Know Your Style: An Arrow for the Coaching Leader's Quiver
First published in Leading News: Helping Successful Leaders become even more successful, May 2007
Copyright © 2007 Leading News
Used with permission of the author:
Author: Patricia Wheeler
Levin Group LLC
23 July 2007
Leaders and managers do many things. Clearly one of them is holding the responsibility for developing the people around you, building the bench strength and future of your organization.
In our work we often find that smart, committed leaders who recognize the importance of “people development” may not always function as good coaches to their people. In this brief article, we’ll explore how leaders and managers can be more effective within a coaching role, discuss some advantages and disadvantages that it’s important to consider, and also look at when it’s probably not a good idea for a leader to coach.
So how do leaders know when they are entering “coaching mode” and what are some of the best practices involved in setting the stage for effective coaching conversations with your people? First of all, remember that coaching is not merely giving advice. It’s true that when we coach others, we come from an effective skill set that has helped us get from “here” to “there” in our own careers. However, telling our people what worked for us will not necessarily be the “golden nugget” that helps them overcome the obstacles that they face. Great coaching involves a two-way dialogue in which the coach must see the world from the coachee’s perspective. Then and only then can we collaborate with one another to getting “there” in a way that boosts performance and engagement simultaneously.
What are some of the “ground rules” of coaching effectiveness for leaders? First of all, as a good coaching leader, you must know yourself and your style! This will help you know when you are in good “coaching mode” and when you are not. To the extent that you recognize your own vulnerabilities and derailers (blind spots which occur when we’re under stress), you bring both credibility and clarity to the conversation.
Self knowledge goes a long way here. It’s important to realize that when we’re upset, we’re not coaching, regardless of what we say or how helpful we mean to be. All others will hear is the voice of our upset, which they are likely to experience as criticism. At this point our overly taxed brains are producing massive quantities of adrenaline and cortisol, which, suffice it to say, are not the “happy” neurotransmitters. Studies have shown that it takes twenty minutes, at least, for these self-generated chemicals to exit our body. Then and only then do we have the physiological ability to maintain our emotional balance, which is a necessary skill for effective coaching. At first glance, this sounds like a “no-brainer”…..but how often do we see leaders who charge ahead again and again during these times, wreaking havoc on their people?
One senior leader I worked with is a dynamo … naturally creative and strategic, he is also very talented in executing the plans that he and his team produce. He drives so hard that he periodically overtaxes his own and his reports’ physical and emotional reserves. (Sound like a familiar business situation to you?) The problem? Without his conscious knowledge and despite his best intent, he is prone to drive his staff mercilessly with the result they experience him as overbearing and critical. I was hired in part to avert a massive exodus from his department.
A thorough Leadership Style assessment indicated a very high level of ambition but a tendency to regularly neglect his need for rest and renewal. Under stress, he was likely to push against people in a way that appeared judgmental and arrogant. He also had a very strong need to please his CEO, which led to increased agitation when projects were not proceeding as he had planned. Not surprisingly, he rarely checked his emotional level during the day, no matter how many projects were on his plate nor how many meetings he ran to, one after another. So these derailers tended to occur with the frequency of rain in monsoon season. And his attempts at coaching his people fell flat.
As we crafted his Action Plan to be a better coach for his people, we talked about his need to accept his style … he wasn’t going to automatically manage his stress level without a great deal of conscious awareness and ongoing practice. At my urging, he decided to carve out ten minutes between meetings to literally take a breather, and noticed that this small step had an immediate positive effect on his patience with his staff. He also pledged to remember that events that he assumed would be displeasing to his boss would be stressful to him, and that these times are NOT good opportunities for coaching his staff … he would need to wait until he was sure he was calm and balanced. Emotional intelligence at its finest to be sure, but most importantly he had adopted a more conscious, deliberate approach to be certain the stage was set for him to be approachable to others and able to listen to noises outside of his own head.
In our job as Executive Coaches, we work intensively with leaders of large, complex organizations. We also teach leaders and managers how to coach others and develop coaching skills throughout their organization, as we know that this capability drives great results. And we always begin with this ground rule: know yourself, your signature strengths and your blind spots which can derail you.
We each have our own personalized set of strengths and blind spots, which create our own customized mix of leadership and personal presence. And we are each responsible for learning how to best combine them with the culture of our organization so that they produce an effective blend.
Since my client objectively looked at his strengths and derailers, he’s become better at developing his people. They’re happier, more motivated….and more productive. And one of the best things he does is differentiate between “coaching” and “no coaching” times. He’s also become a great model to his staff of a person who is taking the time and effort it takes to become an even better leader.
Patricia Wheeler is an executive coach and consultant who helps smart people become better leaders. As Managing Partner in the Levin Group LLC, she has spent 15 years consulting to organizations and coaching senior leaders and their teams. She is an proud partner in ALEXCEL, a global network of premier executive coaches and consultants. You may contact Patricia by e-mail at or by telephone at +1 404 377-9408.