Leadership Coaching—A 50-50 Collaboration

Coaching is certainly the hot ticket these days. There’s a coach for so many different activities that it’s sometimes hard to take it all seriously. You can get coaching for making your pet feel loved, coaching to talk with your financial analyst, coaching to talk with your coach. It’s all good.

Leadership coaching gets lumped in with coaching for public speaking, dressing for success, and becoming a millionaire in three months. The pictures in airline magazines of people “coaching” from tropical beach chairs may look good to some, but I’ve got two problems: that’s not the kind of attention I want from a coach, and that’s not how I want to spend my time at the beach.

Coaches fall somewhere on a continuum of how much (or little) guidance to provide

What can leaders expect from a leadership coach? There are many ways coaches work with leaders, and many kinds of coaching available, but they all fall somewhere on a continuum of how much (or little) guidance the coach provides. At one end are coaches who believe that everything a leader needs to know is already within the leader, and their job is to draw it out, validate it, and help the leader apply it to a relevant situation. These coaches tend to approach coaching with lots of really great questions designed to elicit the inherent wisdom in the leader, which helps them find ways to act on their inner knowledge. They also usually steer clear of giving advice, offering solutions, and providing their point of view about the best course of action.

At the other end of the continuum are coaches who believe that their job is to provide expertise that the leader needs and guide them to apply that new perspective effectively. This type of coach tends to approach coaching with more of an expert consultant’s style, providing direction, education, and facilitation designed to improve the leader’s effectiveness by telling them how to function better in their role. They usually avoid letting the leader have too much influence over the direction the coaching takes, believing that their expertise will help the leader be most effective.

I provide a balance on this continuum

I join the coaches in the middle of this continuum who balance these two approaches. I believe that a leader should bring certain elements of their direction and the coach should offer guidance as well, leaving the final choice of action to the leader. The key to this approach is how responsibility for direction and guidance are divided between the leader and the coach.

In this 50-50 collaborative style of coaching, the coach offers principles and practices about leadership, team and organizational dynamics, and developmental challenges. The leader is responsible for choosing their organizational and personal goals, as well as developing their own point of view about how they want to lead, based on the principles and practices the coach is providing. In this collaboration, the coach and the leader share responsibility for thinking and exploring options, but leave the responsibility for action with the leader.

The greatest benefit of having a coach is to help leaders learn how they inadvertently stray from their goals and intentions, and to help them change course in the moment. I like to contract with leaders to observe them in action, and give immediate feedback to help apply new behavior when they fall back on familiar, less productive patterns. This approach also encourages the team to be avid learners, and the return on investment is much higher than simply planning and debriefing behind the scenes.

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