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Put on the hat of a leader-coach

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Most employees want their managers to coach them, but admittedly this doesn’t happen often enough – here’s a guide to excelling in the nuances of leader-coaching.

How often have you heard someone say, employees don’t leave companies, rather they leave their bosses? While this may be a truism for many of us, let’s consider the situation from the point of view of these bosses.

Bosses, be it managers or leaders, wear multiple hats. One of your roles is to manage employees’ day-to-day performance. Another is to support their long-term development so they can continue to deliver top performances in the face of larger, more complex situations. Arguing about which of these two roles is more important is futile, as both are equally critical.

However, most organisations tend to equip their leaders better for the first role, that is, of managing performance. The latter role of developing your direct reports, particularly coaching for development, often falls by the wayside, caught in the hailstorm of daily responsibilities.

Let’s take the time to consider the tools required for leaders to become leader-coaches, with the recognition that leaders truly are in the best position to support the development of their people.

The ins and outs of leader-coaching

Leader-coaching comprises formal, and even informal, conversations between the leadercoach (you) and learners (usually your direct reports) with the intention of producing positive changes in their workplace behaviours. On the practical front, it is about helping your direct reports determine which changes in behaviour they would find beneficial; exploring options for how to get there; providing them with opportunities to experience situations in which they can try out the new behaviours; and finally, ensuring they receive the feedback and support they need to continue to learn and develop.

Put another way, leader-coaching requires all line managers to wear an unorthodox hat, one that relies less on your functional expertise and more on your ability to engage people in a way that challenges their thinking, and enables them to stop, reflect, question assumptions and re-evaluate perceived constraints.

In the long run, as managers and leaders, you save time if you make wise choices about when to use a coaching approach, particularly useful when you want to see a positive change in your staff’s behaviours.

What this does is rather than providing them a direct answer to a problem, you are building their capacity to solve more problems and improve their performance on their own. Here are some situations when a coaching approach may be best:

• When there is not an emergency and your direct reports approach you about an idea they have or a problem with which they are wrestling with.

• Following an assessment centre, a 360-degree feedback evaluation, a leadership workshop, or a performance evaluation meeting – essentially, anything that requires a development plan.

• To prepare a direct report for a new assignment or a change of job that requires competencies or skills that he or she has not yet demonstrated.

• To support a direct report on a particularly challenging assignment.

• When you believe that your direct report has a blind spot that others have noticed. As the next action item, head over to Table 1 for an example of an informal coaching conversation, and use the opportunity to highlight the key questions you can ask in your context.

Do go the extra mile by sharing how your trainee’s goals are relevant to you as their manager, and how their achievement will benefit the larger organisational goals.

Activating the formal coaching process

As you conduct the first developmental conversation, keep in mind the key steps in a formal coaching process, the first of which is to really build a rapport with your direct report in terms of stating clearly the benefits and outcomes expected from the session, while taking their expectations into account.

The desired outcome should ideally be an actionable and meaningful development plan. If this session, or parts of it, are to be kept confidential, this would be the right time to set limits. During the conversation, it would be helpful for you to ask core questions, for example: What did you learn from this experience? Were you surprised by the feedback you got? How can I help you?

Further in the conversation, your trainee will need your supervision to chalk out the specific goals for their development. It is best to ask them what themes and skills relate best to their job now and in the future – accordingly, highlight what achievement or success in each of these areas really looks like. Do go the extra mile by sharing how your trainee’s goals are relevant to you as their manager, and how their achievement will benefit the larger organisational goals.

In putting together this action plan, direct reports should be encouraged to think creatively and try new behaviours, for which you may share your own innovations and ideas in an area of focus, just to open up the conversation to share a diverse range of experiences. Review the final plan with your direct report and make sure it is documented in an appropriate format.

Finally, take the time to ask your report if they need any resources, such as time, resources or access to stakeholders for any aspects of achieving the plan. Help them analyse the obstacles they may face, as part of this. Signing off from the conversation, describe the energy, commitment and discipline that change requires and give an example of how you have addressed this personally. Leave your direct report feeling charged and motivated about leveraging their strengths to make change happen!

As you engage your teams by being genuinely curious, paying attention and using open-ended questions, they will likely be delighted that you are interested in what they think, how they make decisions, and what motivates them. They will see you as a leader who has their best interests at heart.


Example of an informal coaching conversation

Action: Use the opportunity to highlight the key questions you can ask in your context.

Brenda (manager): Hi Kenneth. How are you today?

Kenneth (direct report): Well, Brenda, not so well. I have been struggling to prioritise my tasks. It seems that I am running behind and I don’t feel that I can cope with everything on my plate.

B: Hmm . . . I know that can be frustrating and worrying. How have you faced similar situations in the past?

K: I have, what I did previously was list all the activities on my plate and compared them with the targets that my manager and I had set.

B: Would that work in this situation?

K: Yes, but by the time I do that, more work will have piled up on my desk.

B: How could you slow down or stop the flow of things that come to you?

R: Well, some colleagues seem to have an incorrect perception of my responsibilities. I get a lot of things that should not come to me in the first place, but should go directly to the subject matter experts.

K: How could you make that shift happen?

B: I suppose we need to communicate again about the roles.

K: I could organise a meeting with the head of the expert division and send him a docket on areas where we will need his team’s direct support. Anything else that you might need to do differently in the future?

K: The thing is, I have a strong desire to help, so when I get these requests, I am happy to attend to them myself. It makes me feel valued.

B: That is a gift to the organisation, but costly for you. Is there a lesson you’ve learnt from this pattern?

K: Well, I need to learn to say no to the trivial requests. At the same time, I need to continue responding my best to the requests that really play to my skill set.

B: That is great learning. How can I support you in this?

K: Maybe we could sit down and review our priorities together.

B: Definitely, let’s catch-up once again on Friday afternoon.


Reference / Becoming a leader-coach: A step-by-step guide to developing your people, by Johan Naudé and Florence Plessier. The Center for Creative Leadership.

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