By Lauren Thomas
I am often asked whether coaching can really change a leader’s behavior, or transform the way they lead. Sometimes the question arises from people who are considering coaching. Others have a personal interest in discovering more about the coaching relationship. Sometimes the question stems from someone with a challenging relationship with a leader who may possess stronger strategic, operational or technical skills than interpersonal skills. Occasionally the people asking the question are very confident in their own abilities to lead, generally dismissive of the idea of coaching, and assert that they cannot see any benefit! Asking whether a coach can change someone’s behavior is a bit like asking how many psychologists it takes to change a light bulb. Of course, the answer is that the light bulb has to want to change – as does the leader being coached. Interestingly, I find that the reason why people ask about coaching in the first place can provide valuable insight into their motivation and willingness to change.
Someone who is already considering a coaching relationship may already have a degree of self-awareness, understand that there are areas where they could enhance their performance, and be motivated to discover more. This attitude is often found among those who understand that leadership is human-centered. Sustaining a vision, delivering a major change, or leading an investment program are all important leadership activities. Yet the very best leaders manage to achieve these accomplishments indirectly, through other people. These leaders often engage in self-reflection to gauge the extent to which they can fine-tune their performance. In such instances, coaching the leader is like coaching a sporting champion. The performance gains are likely to be incremental, but once a new technique is mastered, it can have a marked impact, not just on the leader, but on the people led. While the tweaks and adjustments may be small, when they are intentional and deliberate, consistent and visible, they can help refine a leader’s performance. In these cases, coaching is really about maximizing personal effectiveness and interpersonal influence.
Leadership for technical experts
For the second group of people, the gains from coaching can be more dramatic. We have all worked with challenging leaders – leaders who may lead in name, rather than by example, and who don’t seem to understand our perspective. So how do leaders who are not “people-people” get into leadership roles? Organizations often need to promote technical and operational specialists to management and leadership positions. Some experts welcome the progression, while others feel they have to take the role when it is offered, because not to take it would send the wrong message. Such progressions are not always supported with adequate and appropriate training and education. Even where development opportunities are provided, there may be little encouragement or incentive for a new leader to try new approaches. Many technical specialists who struggle with the human element of leadership do not see the value of people management until difficulties arise. For leaders who value competence highly, as most technical specialists do, coaching may have negative connotations. It may be viewed as remedial support or performance management, rather than as a positive intervention to help them become even more effective in their roles. In these situations, coaching can help leaders see themselves as others see them and develop their own strategies and style for dealing with the people issues that they find most challenging to handle.
For the third group of people, I wonder whether their direct reports share their confidence in their own ability to lead. Sometimes their self-confidence is more than justified, but sometimes it is not. How many of us would readily challenge someone who repeatedly told us they were a wonderful leader? Most people would be reluctant to directly respond, especially if that person was in a more senior role. Would we be more likely to smile, and say something positive about one of their strengths? Or possibly even change the subject and let them believe what they want to believe? There are many reasons why people may prefer to not provide their leaders with feedback:
- Respect for someone who is in a more senior position
- Concern about possible reaction from the leader
- Not wanting to be seen as someone who provides negative feedback
- Concern about repercussion on own career prospects and development opportunities
Even where a leader’s confidence in his or her people’s management abilities is accurate, it can sometimes be rooted in opinion rather than objective feedback. It can be challenging for senior leaders to obtain objective, honest feedback on their own leadership style. Much depends on being able to ask in an appropriate way, the nature of their relationships with direct reports and peers, and the organizational culture. This problem is compounded by the “Whispers” game that occurs in organizations, where people can be somewhat reluctant to pass negative information to senior management. We often filter what we say to our leaders, especially when that information relates to their interpersonal style. In these instances, coaching can serve as a mirror, allowing leaders to see where their confidence is justified, and where there may be a mismatch between their beliefs and what others see.
Seeing yourself as other see you
Whatever the motivation for asking about coaching, there can be few leaders who are not interested in what people really think about them. There are many tools a coach can use to support leaders. One instrument valuable for its focus on leadership competencies is the CPI260. This self-completion questionnaire provides a view of the leader as seen by others, in key competency areas of self-management, organizational capabilities, team building and teamwork, problem-solving and sustaining the vision. The CPI260’s design does this without needing to use 360° feedback from other people. The CPI260 can be used with established, high-performing leaders and with emerging leaders seeking promotion from more operational or technical roles. Its valuable insights into leadership style enable the CPI260 to win over leaders who are initially skeptical about the benefits that coaching can deliver. Coaches like the way it supports personal insights for clients. However, whether change really results from coaching, with or without the CPI260, depends on a number of factors. It depends on the reasons and motivations for seeking coaching, the nature of the coaching relationship, the skill of the coach, and ultimately, by how much the leader really wants to change.