What Coaching is Telling Us
Contributors: Thomas R. Krause Ph.D. & John Hidley M.D.
What leadership coaching is teaching us about leadership and successful outcomes.
In recent years, leadership has emerged as one of the most critical factors in the success of organizational change efforts, even in “bottom-up” processes. Leadership activities set the tone for the organization’s culture, or how things are done around here, making the skills and activities of individual leaders an important focus area in performance improvement efforts. As we continue our work with organizations seeking to improve their safety and overall organizational performance, we have begun to build coaching relationships with the leaders of those organizations. The objective of leadership coaching is to help individual leaders become more effective at creating high-performing organizations. In working with many companies over the years we have found that certain management and leadership practices recur across those organizations that have outstanding safety performance. Effective leaders have high levels of credibility, accountability and communication; they are action-oriented and have a clear vision of how a high-performance culture works. In addition they demonstrate high levels of feedback and recognition, and collaboration. As we work with leaders to build and enhance these skills, we are discovering interesting things about the nature of leadership and the unique advantages of a coaching relationship.
The Success Equation – Leadership coaching is not a silver bullet. It is a collaborative process that builds on the individual leader’s strengths in order to make him or her a more successful and effective leader. One of the things we have discovered through leadership coaching is that two variables in particular impact how well this happens: the clarity of the defined need and the existing strength of the leader being coached. A successful coaching relationship can occur when the leader has a clearly defined need even if he or she is not presently an especially effective leader. Conversely, successful coaching can also occur even if the leader has not defined a need beyond ‘leadership improvement’, but if the leader is already relatively effective. Coaching becomes difficult, however, if the leader is not particularly effective and does not recognize any defined need.
Overcoming Isolation – Another thing we have learned about leadership coaching is the power of having a dedicated coach whose sole interest is in the success of the leader. Oftentimes as they rise through the ranks, leaders experience increasing isolation; the people who used to interact with the leader may no longer be available or willing to provide that person feedback on their performance. In addition, the leader’s daily activities and interaction may not allow the opportunities for feedback that they once had. Through coaching, the leader has access to an impartial observer whose only objective is that leader’s success— and who can provide frank feedback directed at building that person’s effectiveness as a leader outside the context of internal agendas. In addition, the coach acts as an impartial sounding board for the leader as he or she strives to build new skills and respond in new ways to the challenges of leading in his or her unique organization.
Building Strength Through Balance – Finally, our experience in coaching leaders points to the fact that leadership strengths can be a double-edged sword. The advantages of certain skills can become disadvantages if those skills are relied on too heavily or to the exclusion of other critical leadership practices. For example, some leaders might have a highly interactive style. They are very skilled verbally and, compared to other leaders, have a high number of interactions with others. However, if, when under pressure, the leader uses interaction skills to the exclusion of other skills, they may end up making their interactions more directive than befits the situation, creating missed opportunities to solve problems collaboratively, develop their staff, or build a high-performance environment. Coaching helps leaders map out their leadership style and identify where they need to build up strengths in order to create a more balanced and effective approach.
The bottom line is that coaching leaders about how to build a strong performance culture is an effective way to align the leadership team and build leadership skills while at the same time building the kind of environment in which change efforts can thrive. And because it occurs during the leaders’ normal activities, it does not add additional demands on the leaders’ already tight schedules.