Coaching: The Next Big thing in Leadership Development

We recently completed High Impact Talent Management®, a large research study on the business impact of various leadership and talent management processes. One of the goals of this research was to understand where organizations could best focus their leadership development and management efforts to drive greatest business results.

What we found was very enlightening: the talent process which delivers the greatest overall business impact is coaching – implementing a process for executive and management coaching throughout the organization. This scored higher than many of the things we consider sacrosanct: setting goals, aligning goals in the organization, understanding critical competencies, and high performing recruiting. What does this result really mean?

What is the role of a Coach?

Consider the role of a coach. If you feel that you’ve been successful in your career you can likely trace back your success to two things: first, you had a series of developmental experiences in your career that gave you experience, judgment, and insights; and second, you had a manager sometime in the past that took a personal interest in you – in your work success, your career, and your personal development. This person was a good coach. Most likely, your success as a leader today is largely a result of the time, attention, and focus you received from this person.

All leaders must consider their roles as a coach. Consider the impact of a good coach. Don Nelson, the new coach of the Golden State Warriors, is one of the “winningest basketball coaches” of all time. In a single year he took a team which had not reached the playoffs for 12 years and put them into the playoffs. 

What makes such a coach so successful? Does he know more about basketball than anyone else? Does he have some magic secret which prior coaches could never figure out? Or does he have a unique and uncanny ability to identify the skills in each player and align them toward the ultimate goal: winning basketball games? Clearly it is the latter.

This coaching quality is clearly vital to successful organizations. A coach is not necessarily a “mentor” or a “manager” – they are something different. Most coaches know less about the subject matter than the people they are coaching. In fact business coaches often come from different disciplines or different industries. Consider Lou Gerstner, the man who turned around IBM. Gerstner was called “Oreo Cookie Man” when he first appeared at Big Blue (where I worked at the time) – reflecting his experience at Nabisco (and inexperience in technology). Noone thought he could figure out the complexities and business issues in a complex global high technology company. But as history proved, Lou Gerstner was in fact a fantastic coach. He applied the business disciplines and leadership qualities which IBM badly needed.

Coaching is an important skill for any leader. A good coach helps people see the ultimate goal. He asks people questions they may not have asked themselves. He gains a deep understanding of the challenges and solutions to an organization’s problems. And through his persistence, listening, and often pointed direction he brings out the best in people. And a good coach inspires people to perform.

What makes a Great Coach?

I regularly meet with business managers and executives as part of our research process. When I meet a high performing leader I always observe many common traits:

1. They have a Clear Direction: They have a crystal clear understanding of where they are going. Good coaches know precisely where you need to go, and they help you get there through clarity of their vision.

2. They are Excellent Judges of People: They have a keen and refined judgment of people. Good coaches know what each individual in the organization is capable of, and they put “the right people into the right jobs” or they change the jobs to reflect the excellence of the people.

3. They Create Winning Game Plans: They have an uncanny ability to take complex problems and decompose them into step by step solutions. They know how to create the “winning plays.” They watch the team perform and when they identify brilliance they “write it into the playbook.”

4. They Know how to Develop People: They develop people. By taking a tough but personal interest in their team, the inspire others to follow, improve themselves, and work hard for success. They usually do this through focus on individuals: their strengths, opportunities, and areas of improvement.

These coaching qualities apply to every leader – whether in sports, academia, business, or government. 

Applying Coaching to Your Organization

How do you build such coaching skills and success in your organization? Right now executive coaching is becoming a fad: there are more executive, management, and personal coaches than ever before. The Harvard Business Review (2004) believes that the executive coaching industry is a $1 Billion industry. There are university programs dedicated to developing executive coaches. Every major leadership development company now offers executive coaching. Executive coaches can charge $100,000-200,000 per year and most organizations state that they are well worth it.

But how do you develop a coaching program in your organization? How do you implement coaching as a leadership quality in all of your leaders? One organization, NASA, found that its managers (mostly engineers and scientists) were not engaging well with employees. They were very capable of solving engineering and technical problems, but were having a hard time dealing with strategy, planning, and personnel issues. The result was an in-house coaching program, offered through a small set of senior employees who had unique skills in listening, coaching, and development. These coaches quickly became highly regarded and the organization is now trying to figure out how to leverage and grow these coaches throughout NASA.

Ultimately coaching is a skill for any leader. Consider yourself the coach of your team – can you help them win more games? Do you have a clear picture of how to win? Do you have the right people playing the right positions? Do you have a play book? Are you exhibiting enough tough love? Do you drill your team and give them specific areas of improvement?

If you can exhibit all these skills and apply them to your organization, then you are likely one of the highest impact organizations in our research. If you are not there yet, then you should probably rethink your role as a leader: think “coach”, not “manager”. Think “building a winning game plan” not “managing the organization.” Coaching is something we can all do more of.