about John’s book, The Law of Buy-In. If they’re not involved, they’re not really bought-in.

So, how do you make that leap from teaching to coaching? As you said, teaching feels good, right? You’re sharing what you know. I’ll never forget something I heard John say one time. When he gets ready to go speak to an organization, whether it’s 20 people or 20,000, what he’s always thinking is, “It’s not about what I want to tell them; it’s about what they need to hear.”

The only way to know what your people need to here is to get into the mode of asking questions. In today’s age, we want the answers now. We want to communicate faster. But when you go into coaching mode, you’re in a Level 4 mindset, which is slow. Sometimes it consumes more of your time on the front end. You’re trying get to a point to where you’re investing in them in a way that engages them in the process. As leaders, you need to believe in your team more than they believe in themselves. You need to see further. As John says, “go slower so that you can go further.” As you create this dialogue and connection with your people by asking questions in coaching mode, you will increase your level of influence with your team.

Recently, as I’m becoming more aware of this topic, I noticed when I was on a coaching call that people sometimes ask questions that start to pull me into teaching mode. I get asked often, “What do you think about this?” I thought to myself, “They’re baiting me into a teaching moment! Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it.” So I say, “You know me well enough to know I definitely have a point of view, and I’d be happy to share it! However, what do you think?” Being a coaching leader is about engaging my team members in the learning process. Multiply their capabilites by allowing them to solve problems.

We don’t want to look like we don’t know what we’re doing. We don’t want to feel like there’s someone on our team that may have a different answer, or feel like we don’t even know the answer. We just want to tell or we want to teach. I think, naturally, the higher you go in leadership position-wise (not 5 Levels-wise), the more you feel like you need to state your value through telling or teaching. It’s also quicker and easier! But, even though coaching takes more time and effort, it will improve your leadership and team morale in the long-term.As we wrap up, let me summarize and give you a couple of thoughts that I have on today’s topic. As leaders, we were promoted into a leadership position because we are able to solve problems. We were once an individual contributor. We were killing our KPIs. We were able to execute. That is what allowed us to get to where we are now. But now that we’re leading an organization, we have to shift our mindset. John calls it going from the soloist mode to the conductor mode. A lot of us get into a leadership position, and we still want to keep our hands on everything. We want to keep being the soloist. But we’ve got to learn to be the conductor. That means putting others above yourself.

As leaders, we need to bridge the gap from what we know to where we need our people to be. We see further than they do. We believe in them more than they believe in themselves. So we’ve got to be the ones to help them bridge that gap, and the only way to do that is through the coaching process and through the process of asking questions to see where they need coaching. You’ll improve your team performance, your engagement level, and your connection with your people if you just put on your coaching hat more than your telling hat! Teaching’s great, telling works, but neither has the long-term effects of coaching.

I’d just like to remind you that if you want to know more about the 5 Levels of Leadership, you can go to visit website at and leave a question or comment for us there. We’d love to hear from you. And be sure to check out our Learning Guide, downloadable above! We’re always grateful that you join us on these broadcasts. This has been the John Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast.

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