How coaching is becoming central to leadership development: Can I still be ‘Me’ if I progress to a more senior management role?

1. Introduction

I started this two-part series, firstly on my reflections from my last blog-article where I shared a written piece I produced back in 1999 on what I called then a “developmental approach”. I can see many parallels to what I would describe today as a “coaching approach”.

In my follow up post, I see how Coaching brings a much sharper focus to just what the developmental approach was aiming to do. In my Practice, this need for a coaching approach – focus on the individual and what they want to bring to their professional role – is also becoming more important in leadership development.


2. Leadership Development: A shift in expectations people now have about taking on Leadership.

There has been a psychological and cultural shift, accelerated over the last decade as the ‘Baby Boomer’ generation steps into the most senior leadership roles in the more established and mature organisations with the up and coming X and Y generation bringing, what’s perceived to be, a whole new way of seeing their world and their aspiration:

  • The up and coming generations are much more questioning;
  • They have unprecedented access to information through the internet; and
  • They have higher expectations around what they want from their work.

Being in a frustrating unfulfilling experience takes too much of their time – once someone has established a stable earnings base to earn to the level they want, job satisfaction and achievement in their chosen domain becomes more important.

In today’s households there are typically two earners with careers to balance AND all that goes with managing a family in today’s world. Fewer people today than 10 years ago are prepared to sacrifice their family and personal time and interests to go up the hierarchical chain in their careers.

And I hear more and more capable and experienced managers, with potential to go higher, being more questioning about what they really want.

2.1 Tackling Ambition

Ambition is more multi-faceted today – overall lifestyle - of which career is a part, if an important one. If managers look upwards and see senior people putting in excessive hours and exhibiting stress and “not having a Life”. It can raise some fundamental questions for some.

  • Is promotion to a senior level something I really want? I know I don’t want what I can see when I look at our senior managers and the stress they are clearly under.
  • Also I don’t personally value the behaviours I see from senior managers -  blatant political maneuvering, micro-management, poor people leadership. There’s a Big Question. Can I really be myself and be successful in an organisational senior leadership role here?
  • Will I be able to shape my own personal approach to my organisational leadership?

2.2 Finding meaningful counterbalances to ambition

It’s not really surprising then in these pressurised contexts there is a growth in interest in ideas like ‘authentic leadership’, resilience and a more ‘mindful’ approach to leadership.

Gaining a sense of ‘I can still be Me’ if I progress to senior management is becoming more paramount for people to want to be promoted with an organisation.

For the roles to be seen as attractive to me, increasingly it needs to be seen as an opportunity to grow personally. Although it will be challenging I can see me being able to create my personal leadership approach that makes best use of what I can bring, and in which I can find a challenging stretch that is worthwhile for my growth as a person. I know there will be things that are tough, and there will be frustrations, but I have a bigger sense of something worthwhile I want to achieve and the confidence to set out on that pathway.”

2.3 How I am taking account for the shifts in expectations across generations as part of my professional practice

All of this background has been playing out in the leadership development I have undertaken with both middle and senior managers in organisations. A coaching approach is part of a general move towards a leadership approach that works in a more complex, fast-changing world.

In this context coaching is a means to create more of a shared understanding about what needs to be achieved, and how it’s going to be achieved.

Traditional top down hierarchical ways of working are being shown to simply not work:

  • Essential information to achieving the results is held by a more diverse range of people at different levels, both inside and outside the organisation, and
  • There is much uncertainty.

The skills and mindsets of being open minded, inquiry led, good questioning, genuinely listening, relationship building, and being prepared to think more broadly and differently, are becoming increasingly important as key leadership attributes.


3. Key features of a coaching approach in leadership development:

Programmes I have worked on may contain discrete ’coaching’ sessions that fall within the traditional format of private 1:1, and there are some that takes a coaching approach overall in that it taps in to the underlying need people have to take charge of their learning, relevant to their individual context and motivations.

I outline here the main features I have worked with on the design and delivery of programmes that I propose are examples of taking a ‘coaching approach’ to leadership development:

3.1. High quality of attention to the individual and where they are coming from

a) Engage interest and motivation from the earliest stages of communication

I have seen much information sent out to announce leadership development programmes communicated in a remote, anonymous, top down way. 

The ‘contracting’ process for the programme that sets the tone has started way before people turn up for the very first face to face session.

A useful check is always to read through anything before sending it out.

  • Can I immediately see what I need to do? – people are busy and will quickly scan for what they need to be doing. 
  • Can I see quickly how this is relevant to me and how it connects to my priorities and concerns?
  • Is it motivational, hooking into my aspirations?
  • Does this look important to Board level management, or is it yet another low priority thing from L&D (or at least as far as my Boss is concerned).

b) Build in individual preparation to enhance awareness and readiness to get the most from the development process

Features that enhance early individual motivation and interest before people turn up:

  1. Use of 360 linked to organisational or external leadership competence frameworks with the opportunity to have an interpretation session with a coach
  2. Similarly use of psychometrics / inventories linked to personality, motivation or some attribute that has been identified as a priority.
  3. Endorsement and personal message from a respected Board Level Director, if not the CEO / MD – affirms that the programme is seen as important by the organisation.
  4. Individual contact via telephone / teleconferencing before the programme
  5. Personal preparation by way of some cue questions e.g. what do you see as you next ‘stretch’ priorities for your development that will take you to your next level of capability?

c) Demonstrate high levels of attention to individuals starts with recognising that everyone’s different; personality, working style and experience.

Each mix is particular and the nature of the learning process will be unique to the individual. And that is acknowledged explicitly and reflected in the respect, empathy and genuine behaviours shown by the coach / facilitators towards the participants.

This demonstrates belief in the individual’s experience and potential – the tone and expression of the coaches / facilitators actively shows this. The fact that they’re on the programme shows they are already very experienced and highly capable and this is expressed explicitly.

d) An emphasis on ‘self-managed learning’ as the under-pinning design approach of the programme.

This is characterised by an emphasis on a ‘dynamic living’ staged process throughout the programme. The individual decides on what they need to learn, and then decide and take action on the best way of meeting their learning needs. 

This self-managed learning process is often extended through the additional elements of learning sets and individual coaching. Also introducing participants to the idea and process of maintaining a learning log to capture progress, experiments and reflections on their experience and testing out new approaches.

Where a programme runs over a longer period of time, individual learning goals become the ‘golden thread’ throughout the programme, ensuring the individual progresses to a more advanced level of learning and achievement. They are not static but are living and evolve as the individual evolves their capabilities and motivations.

3.2. An increased emphasis on Self and Other Awareness as central to leadership development – in getting the best out of themselves as well as others

By definition leaders are having to get things done through others and as part of that they have an important role to play in helping others learn and develop as part of their leadership approach and day to day ways of working.

Understanding patterns in some of the fundamental differences,

  • in ways of seeing the world,
  • thinking styles,
  • working styles,
  • being energised and
  • relating to others.

Greater awareness of these differences can really add to ability to manage one’s self and to have more effective working relationships.

Emotional intelligence and taking a more objective ‘mindful’ approach, being better able to calibrate attention and thinking processes, are also areas for enhancing self-awareness.

a) In leadership the person is the main instrument, and the manager’s impact is a highly personal one on their colleagues.

I tend towards a Strengths based approach as one that engages, and focuses on that individual’s best unique leadership contribution. Weaknesses can often be defined as the flip side of the coin of peoples’ strengths. Where behaviour is dysfunctional it is often down to either lack of self-awareness, being blind to the signals from others, or to some flawed defensive mindset, rather than personal fundamental capabilities.

In a group setting, once a conducive open culture has been created, individuals learn from being exposed to differences in action and exploring these with peers in a supportive environment in relation to relationship challenges they are working with back in the workplace.

Today, as previously referred to, people prefer to get more of a sense of the real person in a leadership role. Allowing and encouraging the ‘whole person’ to more express themselves on the programme, particularly where it is staged over a period of time, can help people feel more comfortable in finding their way to do this in a way that works for them. Feeling able to disclose more, both on personal aspirations and current difficulties and challenges, either as part of a ‘checking in’ update or in selective programme activities, tends to free up sharing and thinking by individuals in the group.

3.3. There is a strong connection to the organisational and role context, at different stages of the programme, and in different ways.

a) Any subject input and group discussions are BOTH connected back to the real context and challenges that people are dealing with.

Any subject matter input is shared with the intention that this is mainly a stimulus, with more time given, to people discussing the implications, sharing and listening to different perspectives from colleagues, sense-making and taking it forward into individual reflection and capturing the key points they are taking away. 

b) Visibility from top management and close linkages to the core business.

This starts right from the beginning in terms of how the programme is positioned.

The best and most impactful senior leadership development programmes I have worked on have always involved the attendance of Directors or senior managers for more informal and open sessions with participants, where they have shared their most important personal learning points from their careers and where there has been open Q&A based conversations. The best of these really open up to ‘view from the bridge’ organisational perspectives and enable senior people to be seen in a more realistic human light – as authentic even! This is a real engaging and motivational experience for managers where there is the opportunity for rare high quality conversation in a more informal environment. 

c) Contribution from an active and 'organisational savvy' HR / L&D champion

It’s important that any leadership programme is seen to be very effective at making the current business case and speaks from having senior management support. It therefore adds enormous value if the internal organisational champion for the programme has the awareness and coaching capabilities to be able to influence and gain credibility with key senior influencers and sponsors, as well as external providers.

3.4 Learning processes / elements in the design of the programme itself

The following are elements that add to what the individual takes back into their organisational role:

  1. Use of Action Learning or Peer Coaching Groups as part of the design elements mix – where people bring real challenges or issues in to a small peer groups. Through listening, asking questions, and offering observations and feedback, the group helps the individual progress their thinking. In other words, the Faciliator / Coach’s main role is to hold the space, ONLY intervening to support the process, rather than on content. Managers take a great deal from listening to colleagues’ experiences and perspectives. It can be a powerful affirmation and extension to their thinking.
  2. Use of a strategic Work-based Project as a learning vehicle. This can either be individual or team based. It’s where the organisation brings a real organisational strategic issue / project to a small team of participants and they take on a true ‘internal consultant’ role. The nature of learning that comes from this stretching real experience is very rich, if uncomfortable at times.
  3. Active connection and reporting in to the Line Manager as part of the programme design. Most programmes these days include the need for the individual to feed back on their development goals and learning from the programme. For example, the most effective approach I have experienced is where there were periodic 3-way calls between participant, Line Manger and programme coach.
  4. Individuals have to sources themselves a real mentor as part of the programme. This is encouraging a more proactive self-managed approach where the individual has to reflect on and decide the best kind of mentor(s) in relation to their objectives e.g. gain exposure / experience of a particular area of work with which they are less familiar, make a connection with a level / area they are particularly interested in, etc.

In Conclusion:

I have found it an interesting process to reflect and write about the different ways I see “a coaching approach” being part of leadership development programmes I have recently worked on. To be honest, unless leadership programmes model can make use of a ‘coaching approach’, I am not sure they are fit for purpose in today’s world.

What I find interesting is that much of this is not named as ‘coaching’ by my clients!

So, some questions:

  1. How do you relate to my description of a coaching approach to leadership development?  i.e. high quality of attention to individuals, their particular context, personal objectives and individual learning needs.
  2. I’m interested in different aspects of taking a ‘coaching approach’ in different contexts. Anything you would want to add to my list, from your experience?