How Can L&D Help Leaders Upskill in Coaching?

Posted by Gemma Glover on May 5, 2022 4:10:25 PM
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High on the agenda of many an L&D professional at the moment, is how to help their leaders become great coaches. 

Spring has very much sprung, and as the experienced gardeners amongst you know - for each plant to truly flourish, it has a specific set of needs. Many will bumble along and fend for themselves well enough, but with the right soil type, drainage, volume of light and pruning - your green oasis can really thrive. Much the same can be said for leaders.

While I’m not suggesting you douse leaders in water on particularly hot days (hey, your company summer event is your own, no judgement here) - the same mindset applies. If we want to deliver relevant and valuable learning solutions to support our leaders, then we need an in-depth understanding of their needs, preferences, and environment. This zoomed-in lens is especially crucial when there’s a very specific objective in mind. 

The leadership landscape has grown considerably over the last few years. We’re asking for more versatility than ever before from those that steer the ship; humility, empathy and authenticity to name but a few. Data suggests we no longer (did we ever?) want infallible leaders who keep the personal private. And leaders with poor active listening skills are damaging to business.  

In order to meet these progressive and human-centric expectations, we’re drawing on a lot of the good stuff that sits behind effective coaching conversations, such as probing questions, meaningful, real-time feedback and facilitating and guiding instead of simply telling. 

So, how do we help our leadership teams rise to meet this need?

We’re going to tend to (if you think we can’t drag out this gardening analogy, you’re wrong) a few key things in this blog and weed out (told you so) the obstacles along the way. Things like gaining that all-important buy-in, the typical logistics at play for leaders, interesting findings from related studies and a sprinkling of indirect ideas to give your coaching initiative external scaffolding.

Sound better than the first birdsong from your painstakingly hand-pruned topiary tree?  

Great, then let’s jump in.

Is there value in helping your leaders become coaches? 

Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella said: Somebody had at one point said to me: Nobody quits companies. They quit managers. I felt like that was one of the best epiphanies I had, at least growing up even at Microsoft. That is such an important statement.’

Of course, people do quit jobs for reasons beyond the people they work with, but the sentiment is worth mulling over. What we’re seeing, from our engagement and pulse surveys, directly and from current research is that people who feel heard, supported and recognised are more productive, collaborative and happy - and this is how they expect interactions with their leaders to make them feel. 

You could design the most awe-inspiring coaching initiative for leaders anyone’s ever laid eyes on. And you’re raring to roll-it out and scatter the seeds of coaching goodness from IT to HR. But, and this is a big but, if your leaders don’t see what’s in it for them, the culture and the broader business benefit, despite all your good intentions and epic planning, your seeds won’t sprout. 

Why should leaders invest their time and effort into becoming better coaches? This is a key question to preempt - and the answer should form the basis of your elevator pitch. If you can make the time to understand their specific pain points and connect the dots to how coaching can help to address them (things like high attrition and struggling to build strong relationships), you can start to build interest. 

If they're data-focused, roll out the numbers and evidence which landed you at coaching as part of the solution in the first place. Visionaries will appreciate the story, the journey thus far and the utopian end-point. 

Understand the spectrum of your stakeholders; those that appreciate concise, direct language, those that are metric and performance-focused, and all the ones in-between. To sell to your audience, you need to define their needs and meet them where they are. What’s going to resonate? 

Here’s an example of a great pitch from David Morely (Allen & Overy) to his senior leadership team: ‘As a senior leader, you have roughly 100 conversations a year that are of particularly high value—in the sense that they will change your life or the life of the person you’re talking to. We want to help you acquire the skills to maximise value in those 100 conversations, to unlock previously hidden issues, to uncover new options, and to reveal fresh insights.’ 

If your leaders don’t buy into coaching, if they don’t get the point, engage with the training, or practise what they’ve picked up - return to the origin story - that is, revisit the ‘why’ and get to work making what matters connect.

If great coaching behaviours aren’t seen and experienced, they can’t be championed and reinforced. It’s not important until it’s treated as such, until it’s a visible priority embedded in the day-to-day. This is how coaching transforms from a buzz-word into culture; tangible investment and role-modelling.

What to consider before designing a coaching programme for leaders 

Some form of gap analysis will be valuable before you start designing a coaching programme for leaders. How do you create a bridge across a chasm you can’t see?  Here’s some food for thought on factors which might also be in play:

Natural leaders aren’t necessarily natural coaches

Daniel Goleman talks about six distinct types of leadership and his research suggests coaching is leaders’ least favourite style. It’s often perceived as a time-consuming process with long-term (if any) results, which are hard to evidence. 

This style is also a major shift from the classic ‘command and control’ or ‘push’ leadership approach. Coaching focuses on ‘pull’, the drawing out of realisations, and can feel like an unnatural leap for anyone used to simply giving orders.

If leaders have had poor or ineffective experiences of attempting coaching, they may also be put off developing their coaching practice - it typically always fails when the individual they’re coaching isn’t receptive or self-aware, in other words, they don’t want the help.

This is why opportunities to talk through situations where things haven’t gone so well, ideally with a peer group or one-to-one with an experienced coach, are just as useful as success stories. Because it’s easy to get disheartened, especially when flexing new skills and behaviours for the first time. 

And a coaching conversation isn’t always the best approach.

Situational Coaching Styles

If there’s pressure on leaders to visibly flex their coaching capabilities on a day-to-day basis you might find yourself on the receiving end of relentless probing questions. You only wanted to put your sandwich in the fridge but you’ve been asked what goal you’d like to achieve and offered a SMART template to help you set it. 

Sometimes coaching just isn’t the right play at all - especially if the individual is perfectly capable at cracking on by themselves and won’t benefit from your involvement. Leaders have to learn when to offer support and when to get out of the way. And like all good things, those instincts can require practice.

Coaching styles, just like leadership styles, need to adapt and flex depending on the context. And this can be challenging for someone who defines themselves, or specifically their role as a leader, with a narrow lens. If they identify as a ‘fixer’ or ‘problem-solver’ they might jump the gun, impatient for the person they’re with to finish talking so they can offer up the silver bullet and save the day. But sometimes it’s just going to be actively listening, helping the individual get to the real root of the issue, or admitting you're not the best person or you don’t have all the answers. Learning when to be more directive, when to back off, and all the colours in-between, takes time, feedback and reflection.

One of the tricky things is that leaders rarely receive direct, honest feedback - people tend to shy away from critiquing the boss or those with influence, for fear of it being badly received and impacting their career (or worse). This is another reason peer groups, of leaders at a similar level, are so essential - it may be the only environment they get to hear the truth, tailored advice and come face-to-face with their development areas. 

Mentoring and Coaching aren’t the same thing

Returning to Daniel Goleman’s work for second (he really is a leadership guru), he found that 90% of leaders, at the beginning of their coaching journeys, will try and shepherd the individual to the outcome they’ve already decided is the best. Even when they think they're simply listening and asking the right questions. They’re so used to being deferred to as the ultimate decision-maker, it’s hard to resist coming up with a plan and charging ahead. 

Along similar lines, coaching is often mistaken as interchangeable with mentoring - which is much more about sharing relevant knowledge and experience. Effective coaching requires leaders to take a step back and respond to the individual in the moment, not finding ways to offload their thoughts and opinions. Define the difference between coaching and mentoring in terms of desired outcomes - highlight where one or the other really shines and show how, if used in the wrong context, it can derail the purpose.

In advance of a more formal coaching programme and/or planned sessions, ask those on the receiving end to detail their expectations and aims for the time - this is something leaders can come back to when they’re worried they’re veering off-road or need to remind themselves of the big picture. 

Mind the age gap

The results of all behavioural studies should be handled with caution. There’s always going to be at least one less-than-ideal thing about the methodology or how the findings were interpreted - so we include this next study with a pinch of salt. But the conclusions are certainly interesting and remind us of our numerous nuances, if nothing more.

You can read the full story here, but essentially, analysis of 72 executive coaching sessions over six years, suggested significant differences in how leaders from different age groups responded to coaching training. Which could influence what your training looks like for those groups or at least consider that different demographics might have different predispositions and needs. 

Apparently, leaders in their 30s (compared to 40s and 50s) are poorer at self-reflection, prefer rules and absolutes and are less interested in the ‘why’ of their behaviour. Older generations tend to be more curious about themselves, welcome challenges and are more receptive to new ideas. 

The researchers discuss the possible reasons, things like leaders in their 30s being heavily focused on establishing their career and success, and so pursue the ‘right’ way to do things, to advance as quickly as possible. Whereas, in our later years, we step “from novice to mentor,” and have had more opportunities to see that our perception of ourselves doesn’t always match how others perceive us. They want to close the gap. 

The takeaway here is that leaders, as with all learners, are on varying starting blocks, and a huge range of things like age, culture, education, unconscious bias and investment in their role, will have an impact on their training and are fluid. There’s no one fits all approach - coaching initiatives need to start with the learner and remain agile. It reinforces the value of pre-work before launching quickly into design, and evaluating as things progress, not just at the end. 

Time poor and always on the go

In most organisations leaders are ultimately accountable for the success of the business, points of escalation when things have seriously gone awry and balancing a long list of shifting priorities. The remit of the leadership profession has greatly expanded in recent years, and the line between personal and professional continues to blur.

Contributing to this type of culture doesn’t necessarily require more time; it’s ensuring that the time you already spend is intentional and meaningful. And once effective coaching practice is working well within the context of your organisation, it can help to reduce the time currently spent on things which are detracting from its success; high attrition and recruitment, grievances, toxic relationships, low morale (to name but a few).

We often talk about the cost of doing something, but it’s just as vital, if not more, to consider the cost of not doing it.  

Upskilling your leaders to become coaches

If you want to cultivate a green coaching oasis, remember to do your research - be able to confidently back-up why upskilling in coaching is important in your business. 

Not all leaders are natural coaches. But understanding what’s important to them, their environment and getting them onside will pay dividends for the journey ahead. 

You’re going to encounter the coaching spectrum, the good, the bad and the ugly. So preempt the most likely stumbling blocks to navigate them like a pro when they arrive: time-limited leaders, previous negative coaching experiences, instinctively reverting to mentoring and telling. It’s not thinking negatively, it’s constructing an informed game plan which stems from your learners from the off. 

If effective coaching practice is high on your agenda and you want it to help solve real problems long-term, then don’t forget to zoom out. Look at the impact business operations and technology has on coaching - what reiterates that it matters? What gets in the way and what can be tweaked to influence daily habits? Plant all of these elements into your cultural garden.

We recently discussed all different areas of how coaching and learning can work together in harmony in a thought-provoking webinar - make sure you check that out for more insights on implementing a coaching strategy in your business.

Or if you’d like to have a quick chat about how you can improve or enhance your current learning strategy, reach out to Gemma, our L&D Manager, who will be happy to help.

Topics: Learning Strategy