Why leaders need coaches

Leaders can cast long shadows. Here at K&B we often see a strong correlation between how engaged employees are and their relationship with their line managers and senior leaders. Where trust in leaders is low, lower engagement scores tend to follow.

And in other news: night is dark. Water is wet. The Pope is Catholic. However, while confirmation that engagement and leadership are linked might be obvious, what to do about changing things can be trickier. Every organisation is different and there are no quick fixes, but one approach is to invest in coaching for leaders. It doesn’t have to be confined to the boardroom, as leaders at all levels can benefit. Here are a few ways coaching can help them.

Improving as a leader

Successful leaders identify and work on their own areas of weakness. Yes, this can be about technical knowledge, keeping up with the latest thinking within their industry or perhaps becoming more conversant with their organisation’s accounting structure. But it can also be about discovering where they can do better when it comes to the real blood and bones of workplace life: talking to people, running meetings, generally existing in the same space as colleagues without inciting savage rebellion.

For example, understanding your strengths and shortcomings in human-to-human contact can help you become a more authentic leader, according to workplace psychologist and executive coach Christine Allen:

“We need to understand and develop our natural gifts and correct for our weaknesses. We all have weaknesses and blind spots. When we ignore them, they can cause us to derail (think Travis Kalanik of Uber). Great leaders accept these weaknesses and commit to a lifelong process of growth and self-actualization.”

Widening the picture, awareness of strengths and weaknesses is part of a leader’s broader emotional intelligence. It’s a nebulous term, but taken as a leader’s ability to read, understand and empathise with their team – and by extension, inspire and motivate them – it’s surely a vital quality. (Tesco certainly thought so.)

Staying connected

Alongside a modern leader’s need to show empathy is the need for them to show themselves. The ‘visibility’ of leaders can have a significant impact on employee engagement, so withdrawing to a lofty office and shutting the door simply won’t cut it. Distance no longer implies authority, it implies disconnection.

This can be especially important if you’re leading through change. Faced with an uncertain future, employees will naturally lose focus and motivation; they may also be fearful or resentful. Staying connected to your teams and making yourself available is vital, but how do you do this sincerely? And how do you communicate effectively during difficult periods?

This is where a coach can help. The right person will help you consider your own attitudes to communication (and change management, where it’s relevant) and work with you to question your assumptions. For example, rather than how you think you should stay connected, what might your employees suggest? A coach will prompt you to look at how visible and available you really are, and to make changes accordingly.

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Listening to you

Coaching isn’t therapy. A business coach won’t attempt to fix your problems or make you better at relationships (although you might find that some coaching strategies definitely help in those areas, all the same). What they will do, though, is listen, and ask the right questions.

Why might leaders need that? Partly because it’s tough, and often lonely, at the top. There’s a reason why we hear stats around the failure rate of senior execs in their first few years reaching as high as 40% – a lot can, and does, go wrong. An executive coach can’t completely insulate you against failure, but they can help you gain perspective and hopefully avoid some of the more common pitfalls.

“Executive coaching leads to quantifiable professional and organisational benefits,” argues Joe Scherrer, President of The Leadership Crucible and Author of The Leadership Forge, “but an additional bonus for clients is that they have someone in their court who they can count on as a sounding board. That’s huge for them, and ends up helping the company as well.”

Boosting individual performance

The idea of individual achievement – of getting to the top alone, unaided – can be appealing, and can provoke some resistance to the idea of coaching. There’s no denying the satisfaction of feeling like we completed something on our own: it starts when we learn to walk, or tie our shoes, or ride a bike unaided, and then never really goes away.

But take a moment to reflect on the statement ‘I have got to where I am completely on my own.’

How true is it, really? Has every step been alone? Surely along the way we were all helped to walk. All helped to tie our laces, to ride our bikes. All helped to learn, to develop, to improve. The greatest athletes never stop needing their coaches; a great writer is usually never far from an editor; a band rarely makes a great album without a producer. We get help from everywhere, soak up lessons from the world going on around us.

Of course, in the moment of decision-making, of serving for the match, of striking the first chord, we’re alone. But to get us to that point, and through it? Help. Coaches. A coach can help you up your game, reflect on your failures, make improvements. For athletes it might be adopting a new technique or diet; for executives, it might be journeying into goal-setting theory or isolating the behaviour that’s limiting their performance. Getting better ultimately comes down to putting individual work in; but what should that work be? That’s where a coach can help.

Delivering tangible benefits

OK, so much for the hugging and the learning. What about the bottom line? While there haven’t been many studies in recent years, work has been done on measuring the ROI of coaching that puts it at anywhere between five and seven times the initial investment.

Naturally it’s a tricky thing to measure, but executives who receive coaching report various benefits. Some are precise: better results from their team, better sales figures, better engagement scores (hurrah). Some are more anecdotal, but nonetheless significant: a sense of settling into a new role more quickly; of identifying areas for development that they would have missed; of having more tools in their leadership kit. All things a business (or a US president, as with Obama and David Axelrod) could benefit from.

In coaching, as with everything, there are no guarantees. Find the right candidates and the right coach, though, and you could see the benefits in terms of team behaviours, productivity and – yes – engagement. Maybe then your leaders won’t cast shadows, but light the way instead.

Posted on 14th March 2018 in Culture&Insight&Leadership
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