Leaders as coaches: is it feasible?

future leaders

A comment regularly thrown around by HRDs and CEOs is that ‘coaching their people’ is among the key skills that their leaders need to improve and do more of.

LinkedIn Learning research found that the development of managers was ranked as L&D’s most important objective.

Equally, ATSD found that 68% of businesses said that their front-line managers were struggling with coaching for performance improvement. Other research by HBR2 found that the biggest difference between good leaders and bad ones was the level of coaching they gave to their teams, but that traditional coaching methods aren’t as successful as they could be.

Why Doesn’t It Work?

For starters, the very nature of manager-employee relationships often makes it challenging for leaders to coach: after all, how realistic is it to coach someone whose livelihood relies on you, and how open is that person likely to be about their real worries? The natural hierarchy of a company often has a censoring effect on the employees, and fear of ruining their career and working relationships with honesty will keep them from addressing areas that need work.

On top of that, the intentions behind this kind of coaching are very different from those of an employee approaching a coach of their own accord. In many cases, the employee has not asked or volunteered to be coached, rather it is being inflicted upon them. Equally, it is likely to be an exercise led by the manager and their own agenda unlike a traditional coaching relationship. This can put an employee on the defensive and ultimately counteract the efforts of the intervention.

A leader’s personal view of a situation will influence the subsequent coaching, leading the employee towards a prescribed conclusion. I believe that many leaders want to achieve a change in behaviour but they approach it in the wrong way, using coaching when open feedback would be more appropriate.

In addition to this, contracting is probably one of the most vital aspects of a functional coaching relationship – boundaries and expectations are set and discussed, such as what will and will not be discussed, objectives and regularity of sessions. However, this is often overlooked in the typical manager-employee scenario and without such boundaries, coaching sessions can derail, leaving employees disillusioned with their lack of progress.

Finally, coaching by leaders is often carried out retrospectively, whereas for the best results, support should be offered before, during and after any new challenge.

What’s the Alternative?

Bearing all this in mind, I think the road to success is developing a coaching style of leadership to be used in everyday practice.

I believe that an approach which combines directive and non-directive guidance is the more natural and effective way of dealing with coaching as a leader. This must be explicit rather than giving guidance under the pretense of advice, which I often see managers doing. Incorporate this into everyday behaviour to secure the best results.

John Heron’s work is a good template for leaders: as opposed to the traditional ‘Goal, Reality, Options, Will’ approach to coaching, he advises consulting for a more two-way stream of communication. He insists that his method must: A) be done with the consent of the employee, and B) come from a position of care. That is the crux: without genuine regard for the employee’s well-being and success, it will not work.

As a leader, when you are sitting down to have a coaching conversation, you must acknowledge that the workplace hierarchy will have an impact on the quality of the conversation. Here, it is helpful to remain aware of these dynamics so that you communicate in the most productive and engaging way.

Coaching is a useful and important tool for the development of employees, but will achieve its results with an impartial and engaging coach who follows an agenda set out by the employee. That said, coaching models and concepts could still be used very effectively if adopted as part of a leader’s existing working style.

Stephen FortuneAbout the author

Stephen Fortune joined the Oxford Group in 2016 as a Principal Consultant. His experience extends across a range of high profile projects and clients including The Children’s Trust, ED&F Man, Gilead, Novartis, Legal & General, Rabobank, Johnson Press, Sainsbury’s and William Hill and now The Oxford Group.

The Oxford Group is a people-focused business driven by a passion for helping organisations get the best from their people, unleash hidden talent and successfully manage their business through times of change. The Oxford Group is part of The City & Guilds Group, a global leader in skills development, which enables people and organisations develop their skills for personal and economic growth. For more information, visit www.oxford-group.com

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