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Why coaching matters in leadership development

Mel Fairley 23rd February 2021

It’s hard to be a leader in the best of times, but the Covid-19 pandemic crisis has suddenly and dramatically upended the working world as we know it, creating unanticipated business and leadership challenges that were unthinkable 18 months ago. Leaders must now dig deep into their skill sets to meet the challenges of a remote or hybrid workforce, low morale, fear and uncertainty about the timing of a recovery and how to keep their business sustainable in order to secure the future of their workforce.  And there really isn’t a blueprint for this situation.  The word unprecedented has been used many times to describe this crisis but it is exactly that.

A leader’s toolkit is developed over time and will have been created through many different activities.  Many leaders recognise that developing, refining, and improving their skills isn’t something just for those starting out on their career path, rather something that benefits everyone, including those who have reached the very top of an organisation.  It takes a degree of humility to appreciate there is always more to learn and improve regardless of how long you have been a leader. The belief in, and commitment to, continual learning and development is something that sets apart good leaders from great leaders.

So, what is Leadership Development?

Leadership development refers to any activity that enhances the capability of an individual to assume leadership roles and responsibilities. These activities range from qualification programmes in leadership and management, to executive education, workshops, internal programmes and coaching.  All of which focus on developing knowledge, skills, self-awareness, and abilities needed to lead effectively.

Coaching is often the form of development that leaders are most hesitant about.  The need to work on a one-to-one basis with someone, exposing your development needs and being honest about what you wish to do better can place leaders in a state of vulnerability.  This is an uncomfortable state for most of us, but for leaders who are often placed on unrealistic pedestals where they are expected to have the answers and solutions to everything, that vulnerability is often the first and most significant hurdle to overcome.

Coaching can take many forms and much of that comes from the often-varied background of today’s coaching community. Some are business professionals, others psychologists, many come from a training or consulting background.  All walks of life are represented in the field of coaching.  With that comes different styles and approaches.  Some coaches are tough, challenging and direct. Some are sensitive, encouraging and indirect in their style. Some impose a particular process. Some are more flexible. Compatibility and openness to discussing what style of coach might best fit the leader’s needs is an important first step in the process.

Leaders often wonder what kinds of topics would be considered suitable for coaching.  Thinking about all the challenges facing leaders today here are just a selection of things I have spoken to leaders about recently in my role as a coach:

  • How to identify and then stay focused on top priorities in a fast-paced changing environment.
  • How to avoid stress and burn out in themselves and others
  • How to build skills in set areas (communication, influencing or negotiation skills for example)
  • How to navigate internal politics and power struggles
  • How to analyse their 360 feedback
  • Personal career planning
  • Life-work balance issues

This list is by no means exhaustive and many leaders find that the topics for discussion emerge as they build their relationship and trust with their coach.

So, what are the benefits of coaching for you as a leader?

  1. Leaders gain new perspective on everyday responsibilities from working with their coach. Taking the time to pause and reflect with a coach affords the leader an opportunity to take a more objective and detailed look at what they are doing and the impact they are having.
  2. Targeting coaching to a leader’s specific development needs makes a huge difference. By pinpointing exactly what the leader wishes to learn to do, do differently, or in some instances, stop doing, the leader with the support of their coach, can work on new techniques or strategies that will have the biggest impact.
  3. Coaching can help keep leaders stay aligned to the bigger organisational goals and targets. This can be really important especially for technical leaders who, day-to-day, may be very focused on the operational aspects of their accountabilities. Stepping back and looking at the broader goals and targets can ensure personal and the wider team or organisational targets are met.
  4. Coaching often creates a depth of qualitative insights that, alongside supportive self-analysis from the leader, can help them take more appropriate, well considered decisions. Whether its from clear signals or very subtle hints, coaching may also help spot and identify how leaders can maximise the effectiveness of themselves and their teams.

There is considerable research to support the use of coaching as a valuable development tool.  For example, the Institute of Coaching states that over 70% of individuals who receive coaching benefited from improved work performance, relationships and more effective communication skills. They also reported that 86% of companies feel that they recouped the investment they made into coaching.

If you are curious about what coaching could do for you here are my top tips for embarking on a successful coaching partnership. (You can read more on this on our blog post – How to choose an executive coach)

  • Find the right coach for you.  Have as many “chemistry” meetings with different coaches as you need to in order to find the coach whose skill, experience and style is the best fit for you
  • Establish clear guidelines and a contract for the relationship and coaching process from the outset.
  • Be prepared to be vulnerable, open and honest about your development needs.
  • Share feedback. If something is not working, discuss it.
  • Celebrate success and embrace failure as learning.