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HRDs and CEOs regularly comment that ‘coaching their people’ is a key skill that their leaders need to improve and do more of. Research by LinkedIn Learning (2017) found that developing leaders and managers was rated as the most important mission for L&D in any sized organisation, ranking above supporting career development and developing technical skills. Furthermore, 68% of companies reported that front-line leaders struggle with coaching for performance improvement (ASTD, Frontline Leaders, 2013).

Leaders as coaches: Are they compatible roles or is there another way?

And for good reason, HBR research (2007) found that the single most important difference between poor and great leaders was the degree to which they coached their team. However, while coaching does have a significant impact on engagement and performance, traditional models and approaches to coaching aren’t always successful, or appropriate, for leaders to carry out.

Why doesn’t it work?

Firstly, the very nature of the leader-employee relationship often makes it difficult for a leader to successfully coach their people. Consider how realistic it is to be a coach to someone who also depends on you to give them a pay rise, a bonus or a promotion. And how likely is it that a person who works for you is going to be open and honest about their fears and anxieties (e.g. feelings of worthlessness)? Maybe, but it’s not likely. The inherent parent-child or leader-subordinate hierarchy of these relationships will naturally censor an employee. The fear of damaging their career and working relationship inhibits their willingness to delve into the areas that need to be worked on.

Secondly, the terms and intent of the coaching arrangement in a leader-employee setting vastly differ from when a coachee approaches a coach independently. It is worth acknowledging that in terms of what we are discussing here, the coachee has often not agreed to this intervention – but rather it is being done to them. The leader also has the agenda and sets the scene – quite different from a traditional coaching relationship which explores what the coachee wants to work on. This pre-determined agenda can raise the employee’s defences, restricting communication thus undermining the core reason for the intervention.

We also need to acknowledge that the leader has a personal view of the situation being addressed which influences the process – this is not always useful as it can lead a coachee towards a particular conclusion. My hypothesis is that leaders want a change in behaviour but wrongly believe the way to go about that is coaching, when in actual fact they would be better off providing some high-quality feedback.

Furthermore, contracting in coaching is arguably one of the most important steps of a good coaching relationship – but it is often ignored in a leader-subordinate setting. These ground rules set out the obligations and expectations of each party including confidentiality, what will be discussed and what won’t, goals, and how often sessions will take place. Without set parameters, sessions can go wildly off course and the coachee can feel disempowered and unsatisfied with their progress.

Thirdly, when coaching is conducted by leaders within organisations it is often done retrospectively where leaders provide coaching along with feedback after an event. However, for coaching to be most effective, employees should be coached both ahead of new challenges to set them up for success and after the challenge has been faced.

What’s the alternative?

So, with the above in mind, what is realistic and what should our leaders strive to do better? I believe that the solution lies in incorporating a coaching style of leadership into their existing, everyday approach.

I believe it is more realistic and more helpful to have a palette of interventions which mixes directive (prescriptive) and non-directive approaches. It is far more natural to move between options based on what is appropriate for the situation. Also, be explicit about what you are doing as opposed to what I see many leaders do: prescribing behaviours dressed up as “Have you thought of…” type of questions. The benefit of this style is that it becomes an everyday approach and not a hat that has to be put on for special occasions e.g. “Oh, I need to be a coach to this person now”.

The work of John Heron is a useful framework for leaders to consider. Where traditional coaching models focus on GROW (Goal, Reality, Options, Will) or a similar ‘pull’ questioning framework, Heron’s work, taken from a consulting approach, allows a more push-pull style of intervention. His approach allows the leader to prescribe solutions, to inform and to challenge, while still asking the catalytic questions used in GROW-style models.

It needs to be said that Heron is very clear that if you are going to prescribe, inform and challenge, it needs to:

  1. be conducted at the agreement of the coachee
  2. come from a position of love and care. Isn’t that last point poignant?

Without genuine love and care for the coachee, this approach could result in a break-down of trust, and consequently the relationship.

When you are a leader sitting down to have a coaching conversation, you have to acknowledge there is a hierarchy in the room which will impact on the quality of the coaching conversation. The concept of transactional analysis (TA) can be useful in this situation. By being aware of the different ego states you and the coachee are in (Parent, Child, Adult), you can help the conversation to stay in ‘adult’ mode and thereby adopt a true coaching style of relationship.

Coaching is an incredibly useful tool to help employees grow, develop and overcome challenges. Real effectiveness comes when the process is conducted outside the employee’s working environment with an impartial coach and an agenda set by the employee. But that’s not to say that the concepts and models of coaching can’t be adapted to fit into a leader or leader’s existing style for some very positive results. In my next article, I will offer some practical tips that make it easier for your leaders to implement a coaching style of leadership.