What is Leadership Coaching?

By Sean Stevenson – Latest Revision January 3rd, 2021

Leadership coaching is a growing trend that aims to address the disruptive nature of our globalized business economy.

This process involves a “coach” who helps a leader define, analyze, and troubleshoot outstanding issues within their organization. 

Whether the leader is an ambitious entrepreneur or a seasoned CEO of a large institution, the goal of the coach is always to bring a tailored involvement that best suits their needs.  

This helps ensure that a leader may become more effective in the face of obstacles that may be highly complex in nature.

Leadership coaching is increasingly integral to the continuous success of many enterprises.  Moreover, this service is now more available than ever before.

In this guide I will:

  • Define Leadership Coaching
  • Explore what makes leadership coaching unique
  • Discuss why leaders need coaches today more than ever before
  • Explain what extraordinary leadership coaching looks like and how to rise above expectations
  • Explore the GROW model of leadership coaching
  • Detail the movement towards permanent leadership coaching in business
  • Highlight key information on leadership coaching as it exists today

Defining Leadership Coaching

Leadership coaching is defined as a development process for leaders.

Effective leadership coaching begins with deep questioning and meticulous listening.  Gradually, the leadership coach can develop a detailed imprint of a leader’s outstanding issues.  This allows them to best decide how to proceed.

Often, leadership coaching involves understanding the mental state, beliefs, fears, and habits of the individual being developed.  A true leadership coach is an ally who unobtrusively steps into the world of another.  Their goal is to empower learning and suggestively offer a solution.

The way of achieving any objective -no matter how difficult- is always a matter of removing obstacles that deter progress.  It is to this end that leadership coaching has reached such an intrinsic importance in our increasingly complex business world.  With so many disruptive changes happening all at once, and across so many sectors, managers now need active guidance more than ever. 

Rather than offer direct instruction, leadership coaching often provides methodologies that enhance decision-making efforts.  These can be tailored to suit any individual’s style, preference, or needs.

The act of leadership coaching ensures that the proper business acumen and resources are directed in the most intelligent way possible.  This in effect, helps ensure the success of an enterprise.

An active leadership coach leverages both their experience and expertise towards this goal, by actively coaching those in positions of power.

What is Leadership Coaching

"A coach is someone who tells you what you don't want to hear, who has to see what you don't want to see, so you can be who you always knew you could be."

-Tom Landry

What Makes Leadership Coaching So Unique?

Leadership coaching differs from any other teaching process.  This is not to say that the process itself is entirely abstract from other learning programs.  However, it does say that a leadership coach is training an individual who will then go on to transform an entire organization with what they have just learned.

Having coached and strategized with many business leaders first-hand, I can tell you that creating high achievers is not something that happens by accident. 

At the same time, I cannot take all the credit, because the leaders I worked with were not insufficient by any means.  They just lacked a piece of the larger puzzle, something that eluded the fringes of their vision.

By showing them that missing piece, what I was really doing was enabling their practice and personal growth.  I strove to awaken their own self-actualization process.  This meant pointing to their successes along their path and reinforcing their current belief in themselves.  I would then use my own business knowledge to make a suggestive analysis of what would ideally come next.  This gave them some distinct direction, yet still left things open for them to ultimately make their own decisions.

The next piece of the puzzle that they were missing, would suddenly become a reality.  My suggestion would evolve in their minds, giving them their “next great idea” to actively pursue.

There is nothing more gratifying than leading others to a better outcome. 

It truly is indescribable to see that light in their eyes, as they are invigorated towards newfound purpose.

When any client begins a process of exponential personal and professional growth, it creates a ripple effect throughout the entirety of their organization.  They feel excited for future prospects as a direct result. 

This empowerment fuels their ability to make better decisions, and they motivate others to do the same.

The unfortunate reality of all this however, is that professional business coaches are few and far in between.  There is a massive demand for business experts who can work with leaders at every level of an organization.  Developing important skillsets and rooting out obstacles where they exist, is easily made possible with additional guidance and expertise. 

Our modern and globalized economy is unlike anything seen before in human history.  The size of this new economy is beyond a human mind’s comprehension and its demands are endless. 

Hence, the sheer need and scope of this demand for leadership coaching, is unfathomable.

For any company to survive and thrive in this new business landscape, it takes a specialized way of thinking.  One that you will not find without looking beyond your existing business.  In short, there is no better time than now to embrace leadership coaching as a means of improving an engaged enterprise.

Why Leaders Need Coaches

Every world-class leader gets help on their path to success.  In fact, the very act of being able to ask for help when it is needed, is often cited as a key characteristic in meaningful personal development.

Transformational coaches and mentors are often leaders themselves.  They guide and advise as an ally, often using their own experiences as case-studies for learning.

A large part of what any leadership coach must do, is to help their pupil overcome negativity.  This means developing pathways of clearing one’s own mind of negative thoughts and anxiety. 

So often, we are caught up in our own sense of inadequacy, and we begin to believe we are not capable of making that next step.

This is exactly where a leadership coach can intervene.  By simply telling someone that they can do something and asking that they take a deep breath before you show them how, you are setting a powerful precedent. 

The elements that drive ambitious pursuits and inevitable success are not complicated.  It takes hard work, passion, and drive to make things happen.  The key ingredient of these three elements of success however, always starts with hard work itself. 

Teaching someone to overcome their own fears while adamantly pursuing that hard work, is the most powerful lesson you can give.  Moreover, it is a simple one.

When coaching leadership of any kind, always ask the following:

  • What obstacles are preventing you from achieving your goals today?
  • Are the negative sentiments that you feel dragging you down internally?
  • If you had to name your biggest fear right now, what would it be?
  • Can you list your strengths and weaknesses that directly impact your line of work?

Example

Timothy Kinwell is a highly successful executive at a leading software development firm.  Lately, the firm’s revenue has not met expectations.  Timothy is worried that his own leadership may now be in question.  Naturally, he wants to find a solution, but is unsure about how to proceed.

Key Takeaways

In this instance, we can immediately identify that Timothy is paralyzed by his own uncertainty.  Likely, as he sits in his office, Timothy is nervous and distracted.  He will not be able to make a reasonable decision until he can calm his mind and remain objective. 

To this end, we would start by asking Timothy about the obstacles and fears he feels are impeding his progress.  After he identifies these in detail, we can now set about devising ways to counter these issues. 

Coaching Process

Any negative sentiments a client once had towards a difficult decision tend to slip away in the face of organized and coherent solutions.  The gears in their minds start turning when they see possibility in their business and livelihoods once again.

As brainstorming begins, it is a favorite tactic of mine to ask what the leader’s biggest fear is.  I intentionally do this as they are in the midst of their thinking.

Often, even as they are devising solutions, they laugh aloud at themselves as they state what trepidations they suffer from.  They tend to realize that their personal struggles can be overcome with deep consideration and effort.  This serves to reinforce that the difficulty in any situation they may have is not permanent. 

There is always a solution to be discovered.  Sometimes it can help to have an individual list their perceived strengths and weaknesses, so that they can apply those to a real-life scenario that they might currently face.

Often, more training is not the answer, yet coaching is.  It can be far more effective to have an individual reach certain conclusions on their own, while reinforcing a viable business path forward.

What is Leadership Coaching

"Anyone can teach. It takes a true mentor to coach someone to a point where their own capabilities exceed their deepest expectations."

-Anonymous

Extraordinary Leadership Coaching Goes Beyond Expectations

Most leaders have experience with coaching of some kind.  At the very least, they’ve been through training programs or courses in their line of work.

What sets leadership coaching apart from these static experiences, is that a leadership coach can identify exactly what is missing.  They can be in the moment with their client and delve into their specific needs seamlessly.  This will then inform the learning process.  They can now help guide the leader to better personal and business outcomes.

This in the moment practice is practical in many ways.  It saves time and effort.  Moreover, it is tailored to the needs of the leader, rather than being an unfeeling and abstract course of learning.

Moreover, unlike any course or training program, a leadership coach can articulate and define the specific business needs of a leader.  This prudent analysis then extends to the assistance offered.  Identifying and understanding the goals of a business is key to offering a suite of solutions to its ongoing problems.

Ensuring efficiency, increasing effectiveness, decreasing costs, lowering time to execution, and much more, can all be accomplished when a leader is enabled to deliver on their mission. 

This is why extraordinary leadership coaching is so important.  It goes beyond initial expectations.  So many leaders are convinced that rigid courses and training are the only answer.  They have not heard the idea that someone with expertise can sit down with them and actively plot out their development.

While many leadership coaches begin with general strategies, truly exceptional learning begins when a coach delves into their own business experiences.  Using their intuitive knowledge, they can supplement the methodologies that lead to outstanding success. 

For any leader looking to expand their knowledge and develop their abilities, this kind of exceptional leadership coaching is integral to fully realized growth.

In both business and personal development, exceptional leadership coaching is the optimal path for improvement.  These capabilities extend to:

  • A well-defined course of operations that will allow for attainable goals and achievements to be set
  • Managing the expectations of the leader as they pursue the best course for their personal development
  • Addressing business needs to service customers more effectively
  • Identifying problematic areas and the obstacles that represent key concerns
  • Offering analysis and insights at every turn that lead to optimal outcomes

Example

Timothy learns to set attainable goals and objectives from his leadership coach.  He manages his expectations by setting up milestones of progress.

As weeks and months pass by, Timothy is elated to see that that leadership coaching has paid off.  He is well on the way to addressing the revenue issues he had previously feared.  His organization is openly thankful, and grants him a significant bonus in good faith.

Key Takeaways

After identifying problems and key obstacles, a leadership coach can help set attainable goals.  As they guide their pupil towards desirable outcomes, they can make suggestions as to what action will have the most positive impact on an enterprise.

Offering important insights and analysis will grant a leader a great deal of newfound wisdom to draw from.  They can then turn their coach’s expertise and experiences into their own, drawing from time-tested principles in the future.

Coaching Process

Teaching a manager or leader that they will never have all the answers, is the first step to helping them identify the areas they can most positively impact.

It is always ideal to start with general coaching strategies that explore the different aspects of your pupil.  Moreover, you can always teach them about yourself in the process.  This creates trust.

Once a pupil opens up to a coach, it becomes much easier to shift and adapt to the circumstances of the business.  You can now begin to cultivate solutions in earnest.

Creating momentum for a pupil is always a matter of unleashing their fullest potential.  Finding ways to help them organize their thoughts, set goals, and identify the most integral areas of their process, is key to coaching any client.

Using The GROW Model

The GROW model of leadership coaching is a repeatable and highly effective means of influencing individuals to make better decisions.

Created by Sir John Whitmore and his contemporaries in the 1980s, the GROW model involves four simple steps to assist in non-direct coaching.

As the very name GROW implies, it is an acronym that describes this model in detail:  Goal, Reality, Options, and Will. 

Each step in the GROW model is unique to the process.  While easy to grasp conceptually, the actual practice of the process requires careful introspection and insight.

The four actionable steps are these:

Goal

When you initially begin the leadership coaching process with someone, you must first establish what that individual wishes to accomplish in the immediate future.  In other words, what are they looking for right now? 

This immediate, “right now” goal, is not related to any project or job, either.  Rather, it is what he or she hopes to obtain from the conversation they are having with you in that exact moment.

This is an important distinction.  Most people are incapable of making an organic decision in the most immediate sense.  They need to be guided towards it.

Ask them what they want at the end of this conversation.  That will get you an immediate goal to work with, which will inevitably lead to others in turn as the process continues.

Reality

With the confirmation of a verifiable goal in place, ask questions related to who, what, where, and when.  Why is excluded intentionally, as it often involves emotional reasoning.

Using this will allow you to discover the nature of the goal in greater detail. 

Remember to remain objective and focus only on the related facts.  This will ensure the conversation remains constructive and exploratory in nature.  You want to establish trust with a “give and take” format to your conversation’s flow.

Ask them, “What are the most important parts of this, the factors that we need to be aware of?”  This will trigger a series of responses, which you must pay careful attention to.

If they’re talking about a small portion of a productive process, while ignoring other factors, gently raise this as a question.  If they seem focused on only one part of a much larger issue, again, ask why.

The idea herein is to raise questions so that you can increase their situational awareness.  Once that inevitable light goes off, they can engage more productively with the problem at hand on their own.  Your goal is to raise questions so that they can offer prudent answers.  Once you have accomplished this, you must let them devise their own reasoning. 

Naturally, try to guide them along the way, but never be forceful in doing so.

Options

Most people who actively seek coaching are facing a specific problem or a set of questions.

As a leadership coach, your primary objective is to help others think more critically and creatively.  To this end, you must always recognize that no issues is without an inherent solution.

When attempting to drive a conversation, always ask them, “If there were no obstacles in your way, what would you do right now to fix the problem?”

This alone tends to force people to think more objectively about their business issue.  Often, they tend to realize that the menacing obstacles that seemed so insurmountable, were really just small things in their mind that they can eventually overcome.

Prompting a more productive and optimistic line of thinking is key to creating options in the minds of others.  All too often, we cripple ourselves with a sense of personal futility. 

Remove this by encouraging open exploration, deeper thinking, and active risk-analysis.

Will

This final step has two parts and tends to require that you actively “push” slightly towards a desired output.

In the first step ask them, “Given what we have discussed, what do you intend to do?”  This forces the individual you are actively coaching to consider what has been discussed.  The details that you explored together will inform their opinion as they seek an actionable way to move forward. 

This is where you can see if your conversation was successful, or if they still need some additional support.

If the individual you’re coaching has a clear idea on how to proceed, you have done very well.  However, if they still seem hazy or uncertain, you may have to backtrack and cycle through the GROW process once again.

In the second step, we actively question, “How likely are you to act on what we have discussed?  Will you definitely move forward, or is there any chance you may not?”

If they response in an absolute and confident affirmative, they’re likely very motivated.  If they seem shaken, uncertain, or eager to leave, then most likely they will not follow through.

Again, if they seem unlikely to move forward, you’ll potentially have to restart the GROW process all over again. 

Try to lead them each time towards a solution that seems tailored for them personally.  This will grant a greater chance at them actively finishing what they’ve started.

Key Takeaways

GROW offers important insights by its very nature into the habits and beliefs of your pupil.  This allows for tailoring a solution that will suit their needs.

Coaching Process

The goal with GROW is to let them “lead themselves” to a better outcome.  You are primarily to ask questions and assist in the drawing of conclusions.  Never be forceful in this process, or it will likely prove counterproductive.

Pro Tip: Remember during the GROW process, you are prodding them along to help them define their own reasoned solutions.  This is the only way to reinforce their own potential for personal growth. 

This process cannot be forced and you must let them realize their own “cognitive gaps,” so to speak.

What is Leadership Coaching

"Coaching is releasing a person's potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them."

-Unknown

The Movement Towards Permanent Leadership Coaching

Some modern companies are now moving away from professional consultants.  In fact, many enterprises are now seeking to foster true learning internally. 

To this end, they are creating their own leadership coaches.  Managers and high-level executives with the ability to facilitate support and development at all levels of an enterprise.

Advancing any workplace and its mission is something that requires a defined culture of learning.  Effective leadership coaching in this regard, leaves an open-ended source for development that can ideally be accessed by anyone.

As our economy and our jobs are in greater flux, answers will be less absolute over time.  To this end, it is imperative that development occur when it is needed.  Rather than judging employees for requiring new learning experiences, they can be facilitated to grow accordingly.

This concept is a matter of maximizing the potential performance in others.  It is a key aspect of exceptional leadership coaching.  It is heartening to see this feature be actively adopted by an increasing amount of businesses worldwide.

However, making this kind of learning happen through so many segments of a (potentially vast!) organization can represent a great challenge.  This is why professional and personal leadership coaching consultants will never truly fade away.  These coaches are too effective at seamlessly bridging a gap that most organizations will never be able to fully cover by themselves.

The Need Has Never Been Greater

According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, there is a massive dissonance in the actual effectiveness of executive coaching skills.  In one such study, “3,761 executives assessed their own coaching skills, and then their assessments were compared with those of people who worked with them. The results didn’t align well. Twenty-four percent of the executives significantly overestimated their abilities, rating themselves as above average while their colleagues ranked them in the bottom third of the group. That’s a telling mismatch. “If you think you’re a good coach but you actually aren’t,” the authors of the study wrote, “this data suggests you may be a good deal worse than you imagined.”

This study actively highlights the need for credible and effective leadership coaching.  At all levels of almost every organization, there is an easily identifiable need for mentorship.

Micromanagement alone is not the answer.  With the right tools and support, an organization can greatly empower its employees to deliver a far more effective service.  This not only has the effect of ensuring the company’s growth and prosperity.  It also allows for entire workforces to further specialize and develop themselves for fundamental economic growth in the future.

In short, leadership coaching is not just for leaders – it is for entire organizations.  The very act of leadership development and coaching creates a ripple effect which invariably improves business models.

Leadership Coaching Is For Everyone

Leadership coaching is a highly rewarding profession.  Moreover, it can be accomplished by anyone with the professional capacity to offer meaningful insight and actionable methods that lead to better outcomes.

Often, workplace coaching takes place during brief interpersonal exchanges.  As precious as these moments are, they are no substitute for active teaching and learning.

Try to coach your own organization if you can.  Accept that you won’t have all the answers, and you’ll know you’re on the right track.

For any organization or individual seeking to better themselves professionally, there is no more meaningful an interaction than to seek leadership coaching.  You will quickly discover why it has become so clear in recent years, just how valuable it is for both business and personal success.

Your Leadership Coaching Story

Take Action

With this new information in mind, take a brief moment or two to write your own ideas about leadership coaching

In this simple activity, you can define your own definition of what it means to be a great coach for a leader you know. 

Ask yourself:

  • What insight do they need to reach the next level of their business practice? 
  • What ideas can help them to better manage the people who work for them?

If you need help to develop your own ideas, use this question:

  • What are these businesses missing that I can provide?  What can I do to make their future better?

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