Giving an A

By Gilly Weinstein, PCC

Executive Coaching


Part of any leader’s job is empowering the people around her, especially the people she’s responsible for. Not just to empower them to do more, claim more credit and own more responsibility for a given project, department or event; but also, to help each person see more in themselves. The art of making someone feel like the ground they stand on is actually bigger than they think, is a leadership skill. Just like the ability to see beyond the self-limiting beliefs a person reporting to you may be harboring or claiming as truths.

The challenge and art of empowering people who report to you, not only collectively but especially individually, comes up constantly in my work as an executive coach. We delve into this topic not only around performance review season but also for the sake of doing more of that, in the everyday.

Every week, if not every day, ushers in an opportunity to make someone you lead feel better about themselves, to boost their confidence in their skills, or nudge them to step into bigger shoes. Empowering others often occurs in the subtle, more innocuous moments, not only in those higher-level meetings, off-sites or public forums.

There are countless techniques you can draw on to better empower others, but I want to focus on a specific one, which I often invite my coaching clients to practice: the skill of Giving an A.

Giving an A is not about applying gold stars to a report they produced, or dispensing any form of atta’boy accolade. Even in the context of a feedback-giving conversation, it’s not the skill of emphasizing what-you-did-well. Giving an A might best be described as a state of mind, an attitude, and certainly, an energy. In coaching jargon: it’s your come-from-place as you step into dialogue or any interaction (like a performance review or feedback session, but not only) with your colleagues. It is the quality of the presence, attention and regard you are broadcasting. It is a mental stance of presuming positive intent in the person standing before you, in a way that goes well beyond whatever shortcoming may have set this person back.

In his book The Art of Possibility, which has withstood the test of time by offering inspiring and universally valid insights towards improving our outlook on life, Benjamin Zander writes: “You can give an A to anyone in any walk of life—to a waitress, to your employer, to your mother-in-law, to the members of the opposite team and to the drivers in traffic.” As a philharmonic conductor and music professor, Zander found many of his students in a state of stress over their performances. This anxiety coupled with fear of failure, prevented them from taking risks. To counter this kind of energy and thinking from the very first week of the semester, Zander simply gave every student an A in his class. Just like that, on day one. To retain this grade each student had to write a letter to Zander in September (dated June, for the end of the school year) explaining in detail what they’d done to earn the A, elaborating on how he/she had evolved, and essentially describing the person he/she had become. Zander was convinced that an automatic, upfront A contributed to breaking barriers stemming from fear and anxiety and to fueling a person’s sense of self-worth and belief in his or her skills. It also allowed them to freely express thoughts, feelings, and dreams.

I’ve noticed that most people really do know how to give that metaphorical A as parents, and even as friends. In my experience as a coach, I’ve learned that almost everyone is capable of giving that A, in their heart and mind, to anyone.

So how do you do it?

Like every new attitude we try to embrace it takes practice to shift from our old default way of seeing things to a new state. Experiment with the following techniques to shift your mental and energetic state to a more A-giving one:

  • Before a scheduled interaction with an individual, take a minute to recall the qualities you appreciate in them and/or the value-adding things they’ve contributed, no matter how small or mundane.
  • Close your eyes and challenge yourself to conjure up the best version of this person (no doubt, you have actually experienced it at some point or another).
  • Create a little mantra along the lines of no matter what happens in this conversation, I am holding that Sue is an A. In my heart, I am holding her as an A person.
  • Ground yourself in a peaceful, accepting, compassionate energy. I realize this can be hard to summon on command. If you find it challenging, take a 5 minute walk or play 3 minutes of soothing music or just close your eyes and reconnect very intentionally to your breath, by paying 100% attention to it, for a full minute.
  • Read the chapter on Giving an A in Benjamin Zander’s book The Art of Possibility!

Try it at your earliest opportunity—a performance review, a project update meeting, a debriefing session, a leadership team meeting… Give that A! Experiment with a new default of automatically assuming the best in people and giving everyone an A in life.

When it comes to your colleagues, there’s a real chance your A-giving attitude will let the best come out in them. Why? Because when you see them and treat them as standing in those bigger shoes already, you are telegraphing that they can do it. Without even saying much you can pulverize some of the assumptions that have been holding them back, and all sorts of imagined barriers to their success.

“The practice of giving an A transports your relationships from the world of measurement into the universe of possibilities…This A is not an expectation to live up to, but a possibility to live into.” – Benjamin Zander




For more on empowering your people with this and other techniques, contact Gilly.