Why Coaching isn’t the Job of Leaders

There’s a problem with learning and development when it comes to leadership in businesses today. The tag ‘coach’ has been floated around, shaped, manipulated and mangled in a number of different fashions, and has often been positioned as the key to being a better leader.

The truth is, no one knows what coaching entails and quite how it adds value to their job.

Here’s the disconnect: My job as a leader is to improve the performance of my team, area, business unit, whatever function or group of people I happen to be leading. Let me contend something. If you stand in front of an average group of sales leaders, let’s say, and let them know that they’re no longer expected to be great coaches, what you’d hear in the room would be a communal sigh of relief.

There are three fundamental problems with coaching:

1. Coaching as a word in itself is in no way compelling. It doesn’t scream out to me that it’s going to improve the performance of my team.
2. Coaching is associated with qualifications, that somehow you need to be qualified to be a coach.
3. Coaching is open to interpretation. Last year we created a 180º feedback survey for a group of leaders in a FTSE 100 company who were working on some core leadership behaviours. Here are some survey responses from their people:

i)   My manager has made a conscious effort to understand more about me as an individual – majority answered STRONGLY AGREE
ii)  I have observed my manager being more ‘present’ and engaged in more interactions with the team overall, and less tied to their computer/desk – majority answered STRONGLY AGREE
iii) My 1:1s with my manager have focused far more on me and my future development and aspirations – majority answered STRONGLY AGREE
iv)  My manager has spent more time coaching me – majority answered DISAGREE

Hang on. All the above points would be described by an institution such as the CIPD as coaching activities. Yet when these activities are actually being done with people, they don’t accept this as evidence of coaching.

The intention of coaching isn’t wrong, we just need to define it more clearly.

Nurturing skills and talent comes down to one thing: Conversations. What types of conversations are you having with your people, and how often are you having them? There’s your two metrics: What Type and How Often.

As a leader, I get that. Anyone can have a conversation. And I understand the value of a great conversation because I’ve had lots of them in my lifetime that I can refer to in a concrete way, and understand the impact they have made.

At a FTSE 100 organisation they made a group of leaders measure the output of their conversations with their team. The ultimate goal was to grow talent and ultimately increase profit. Having different conversations has increased employee engagement in the business, and dramatically improved customer service ratings thanks to increased capability across the customer service teams.

We used the following scales:

1. How much did I self-disclose? (creates environment of trust)
2. How much did I learn about them? (creates understanding and engagement)
3. Was there clear evidence of progress from previous conversation (drives continuous improvement)
4. How much did I talk versus them?

We measured the following for their teams as a whole:

1. How much am I at my desk versus out with the team (this week?) (encourages interaction, a ‘finger on the pulse’)
2. How many people have I connected to this week? (stimulates conversations and learning)
3. How many difficult conversations have I had this week? (encourages leaders to challenge and take action)
4. How many opportunities have I created for people to “level up” this week? (teams were being measured on a capability framework and leaders were encouraged to actively create challenges to test their people, or “level up” against the framework)

Eight questions. That’s all. I’m not saying this is the right way of doing it. What I am saying is we engaged a group of 100 leaders in what we would normally term coaching activity. We never went anywhere near the word coaching. We kept it concrete, to the point and with clear outcomes.

Coaching needs to be stripped back to its fundamentals, and preferably be rendered extinct in name, if we want to change the way teams and people grow in business.

May, 19, 2015