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The Leader as Coach – affecting organisational success and growth from a place of curiosity and empathy

Hetty Brand-Boswijk, Professional Certified Coach by the ICF & President - ICF Netherlands Charter Chapter

When recruiting for leadership positions organisations continually rate the skills of motivating and developing other people as highly significant leadership competencies. However, these same skills are also consistently shown to be the least demonstrated by many leaders worldwide. One of the main causes of leaders failing to motivate and develop people is the old-fashioned belief that the role of the leader is to coerce and control people.

Developing the ability of holding effective coaching conversations gives leaders the skills to empower others to develop themselves as leaders, encouraging independent problem-solving, recognising opportunities and ultimately improving performance. Leaders that develop coaching skills also see increasingly higher levels of employee engagement, motivation and efficiency.

To clarify the Leader as Coach I refer to a quote from the Harvard Business Review article by Herminia Ibarra (Professor London School of Business) and Anne Scoular (Cofounder Meyler Campbell): “The coaching we’re talking about—the kind that creates a true learning organization—is ongoing and executed by those inside the organization. It’s work that all managers should engage in with all their people all the time, in ways that help define the organization’s culture and advance its mission. An effective manager-as-coach asks questions instead of providing answers, supports employees instead of judging them, and facilitates their development instead of dictating what has to be done” (HBR R1906G Nov-Dec 2019).

How coaching skills can make a difference
Utilising coaching within a leadership role allows top managers to be more effective in inspiring their teams and connecting with them, both as a whole and as individuals, on a deeper level. It helps you to develop trust among team members and create an emotionally balanced work environment.

To be an effective leader/coach, not only do you need to learn how to communicate well and help others to get results, you need to guide, encourage and inspire others to reach their full potential. A great coach is likely to have the following talents or qualities: listening skills; ability to provide constructive feedback; curiosity; empathy; asking powerful, open questions; integrity; collaborative. Some of these characteristics are inherent, others can be learned.

One particular famous leader that comes to mind, who clearly had inherent coach-like characteristics, was Mahatma Gandhi. He empowered a whole nation by motivating people and getting them to believe in themselves, and he achieved this from a place of humility and compassion. In the corporate world there are other examples of great leaders that used the coaching leadership style on more than one occasion. Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg may not immediately come to mind as coach-like leaders, but they have employed coaching leadership from time to time with great success.

Coaching is just one leadership competence
However, the leader as coach is not the only course of action one should take. Leadership can and should be ‘in the moment’ (a great coaching skill) and depends on the needs of the team or the individual. For that reason, great leaders choose their leadership style at any given moment, with a calculated analysis of the matter at hand, the end goal and the best tool for the job.

One of my favourite articles on the subject of dynamic leadership is Daniel Goleman’s Leadership That Gets Results, a breakthrough Harvard Business Review study published in 2000. Goleman and his team spent three years to complete a study with over 3,000 mid-career managers, to discover specific leadership behaviours and determine the effect they had on the corporate environment as well as each leadership style’s effect on bottom-line profitability. They discovered “If you take two cups of authoritative leadership, one cup of democratic, coaching, and affiliative leadership, and a dash of pacesetting and coercive leadership “to taste,” and you lead based on need in a way that elevates and inspires your team, you’ve got an excellent recipe for long-term leadership success with every team in your life” (Wolfgang Lehrmacher, Supply Chain Strategist/Writer/Speaker).

Although this study was carried out 20 years ago it is as relevant, and maybe more so, today as it initially was. The demands on leaders and managers in times of crisis are more than just maintaining organisational health and ensuring continued revenue and profit. In the current pandemic crisis, leaders must be aware of the cost to the human being, the employees they rely on to create revenue and profit and they ignore this to their peril. In a recent article by Aaron de Smet, published by McKinsey & Company, he writes “the pandemic has highlighted the urgent need for four interrelated leadership qualities: awareness, vulnerability, empathy, and compassion.” (McKinsey Quarterly, “Your organization is grieving – here’s how you can help”, 17 September 2020). The four leadership qualities described are also coaching qualities and the combination of these plus active listening and powerful questioning can make the difference between an engaged team, with people feeling ‘seen and heard’ for more than just their skills and tasks, or one that falls apart, suffering in silence and only being valued as a human ‘doing’ instead of whole people.

What you need to be the Leader as Coach
Learning coaching skills does not make you a good leader and is not a quick fix. There must be an inherent desire to empower and develop colleagues as well as ‘see’ and ‘hear’ them non-judgmentally and with empathy. Furthermore, it is only the next step in a leadership journey. In this age of digitalisation, disruption and discomfort one’s effectiveness as a manager/leader is, in part, due to each leader discovering and accepting their own strengths and blind spots and acknowledging the same in those that they deal with on a daily basis without judgement and discrimination. Furthermore, consistent evaluation of the effectiveness of one’s coaching skills is paramount to learning more how to be a coaching leader. It is a life-long journey that requires constant dialogue. Going on this journey improves all aspects of a positive environment and guarantees that people know what the manager/leader need from them and how their contribution adds value to the whole. The style’s implicit message is, “I see you, I believe in you, I’m investing in you, and I expect your best efforts.” People very often respond to that kind of environment with their heart and soul as well as their mind!

Where to start
Developing coaching skills is a journey of learning and practice – ask any ICF certified professional coach! It starts with an acceptance that the world is not just about us and a desire to enhance our own environment for the better. Curiosity and empathy for ourselves as well as those around us may feel vulnerable, but it is the first step to genuine value in all areas of our lives and those of others. As so eloquently phrased by Brené Brown (research professor at the University of Houston), “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change”. It starts with a willingness to hear ourselves and those around us, and not just hearing but also listening. Listening is a conscious choice: it requires attention so that your brain can make sense of the words you hear. As the famous Mark Twain quote says, “If we were supposed to talk more than listen, we would have been given two mouths and one ear”. So, next to discovering how to learn coaching skills, start by listening. You will discover value for yourself as a leader and for your organisation where you may never have thought to look!

According to the Building Strong Coaching Cultures for the Future, a 2019 study from the International Coaching Federation and the Human Capital Institute (HCI), developing coaching skills for leaders is an ongoing process in organizations with strong coaching cultures.  Since 2014, managers and leaders using coaching skills continues to be the most commonly deployed coaching modality for organizations that have participated in the 6 ICF/HCI researches on the topic, with 82% versus 60% for external coach practitioners and 57% for Internal coach practitioners. When asked how these offerings might be differentiated in the future, 83% of respondents said they plan to increase even more the use of managers/leaders using coaching skills within the next five years.

If you need support on your organisation’s and leader’s coaching journey, do contact us at ICF and our team of volunteers will be happy to help.

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