Are Your Leaders Coaching? Or Are They Doing Something else entirely?

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 I often hear leaders today talk about the fact that they are coaching their staff. However, when I ask them more about their conversations, they are not in fact coaching, but often telling, teaching or mentoring their staff.

 Coaching is a very specific relationship, marked by a specific type of communication. According to an August 14, 2018 Harvard Business Review article by Julia Milner: “managers tend to think they’re coaching when they’re actually just telling their employees what to do.”

According to Sir John Whitmore, a leading figure in executive coaching, the definition of coaching is “unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.” When done right, coaching can also help with employee engagement; it is often more motivating to bring your expertise to a situation than to be told what to do.

An ongoing study on the topic that analysed more than 900 recorded evaluations of “coaching conversations,” showed that when many managers were asked to “coach,” they instead demonstrated a form of consulting. They provided the other person with advice or a solution. Regularly heard were comments like, “First you do this” or “Why don’t you try this?”

The author’s research looked specifically at how you can train people to be better coaches. The good news is that managers can improve their coaching skills in a short amount of time, but they do have to invest in learning how to coach in the first place.

The research looked specifically at how you can train people to be better coaches by focusing on analysing the following nine leadership coaching skills, based on the existing literature and practical experiences of leadership coaching:

· listening

· questioning

 giving feedback

· assisting with goal setting

· showing empathy

· letting the coachee arrive at their own solution

· recognizing and pointing out strengths

· providing structure

· encouraging a solution-focused approach

After a short training program aimed at teaching managers to improve coaching competencies, the result was a 40.2% increase in overall coaching ability ratings across all nine categories, on average.

Consider the key takeaways from this research:

1.   Be clear on what coaching is and what it isn’t.

2.   Let leaders practice coaching in a safe environment before working with their own teams.

3.   Invest in some form of training that includes time for participants to reflect on their coaching skills. Ask “what’s working” and “what can we do better?”

4.   Feedback from coaching experts in order to improve is helpful; how well are the coaching skills being applied.

5.   Consider regular peer coaching, in the presence of a coaching expert to provide a safe environment, and to facilitate discussions about how to overcome coaching challenges.

So, leaders take note. Coaching may not be what you thought. But real coaching leads to increased accountability and increased outcomes and problem solving. Coaching can be a significant opportunity for leaders and staff to embrace and coaching can be learned.

In designing an approach, consider the importance of learning effective coaching to ensure that leaders are not reinforcing poor coaching practices among themselves.

Wanting to create a coaching culture in your organisation? Send me an email at to discuss coach training for leadership.

Michelle Bakjac is an experienced Psychologist, Organisational Consultant, Coach, Speaker and Facilitator. As Director of Bakjac Consulting, she is a credentialed Coach with the International Coach Federation (ICF) and a member of Mental Toughness Partners and an MTQ48 accredited Mental Toughness practitioner. Michelle assists individuals and organisations to develop their Mental Toughness to improve performance, leadership, behaviour and wellbeing.