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  • Writer's pictureEdward Grey

Leaders need to coach!

Great leaders need to coach: and here’s why

I’ve been very lucky in my career; for over 20 years I’ve had the good fortune to observe leaders from owner-manager micro businesses to niche SME’s and international blue chips across pretty much all sectors. I’ve seen plenty of leadership behaviours, the good, the bad and the downright ugly. I’ve also seen excellent leaders in action, but not as often as I had hoped - or as often as we need right now! This is the first of a series of articles on coaching in leadership.

There are a number of behavioural traits that great leaders share, including humility, patience, determination, inspiration, wit and vision. This article is not to espouse the virtues of these admirable qualities; I want to challenge your current thinking around how to get the best out of your people.

Leaders spend time with their people. All managers and business leaders need to develop and maintain exceptional relationships within their businesses. Indeed, if as much attention was given to the quality of internal relationships as it is to relationships with clients or even suppliers, business productivity would go up exponentially. Why? Because people are the lifeblood of any business - and we all need to feel seen, heard, nurtured, supported and encouraged.

If someone lacks knowledge or skills, train & mentor them. If they are under-performing, even though they have the skills & knowledge, coach them.

The technical difference that makes the difference in great leadership is COACHING. Time and again I have noticed that great leaders are great coaches. There will always be a place for mentoring & training - the primary purpose of which is to transfer knowledge and experience. Simply put: if someone lacks knowledge or skills, train and mentor them. If they are under-performing, despite their knowledge, experience or skills, coach them.

Coaching doesn't have to be formal, planned and delivered behind closed doors at work. It's the quality of the interaction and the intentions driving the conversation that matters.

Leadership is fundamentally different from managing. I know you know this. So why do many leaders spend much of their time managing, not leading? It could be that they have yet to learn how to coach. Leadership is about inspiring & engaging others in shared purpose, vision, mission. It’s about modelling for others the values and beliefs of the organisation. It’s about nurturing people.

Have you ever noticed what happens when someone asks you a question? You go on an internal search for answers and meaning-making. Along the way you’ll access beliefs, values, feelings, ideas, memories and much more. You may not realise it, but you’ll be utilising a vast range of inner resources to answer the question. If you are told/shown the answer, the legwork has already been done. Have you ever wondered why some people need ‘telling & showing’, over and over again? It’s because there’s been no significant personal learning in the transaction.

Coaching asks rich, generative questions. It’s a complex process that requires specific skills and a wide range of behavioural competencies – skills which can be developed over time.

An example of a common moment between a member of staff and their boss:

“I’m stuck and don’t know what to do next!”

A training/mentoring response is often:

“How about this….it works for me….let me show you…do it this way, do it my way.” In other words, the solution is already in someone else's control. No need for independent problem-solving here! Just show me and I'll do as you say. Fine, if you want your people to be mini-me's. Fine if your process is reliant on highly specified, technical compliance. But even then, your staff will not innovate, be creative, be self-managing.

And what if your colleague is stuck, not because of a lack of knowledge or experience? What if they are stuck because of fear/confidence? What if they are just bored? What if their minds are off-task due to worry about something personal?

And what if they’ve been told/shown the solution 100 times already – what’s going on?

Coaching reveals the reasons for people’s behaviours that are mostly out of awareness. Coaching is like shining a bright light on blind spots, illuminating deeper reasons why “I’m stuck”. True coaching creates self-awareness and deep learning. It initiates behaviour changes in ways that traditional managing does not. Furthermore, the reduction of hours and energy spent by ‘manager-leaders’ is significant: leaders who default to a coaching approach are less energetically depleted, have more room in their heads for developing their strategy and more room in their hearts for connecting with their passion and vision.

Coaching has been a buzz word for businesses for a long time. But over 20 years, I have rarely seen leaders using genuine coaching skills. This is, in part, due to the confusion arising from the term “sports coaching”. This modality is predominately mentoring (sharing the wisdom of experience) and not typically the type of coaching I’m suggesting needs to be embraced by business leaders.

In the New Year 2023, here on the fabulous Isle of Wight, there will be a new Island Business Leaders Co-Coaching Forum established to help leaders learn the art & science of coaching. By joining the Forum, leaders will learn coaching skills, principles, models and techniques, piece by piece over the year. Let’s revolutionise island business by getting leaders coaching! (a version of this article can be found on page 23 of Island Business Magazine)

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