Coaching Leadership: Do’s and Don’ts
“Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!”
This phrase from the 1941 Superman movie comes to my mind when I observe leaders using coaching in contexts that require a different approach. From giving feedback to persuading others about own ideas, there seems to be a misconception that coaching is a fit for purpose tool for pretty much anything people related. But what is coaching and what are the leadership areas it can be used in to generate effectiveness and high performance?
What is coaching
International Coach Federation defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential. In 1960, Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard defined coaching from a leadership perspective, as one of the four basic styles to be used in situational leadership, matching the developmental needs of the person you’re working with.
To me, coaching is a powerful tool to enable behavioural and mindset change that generates high performance in a sustainable way. The sustainability comes from self-awareness, choice and authenticity. The person being coached is empowered to make choices that align with their values and objectives. Most of the times such values and objectives are clarified during the coaching process, which makes the change smooth and durable.
When to use coaching in leadership
As a leader, I use coaching effectively in the following situations:
1. In strategy building, to foster a curious mindset by asking open-ended and tough questions. The immediate benefits are out-of-the box idea generation, empowerment and risk taking.
Such a coaching approach resulted with one team coming up with six different strategies to address a problem, implementing all of them in different geographical regions and iterating on the outcomes to increase efficiency.
2. During meetings, to ensure clear understanding of the topics by rephrasing different viewpoints expressed and holding people accountable. The benefits range from reducing the meeting time by half to identifying clear owners for next steps.
During one of the meetings, this technique helped every attendee to save time by realising that the presented issue could be addressed by only one person, who was not on the call.
3. In change management, to allow people to move from a denial and frustration mindset to one of exploration and acceptance, by using active listening and acknowledging emotions. The benefits are reduced attrition and increased engagement.
This coaching-based leadership style was key to keeping attrition low in the team while performing in a volatile and complex environment during an acquisition.
There are other contexts I can think of when a coaching approach and mindset is beneficial, and they range from operational one-on-ones and career development conversations, to interviews and receiving constructive feedback.
When not to use coaching in leadership
Yet there are also distinct situations when coaching is not the way to go about it. Here are some of the most important ones:
1. When giving constructive feedback. While the goal is to enable behavioural change, the main difference between coaching and constructive feedback is choice — the person receiving the feedback didn’t choose to hear it and therefore might not be ready to act on it.
This is why it’s important not to start a feedback-giving session with “Let me offer you some coaching on…”, but rather clarify from the beginning that this is a feedback conversation.
2. Instead of training or mentoring. Although coaching can help with innovation and idea generation, it is not effective in helping people learn new technical knowledge. Open-ended questions risk generating more confusion or are wasting precious time in the learning process.
Don’t hesitate to show people how to do something when they don’t have that particular information or know-how.
3. As a persuasion technique. While using open-ended questions in coaching generates insights and change, this approach isn’t effective to convince someone to do something. In this context, it risks being perceived as inauthentic and manipulative despite the best intentions.
To get someone to take action, be specific on why you are asking them to do something and how they can benefit from the experience.
To conclude, coaching is a powerful tool to generate high performance through awareness and behavioural change but it’s not ideal for every situation. As a manager, if you want to have coaching in your leadership toolkit, familiarise yourself with its methodology and required skill-set. There are some great trainings available online, either free or at a small cost. Afterwards, find an experienced coach to support you in choosing mindfully the work situations to practice what you learned and quickly ramp up your performance.