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Training your leaders to be coaches is a brilliant idea in theory: your employees will be better supported, and challenges and behaviours aired and addressed efficiently. In reality, this is seldom the case. Coaching is a valuable development tool, but if it isn’t carried out the right way by the right coach, it can do more harm than good. But, rather than throwing the proverbial ‘coaching training’ baby out with the bath water, I believe that there is a more realistic and effective way to introduce coaching into your organisation: give your leaders the tools to adopt a coaching style of leadership that they can use every day. And it isn’t complicated – it just requires clarity and creating the opportunity for practice.

Why you should consider this approach

My previous article ‘Leaders as coaches: Are they compatible roles or is there another way?’ explains that the ‘Leaders as Coach’ model doesn’t always work, because:

  • The nature of the leader-employee relationship with its inherent hierarchy and power imbalance causes censoring on the part of the employee and therefore undermines the complete honesty and psychological safety required for coaching.
  • In an internal arrangement, the coaching is ‘done to’ the coachee and the intent (or agenda) is set by the leader, which can result in defensiveness and invulnerability on the part of the coachee. Coaching works best when the issue is owned by the coachee who is doing the work.
  • Leaders bring their own personal views and experiences with them to the coaching session which leads to the coach owning the issue and showing bias. This can cause the conversation to shut down, thereby eliminating the opportunity to explore options and for the coachee to own the issue at hand.

How to make it happen – five practical tips for setting up a ‘Leader as Coach’ training programme

With this approach, you are training them to understand what coaching is and how they can use elements on a day-to-day basis to help their people rather than to be experienced coaches. The practical tips below will ensure that a coaching culture is created while equipping leaders with the necessary skills.

  1. Make sure leaders are completely clear on why there is a need to coach. This ‘why’ is essential and is often not explored thoroughly enough at the beginning of a programme. You cannot move on if leaders are still in the mindset that it is easier and quicker just to tell someone what’s wrong and how to fix it.
  2. Ensure leaders have real clarity on the difference between coaching, mentoring and feedback. In my years of watching hundreds of practice sessions, leaders often struggle to separate these three areas in their mind resulting in clumsy and confusing interventions. Ensure everyone is clear before moving forward with the training programme.
  3. Make space for leaders to spend the time practising asking powerful questions to help the coachee with their thinking. Questions starting with “Have you thought of…?” or “Do you think…?” shut down thinking at best, and can be manipulative at worst. The key to asking really good questions is to get better at listening – really listening, not just hearing – and being truly interested in people. Easy to say, but hard to do.
  4. Give leaders opportunities to practice coaching. Not to be confused with role play, get your leaders to practice using real-life issues that are unresolved. To do this you can use coaching buddies, action learning groups and actors to play the role of the coachee. You will see people with a real aptitude for coaching emerge from this type of practice; find ways to nurture their abilities and use them as coaching-style leadership champions to create viral change in your organisation.
  5. Acknowledge that being a good coach is ‘hierarchy agnostic’. In other words, being a senior executive does not make you a good coach. Seniority has virtually no impact when it comes to internal coaching capability: in fact, in my experience, it often gets in the way as senior leaders often feel they know all the answers and use their charisma to shut down new ideas and possibilities. One, well considered programme will be just fine for all levels of leaders from first line manager through to board level.

The top three benefits of this approach

You’ll see some remarkable things in your organisation when you successfully introduce a coaching culture:

  1. You will drive a more innovative culture where people feel they have the freedom, and are actively encouraged, to bring their ideas into action. Coaching techniques aren’t only useful for resolving negative challenges, they can help unlock ideas and new thought patterns.
  2. You will create a high level of ‘psychological safety’ – which according to a study by Google, is the number one factor in high performing teams. This comes from increased empathy (Apple’s secret ingredient!*) born out of open and honest coaching-style interventions. People feel more confident when they know their superiors can place themselves in their shoes.
  3. Your leaders will be equipped with the perfect style of leadership in the current VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) environment where simple problems are now complex dilemmas with countless challenges and opportunities arising as a result. It’s a flexible approach that encourages adaptability and agility in your leaders and their employees.