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10 Concepts and Skills That Are Appropriate for Leadership Coaching
Leadership coaching may take place at any point in a leader’s tenure.
Some brand-new leaders work with coaches to start their leadership tenure off strong.
Coaching can help the new executive start strong with their career, helping them understand goal setting, prioritizing, and building strong relationships with other leaders. The mid-career leader may feel “stuck” and turn to a leadership coach to help with the identification of what’s holding them back and with plans to overcome these obstacles.
The tenured leader may turn to leadership coaching to learn appropriate risk-taking, to explore leadership succession planning, or to learn how to ensure their vision for the future of the organization can be executed effectively.
Some coaching clients go into the coaching relationship knowing exactly what they want to work on as a leader, while others may need help identifying the most promising areas of improvement. Choosing the right coach is the key to getting the desired results.
Executives will have to make an effort to identify the right coach for their needs, and it starts with shortlisting a handful of promising coaches. Many coaches offer free consultations over the phone or in person, and these brief conversations can be invaluable in identifying the coach with the right “fit.”
Once a client and coach elect to work together, they may end up working on any number of skills and approaches. Here are 10 concepts and skills that leadership coaches and their clients frequently work on together.
1. Learning How to Start Projects Off Right
There’s a lot of sense in the aphorism “well begun is half done.” Have you ever noticed that if you force yourself to spend even five minutes tackling a task you’ve been avoiding that it’s significantly easier to keep going? The same is true whether the task is putting away clean laundry or kicking off a new work project.
Leadership coaches can help their clients identify the reasons why they avoid pulling the trigger on an exciting new project. Often the reasons are emotional: “What if I fail?” “What if my team won’t work together?”
While those are legitimate concerns, an effective coach can work with their client to use their experiences and their critical thinking skills to put those emotional fears into perspective. Sure, it’s good to be aware of worst-case scenarios, but teams want new projects to succeed just as much as their leader does.
Drawing on courage to move forward despite reasonable risks is a skill like any other in that it can be improved through practice. And coaching is all about both developing and practicing skills until they become assimilated and available at all times.
2. Developing Effective Time Management Practices
Sometimes brilliant people have difficulty managing time effectively. While there is no shortage of systems, tools, and apps designed to help people conquer this common problem, coaching can help with something more deep-seated: the ability to prioritize time and tasks and the inability to cede control to other people.
Lack of good time management is a problem for professionals at every level. At the executive level, however, the effects of poor time management can cascade downward, affecting the schedules of many people.
Leadership often means leaving previous tasks to others rather than attempting to continue them while leading others.
It’s not uncommon for people to be promoted to a leadership position and still carry the burden of tasks that should have been left behind. In these instances, lack of effective time management may be related to the fear of losing control, and this can be an important issue that can be addressed through leadership coaching.
Similarly, the ability to delegate well is a leadership skill with which coaching can help. Leaders who don’t delegate well may be plagued by fears of not being taken seriously, or they may spend too much time overseeing (or micromanaging) work they could reasonably leave to others completely. Sometimes coaching is about developing “letting go” skills.
3. Strengthening Supervisory Skills
The etymology of the word “supervisor” is straightforward. The Latin “super” means “over,” while “visor” comes from “videre,” which means to see. Supervising something implies responsibility for good performance and correct behavior. In other words, making sure work is not only done well but done by the correct process while adhering to proper conditions, such as safety rules.
Generally, supervisory skills are leadership skills. A good supervisor is skilled at:
- Critical thinking
- Conflict resolution
- Time management
These are all key leadership skills as well. A leadership coach can help the client parse out which aspects of supervision are more difficult and develop a plan to strengthen those skills. Coaching also involves the client deliberately practicing those skills. It may feel awkward or forced at first, but with practice, the skills become ingrained, ready to use when needed.
4. Embracing Innovation
Rarely is the problem with innovation a lack of ideas. Most organizations have plenty of people with forward-looking ideas. But putting innovative ideas into action is harder. And when innovation doesn’t work out, it’s tempting to shelve innovation altogether, but this is the wrong way of looking at it. Embracing innovation means accepting a certain level of risk, and it also means not giving up on innovation after an idea fails to come to fruition.
Innovation is an act of “future-proofing.” While stability is good for an organization, the world outside changes constantly. What works today may not be best for tomorrow. Encouraging innovation can be a challenge for some leaders. After all, who wants to be the leader of a division where an innovation initiative fails?
Leadership coaching can help leaders learn to embrace innovation through risk evaluation, accountability, and learning to document and move forward from lessons learned. It can be tempting to embrace the status quo once you’ve reached a certain level of leadership, but stagnation is far worse for an organization than innovation – even when some innovations fail. Coaching can help leaders move beyond their need for the status quo and encourage the innovation that will help future-proof their organization.
5. Strengthening Positive Culture
A healthy organizational culture cannot survive without strong, supportive leadership.
The quality of leadership is the single biggest determinant of the quality of organizational culture. Culture change or culture improvement initiatives simply cannot work long term without leadership investment.
Working to improve organizational culture isn’t easy, because change isn’t easy. Even if there are clear problems with the existing culture, who’s to say that a changing culture will be better? And who’s to say other leaders in the organization will be invested?
Nonetheless, leadership coaching can help prepare leaders for investing in cultural improvement. A given leader may need to, for example, work on communication skills in order to help establish and maintain cultural changes. Or, if a cultural change involves granting greater autonomy to departments, a division leader may need coaching in better supervisory skills or in overcoming the temptation to micromanage.
When culture changes, leaders must change too, or else the changes cannot be maintained. And strong, positive culture should be a top priority of every organizational leader because the benefits are too great to ignore. Coaching is about developing and using key skills. No leader can expect lasting cultural improvement if they themselves are unwilling to make lasting changes.
6. Effective Conflict Resolution
Wanting to avoid problems is natural. Some problems can be avoided with good planning, but in every career, unavoidable problems will present themselves – often between two people or two departments. As much as a leader may wish for problems to simply resolve themselves, this rarely happens. Therefore, an intelligent leader knows that there will be times when it’s necessary to face conflicts squarely and help resolve them.
Conflict resolution at the professional level isn’t like conflict resolution among kindergarten students. You can’t usually just tell someone to sit and think about what they’ve done after apologizing to the other party to the conflict. Among professionals, conflict may have multiple layers and be complicated by policies and politics, making for a thorny environment.
Skills involved in conflict resolution typically include:
- Using emotional intelligence
- Remaining calm and objective
- Looking for the positive
- Communicating clearly
Ideally, everyone involved in a conflict would demonstrate these skills, but that’s not always the case. Therefore, it’s up to leadership to set the example and help the parties articulate and work out their differences. A leader who has and practices these skills is a leader who is prepared when conflict rears its head. Coaching can assist with the development and practice of these key skills.
7. Building and Strengthening Professional Networks
Professional networks must be regularly tended if they are to thrive. But after reaching a certain level of responsibility, it can be easy to put networking on a back burner due to so many other demands on time. Networking must remain a priority, even for leaders with long tenures in an industry and with many contacts already.
Business networking is never finished.
The constant evolution of industry, along with the constant development of new technologies requires attention to professional networking. It’s not enough to hand out business cards when it’s convenient. Leaders must ensure they remain engaged in important industry and professional events, and this places demands on time and attention.
Leaders with excellent time management habits, and who continually work to maintain and improve their communication skills are better positioned to strengthen their professional networks. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Hiring, partnerships, and innovation all frequently depend on tapping into networks, and a stale or outdated network can hinder progress in any of these areas.
The skills that leaders typically work on with their coaches (communication, culture-building, time management, and embracing innovation, for example) are skills that translate well to professional networking.
8. Change Management
Big changes typically require management. Change management encompasses the management of expectations, logistics, and unforeseen problems that occur during major organizational changes. One goal of change management is the preservation of core goals and values throughout the change process.
Change management is necessary because people, in general, don’t like to step outside their comfort zones – even if a proposed change seems exciting or like the right thing to do. It’s easy to think that an employer could benefit from shaking up the organizational structure, but watching it actually happen can be nerve-wracking.
The same is often true of other changes, from moving to a different location to introducing a new product line. Things will change and getting from here to there requires crossing personally uncharted territory.
The leader who guides a team through a major change successfully might be considered a hero by some. There is no question that leading a major change requires extra effort, extra strategizing, and the use of tactics that may not be used ordinarily. The leader who has engaged in leadership coaching is better equipped with the tools and skills required when big changes are on the horizon.
9. Better Listening and Communication
Two of the most essential leadership skills are listening and communication and they are two sides of the same valuable coin. Technical and business skills are just as necessary, but they can only get a person so far. People aren’t automatons, and while they want their leaders to have the skills necessary for the job, they also want a real human being.
Any customer service professional will tell you that a big part of what people want when they seek customer service is to be heard. Likewise, people want their leaders at work to listen to them when they have something important to say. Leaders whose doors literally or figuratively remain closed are unable to connect with the people they lead compared with leaders who know how to listen and communicate well.
One of the best things about a great leadership coach is the benchmarking they do at the beginning of the coaching relationship. When a coaching client is open to 360-degree feedback, they can learn a lot about how people perceive them. It’s entirely possible to consider oneself a good listener or a good communicator while others think the person is closed off and uncommunicative.
Learning how one is perceived by those they lead is a powerful starting point for the coaching process because it demands self-honesty and a willingness to be vulnerable.
Many coaches help their clients develop and practice their listening skills.
10. Improving Transparency and Understanding of Vulnerability
Speaking of vulnerability, it is actually one of the most important elements of intelligent leadership. Yes, people expect their leaders to lead with confidence, but confidence is not the same as unbridled hubris. Vulnerability is not weakness. It is, in fact, a manifestation of honesty and transparency.
For example, Winston Churchill went into the Battle of Britain knowing full well how juicy a target London was, particularly after the fall of France. What came in part from that acknowledgment of vulnerability was ultimately the country’s “finest hour.” Combined with strategy, it turned the tide, showing that Germany’s hubris-powered opportunism was in fact beatable.
Coaching clients on vulnerability requires tact and sensitivity. Too many people equate vulnerability with weakness and courage with bravado. The leaders whose organizations thrive long term ultimately understand what real vulnerability and courage are and how they can fuel success. But sometimes leaders require some convincing before they accept what vulnerability is and is not, and executive coaching can help.
The 10 concepts and skills discussed here are far from the only ones that leaders work on with coaches. But they are ones that leadership coaches regularly encounter in their work because they tend to underly more specialized leadership skills (like public speaking or mediation).
The truth is that coaching engagements are as unique as the clients they serve. Outstanding leadership coaches understand this and don’t try to foist a one-size-fits-all coaching package on every client. The coaching process may include key elements like assessment and benchmarking, goal setting, road-mapping of strategy, and skills practice, but each of these is customized to the client’s unique strengths and needs.
Companies increasingly invest in leadership coaching because it gets results. Company leaders who address skills gaps and who fully capitalize on their strengths produce better results than do leaders who are content with the skills they have.
Glossary of Terms
Conflict resolution – a formal or informal process that helps parties in dispute find an acceptable solution
Corporate culture – the values, beliefs, and behaviors that inform how a company’s people handle business and interact with each other
Courage – the ability to act despite the presence of fear or uncertainty
Critical thinking – the skill of objectively evaluating and analyzing an issue or problem in order to arrive at a sound judgment about it
Delegation – the process of entrusting tasks or responsibilities to others, typically people in a junior position to the person doing the delegating
Innovation – a process of making changes in established products, processes, or business models with the goal of improvement or even disruption
Leadership coaching – a one on one relationship between a coach and an organization’s leaders or high achievers, the goal of which is maximizing the leader’s effectiveness
Micromanaging – a style of management that involves overly close observation or attention to an underling’s work, generally with the goal of complete control over the person or process
Time management – the skill of allotting one’s time for maximum productivity and efficiency
Vulnerability – the quality of being open to honest assessment or honesty with oneself about potential problems or shortcomings