In tough economic times, where there’s more competition and fewer resources, everyone has to find ways to do more with less. Traditionally, leadership’s approach has been to encourage (or demand) that people work longer and harder in order to meet these challenges. But there is a different way: capacity-building leadership. 

Capacity-building leadership unlocks people’s capability, productivity, and independence. By tapping into the potential that’s already inside people, leaders can enable them to do more with less. 

What does capacity-building leadership look like? The key is to tap into knowledge and skills that people already have but aren’t making use of. Think about it this way, strategy gets implemented by the actions that people take. People’s actions are based on their conscious or unconscious decisions.  

If we can accelerate their decision making, we can accelerate the implementation of strategy. If we borrow from physics, where velocity is speed in a direction, we can adapt this concept to decision making. Decision velocity would therefore be the speed and direction, or speed and accuracy, of decision making. Another way to say this is, “decisions lead to action and action leads to performance.”  

Accelerating this decision velocity can be done very easily in our daily conversations at work—often called coaching conversations—if we have a map to follow. 

GROW Decision-Making Model

Think of a road trip. If I’m trying to navigate from New York to Los Angeles without the aid of a map or GPS unit, I’ll likely drive all over the place at random. Time and efficiency is lost. If I have a good map, however, I can focus on the particular roads that will take me to my destination in a timely fashion. 

Applying this concept to people’s thinking, there’s a very simple way to map decision making and create focus: the GROW model. GROW is a map of the stages we go through when we make decisions: 

  • Goal: what we want to do
  • Reality: circumstances we’re dealing with (or how we perceive them)
  • Options: how we might move from our Reality to our Goal
  • Way Forward: action we choose to take. 

We typically don’t approach these stages sequentially, however. Our thinking will often go all over the place, especially if we are under stress. It’s like someone trying to score runs in baseball by running all over the field instead of just stepping on each of the bases in turn. It’s not impossible, but it’s a lot more difficult.  

If we help people to be more systematic in moving through these four stages, we bring order, discipline, and focus to their decision making. In turn, this accelerates their decision velocity. We are building their capacity to use skills and knowledge they already possess. 

Enter the 3Ps


These capacity-building conversations are easy to have when people are both aware of a need to do something different and are also willing to do so. But, there are many times when people are unaware or unwilling—or both. For example, the long-term employee who has been successful performing their way for 20 years and can’t see the need to “fix what ain’t broken,” or the teenage daughter who thinks her chaotic mess of a bedroom is the epitome of tidiness and responsibility.  

These kinds of conversations can be some of the most difficult conversations we have in our lives and, as a result, cause us to resort to some very sophisticated avoidance behavior. (I don’t have time; it can’t be done.) 

To manage these very challenging conversations, our first instinct is to work harder at seeking out some special piece of knowledge (the silver bullet) that will make these conversations comfortable and easy. We get caught in the illusion that “uncomfortable” means “undoable.” However, if there is a secret, it isn’t in some magic dialogue that we never knew about, it lies in something that we’re all very familiar with, have done many times in the past, and commonly fail to apply in these high stakes conversations—the application of the 3Ps of preparation, planning, and practice.

  • Preparation is thinking about what will get the attention of the person I’m trying to influence and determining the appropriate path. GROW can be enormously helpful in preparing for the conversation.
  • Planning is mapping the entire conversation on paper before I have it so that I can try to anticipate every response.
  • Practice is when I role play the conversation with someone, which allows me to refine my language and rehearse dealing with any potential curveballs that may come my way. 

The application of these 3Ps reduces the anxiety and, therefore, the resistance involved in to having these challenging conversations, which on its own will impact the outcome of the conversation. Additionally, it enables us to be more effective in how we conduct the conversation. Preparation, planning, and practice enable us to be more effective in our coaching conversations, building the capacity of our people and ultimately impacting performance. 

An Example: Tufts 

A great institutional example of the effectiveness of capacity-building leadership is Tufts Medical Center in Massachusetts. During a two-year period from 2009 to 2011, the Learning & Development Department at Tufts trained more than 300 managers in capacity-building leadership, and the results were extraordinary. Jay Hargis, who was the director of Learning & Development at Tufts at the time, recalls his experience:  

“Prior to my time at the hospital, there had not really been any management training. Managers were coaching employees on a trial-and-error basis, with no set curriculum. I quickly realized we really had to just start with the basics. I attended a public session taught by InsideOut Development trainers, and I was instantly struck with the thought that ‘This could work.’  

“The material was practical, easy to understand, and the GROW methodology just made sense. During that short public session, I saw growth in this group of strangers, and thought: ‘We’re onto something here.’ 

“I noticed at Tufts that managers tended to have a core set of ‘go-to’ people that they used. I realized that if we used capacity-building techniques to increase the output of these trusted employees, we could increase the capacity of the department without adding staff. Without capacity-building leadership, problems are passed around and less effective employees just stick around. I wanted to help people to either manage their employees to success or out the door. The GROW program fit in great with that philosophy. 

“Once we implemented capacity-building training with our managers, we immediately got reports from them that the program was starting to change the nature of their conversations and the amount of time needed to resolve problems was decreasing. The employees were becoming armed with the methodology of ‘my boss is going to want me to brainstorm how to solve this.’ We started offering practice sessions for the more difficult conversations and people reported that they felt comfortable and that they could tell the truth.  

“Some of the managers with larger staffs started seeing greatly improved productivity and saw their teams operating in a much more cohesive manner. Several managers reported they were actually able to turn around employee behavior. One manager referred to it as ‘voodoo—it works every time!’”  

Final Thought

Capacity building leadership is much less about giving people more knowledge and much more about helping them use the knowledge they already have. There is a huge capacity in everyone, that we as leaders can tap into and by doing so we are going to get more done with less.