The coaching leader

It’s hard to move these days without bumping into a book, course, workshop or TED talk on leadership. There’s a whole typography for the leader you can be: autocratic, entrepreneurial, collaborative, democratic or coaching.

The coaching leader is at the opposite ends of a spectrum to the autocratic leader. It’s a shift from the leader knows all, top down, “tell them” style to one where the leader sets direction and uses a questioning approach to get others to generate ideas and solutions. Rather than saying “this is what I want, and this is how I want it done”, the coaching manager might say “we need to increase turnover by 12% by the end of the first quarter, what do you suggest we do?” Unfortunately it’s becoming a bit of a fad, and like all fads, people jump into it without really understanding its strengths and limitations.

The coaching style deals with several problems. First it’s a way of dealing with growing complexity where our past experience does not throw up simple repeatable solutions. We need much more than our technical expertise, we need people who are comfortable admitting they don’t know the answers, but have the skills to try and find one through others. Secondly, employees who have worked in hierarchical organisations often lack sufficient opportunity to make decisions and learn from their experiences early enough in their career; coaching helps them develop decision making and learning capabilities much earlier. Thirdly, we tend to learn more from our mistakes than we do our successes and we tend to accept self criticism far better than criticism from others. A coaching style provides an effective approach to dealing with difficult conversations.

Some unfortunate problems occur. Some use coaching as one style fits all approach. Not surprisingly, they and their colleagues feel frustrated by the unhelpful “it’s not for me to tell you what to do” approach.

Leadership styles should be selected to suit the situation. Coaching works when the people around you are competent and confident. It’s motivating for them to be given the freedom to try things in their own way, and you reap the benefits of staying focused strategically. It’s not appropriate when employees are lacking in confidence and capability and need clear instruction and direction. Keep the coaching style for feedback – what worked well, what didn’t, what support do they need from you. As the confidence and ability grows, extend the leash and give them more scope for generating their own solutions.

Coaching is a mindset, backed up with skills which can be learned.  To be effective, a coaching style requires real concentration, active listening, probing questions and silence while the other person processes information in response to your questions.  Done well you won’t know you’ve been coached. It will feel as though someone has a genuinely deep interest in you and your opinions. It doesn’t need to be time consuming and formalised – it can be as short as 40 seconds.

Organisations which have a low tolerance of failure will struggle with coaching which accepts that mistakes are inevitable when people are trying new things. Beware also when coaching is perceived in the organisation as a rebranding of  a more insidious “performance” conversation by HR. Coaching is not something for HR or managers “to do” to manage people. From developing in-house capability to driving results in acquisitions, it’s much more than a fad.  It’s a practical, highly effective and increasingly necessary skill for leaders.

This article first appeared in the BVCA Journal, the magazine of the British Venture Capital Association.