I recently had two very different coaching conversations with clients, highlighting the different ways of working with an external coach. In this case, one good and one wrong way. It got me pondering and crystalised something for me:
External coaching should never be a proxy for good line management.
To explore this statement, I want first to remind us that the most effective leaders intrinsically know that they should use different leadership styles depending on the situational context. A single leadership style is not effective all the time. Being flexible and able to transition from one style to another smoothly and seamlessly is a higher-level leadership skill. I previously wrote about this topic in my article from 2020, "How to motivate and get the best results from your team."
There is a continuum of leadership styles. Daniel Goleman described six of them in "Leadership That Gets Results".
Coercive - "Do what I say."
Pacesetting - "Do as I do, now."
Democratic - "What do you think?"
Visionary - "Come with me."
Affiliative - "People come first."
Coaching - "Try this."
The coaching style is at one end of the leadership continuum. Learning and developing new skills are the main focus, and urgent action is less essential.
Coaching is about creating change, often to help an individual, group, or team improve their performance somehow. The coaching leader uses communication skills, reflective learning, and structured problem-solving to help bring about the desired changes. In the face of rapid, disruptive change, leaders can't be expected to have all the answers. This style facilitates problem-solving and encourages personal and team development aligned with the organisation's goals.
The coaching style works well in many business situations, but a prerequisite is that people are aware of the need to change and willing to invest. This approach will make less headway when employees, for whatever reason, are resistant to learning and changing their ways.
Let me bring us back to the two conversations that I mentioned earlier.
Two very different perspectives on how to use coaching
1 - Using coaching techniques in line management
Coaching techniques utilised in executive coaching sessions can be incredibly effective when used by line managers to get the best from their teams.
Here is an example of an executive looking for new ways to engage with a direct report who had lost their drive and motivation. We explored different approaches they had tried, what was working, what wasn't and what they hoped to change. Specifically, the skills and capability he wanted to develop to achieve the desired outcomes. The essence of the change was to strengthen his coaching style of leadership, in this case, best highlighted by three elements:
Asking better questions
Giving timely, constructive feedback
Listening more and talking less.
Many people will face this obstacle whether they are new to management or someone with extensive experience leading teams.
Question: What support or needs do you have that you are currently not getting to be at your best?
Feedback: Because I am experiencing you...
as operating at less than 100%,
reacting to things rather than your usual proactive self,
requiring me to provide more direction on your projects and with your team.
Listening: One of the most potent questions is to follow up with "What else?" three times. At times, it isn't until the third "What else?" or "Is there anything else?" that we hear the real issue, the most important thing that needs addressing.
Allow the silences to grow, and give them time to reflect and think. Don't step in to rescue them when the silence becomes uncomfortable. They will be thinking. The silence is a sign their brain is working hard.
Benefits from this approach include providing timely and constructive feedback that will likely resonate as the individual will know it is true (whether they initially want to admit it or not). Secondly, by asking the individual to say what they need to succeed, you respectfully empower them. As their line manager, you are saying you have confidence in them and that they will be able to come up with the best solutions.
This approach demonstrates how strengthening your coaching style of leadership by utilising coaching techniques will make you a more effective leader and enable you to motivate and get more from your team.
However, there is no corollary where external coaching should be used to replace good line management, which brings us to the second conversation.
2 - Coaching as a substitute for line management
I received a request to speak with a high-performing team lead who had an exceptional track record in execution and delivery. Operationally this person was crushing it:
✅ On spec.
✅ On time.
✅ On budget.
But this was at the expense of their team and their internal relationships. The clients loved this high-performer - of course, they would. Clients didn't see the furious chaos going on behind the scenes. The sponsor for the coaching, their line manager, asked me to see whether I could help their direct report develop their emotional intelligence, the so-called "soft skills," and assist them in changing their interpersonal behaviours. At first glance, this potential coaching engagement appeared similar to the first. The potential coachee's default Coercive and Pacesetting leadership styles could be supplemented with Visionary, Affiliative, and Coaching. Helping them develop new skills and capabilities, thereby adding more tools to their leadership tool kit.
We had a very insightful exploratory conversation. It became apparent very quickly that now was not the right time for coaching. I have previously written about why some people are coachable and others not. This was a classic case of someone not being willing to change because they like the outcomes they are getting. They have been very successful. When they look in the mirror, they like what they see. This person was drawing the wrong lessons from good outcomes. Their harsh, abrasive, belligerent approach was driving the high performance of those around them. Whereas their success often was despite those behaviours.
When we spoke about what they wanted to change, it was always about getting other people to change - everyone else is the problem. My potential client wasn't willing to take personal accountability. Now wasn't the right time for coaching. The desire to change wasn't strong or urgent. Timing can be an essential factor in coaching.
I told the line manager that the timing wasn't right and that coaching would not have a high chance of being successful right now. Upon reflecting after our exploratory meeting, I realised that the line manager, the coaching sponsor, would benefit most from coaching as they weren't adequately fulfilling their line management responsibilities and were, in fact, subconsciously looking to external coaching to be a substitute.
Change is hard. Every change carries with it the possibility of conflict, and the business environment is complex enough without looking for trouble. In essence, the line manager was aware of their direct report's impact on their team and peers but didn't feel equipped to deal with it. Their direct report was a constant source of tension and conflict in the office. One of the most challenging problems facing leaders is dealing with people like this, which I have written about here.
An external coach should not be a proxy for effective line management.
Instead, coaching should:
Help people create awareness and insight - how do you come across to others versus how you view yourself.
Clarify what needs to change and the development and new skills required to achieve the desired outcomes.
Review the challenges, obstacles or the nature of the opportunities in detail. Our current reality is a result of past decisions.
Enhance people's ability to make better decisions by identifying and clarifying the different approaches and choices ahead and the trade-offs involved. Not all decisions are equal.
Create new ideas, alternative solutions, and hypotheses to explore and experiment.
Go deep to double-click on what to retain and what to change to create new habits and behaviours and establish new skills that endure.
Infinite return on investment (ROI) from coaching
The best coaches will be happy to share their knowledge, tools, techniques, and frameworks with their clients to continue the coaching in between sessions. And crucially, the coaching has a chance to endure long after the engagement has concluded. And what better way is there to leverage the coaching investment than for people to share what they have learned and experienced with their teams.
I always aim to explain the tools and frameworks I use, their background, and the research that underpins them so that my clients become self-sufficient and on the path to mastering a coaching leadership style.
Like a technology company that can sell multiple copies of their software or software as a service, this attitude helps grow the coaching ROI. If done well, there is no limit on the return you can get from your coaching.
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