Convincing research evidence highlights the strong correlation that exists between leadership effectiveness and commercial results. But becoming an effective leader in practice is by no means easy and typically involves a challenging journey of self-awareness and discovery.
In order for this learning journey to occur as rapidly and successfully as possible, there is a growing recognition that leadership coaching has a powerful role to play. Leaders in organisations of all shapes and sizes are increasingly being given the opportunity to benefit from the personal support and stimulation that coaching can provide.
However, it strikes me that there is little guidance available on how people can get the most out of a leadership coaching experience. For this reason, I have worked with some of my fellow coaches to pull together the following tips. I hope you find them useful.
- Choose an appropriate leadership coach
There are many types of coach out there, from general life coaches to more specialist coaches in areas like communication and team-working. Make sure you select someone to work with who knows their stuff when it comes to leadership development. Check their previous experience, the profile of their clients and the models and techniques they tend to use. Do they match your own needs?
Just as importantly, does the personal chemistry feel right? One of the central drivers of coaching effectiveness is the quality of the relationship a client has with their coach. Take the time to meet two or three coaches before you make a decision and select someone with whom you strike up a positive and trusting rapport.
- Clarify your leadership purpose
Becoming a leader is not a theoretical exercise – the path must be connected to the things you actually want to lead for in practice. The starting point for any leadership development should therefore be to reflect on your passions, values and talents in a way that helps you clarify your sense of leadership purpose. The leadership mission and vision you generate will then help to inspire, stretch and guide your learning in the months (and years) ahead.
Another crucial factor to consider is the kind of leader you want – and need – to be. How do you want to be perceived by your colleagues? What type of impact do you need to make? Your answers to these questions will be determined partly by your own values and personality traits, but also by the commercial and organisational challenges you face.
- Define your development objectives
Having clarified your higher-level leadership goals, you can then move on to identify the priority areas in which you want to improve your personal performance. What are the strengths you want to leverage and the weaknesses you need to address? What will success look like and which tangible measures can you use to track your progress?
It is important to point out that these objectives may well evolve once your coaching gets underway. As you deepen your insight into the drivers of your behaviour and performance, you may well realise your initial understanding of the issues involved was limited. So reviewing and updating your objectives regularly is also a necessary task. But unless you start with a clear view of what it is you want to work on, your coaching is unlikely to focus on the challenges that will make the biggest difference for you.
- Inform your agenda with robust psychometric and 360 feedback data
A central element in your development as a leader will be enhancing your emotional intelligence, by deepening both your self-awareness and social-awareness. There is only so much you can do by thinking things through for yourself, even with the support of a coach. The risk is that you work together in a bubble and miss out on appreciating aspects of your personal style and impact that are difficult for you to see.
For this reason, it’s useful to obtain some objective data to bring a new perspective. Various psychometric techniques are available to help provide insight into your personal motivations and behavioural tendencies (eg DISC, Insights, Hogan, Myers Briggs). 360 feedback from the people you work with can also be obtained in a number of ways, from informal conversations through to larger scale quantitative questionnaires (eg Leadership Circle). The benefit of seeking input in these ways is that it will help you and your coach build a better of understanding of how you behave, and also why.
- Bring a courageous spirit of openness, curiosity and vulnerability
The uncomfortable fact is that the mindsets and behaviours which might be limiting you as a leader, are likely to be manifestations of some important limiting beliefs you have about yourself as a person. Do you fear not being clever enough, not likeable enough, not charismatic enough, not successful enough? If so, you are certainly not alone! These types of insecurity are an inherent and fundamental characteristic of our existence as human beings.
In order to move on as a leader, a crucial challenge will be for you to face up to these unhelpful perceptions, so that you begin to release the grip they have on you and the way you show up. Only then will you be able to tap into more positive, enabling beliefs that will help you be at your best more of the time.
To do this you will need the courage to embrace feedback from other people that you might not enjoy hearing, taking it not as threatening criticism but as a valuable gift from which you can learn. You will need the strength to be vulnerable; the wisdom to know you haven’t got all the answers. With this spirit, your coaching journey may not always be an easy one, but it is much more likely to be transformational in the way it shapes your understanding of yourself and the world around you.
- Commit well beyond a handful of coaching sessions
Leadership coaching programmes are often parcelled up into packages of 4-8 sessions of a couple of hours each. But it is important to appreciate that attending these meetings is just a small part of the commitment you will need to make, if you want to experience the kind of transformation we have just been talking about.
Firstly, fundamental changes in your self-perception, mindsets and behaviour will not happen overnight, nor necessarily over a neat six-month period. This is a journey that will need some time, so be realistic with your coach about how long you might need to work together to see some genuine impact. It may well extend to a year, or even two years, before your desired progress becomes evident.
Secondly, the coaching sessions themselves are just the tip of the iceberg. You will need to commit time and energy to continue your self-reflection on a more regular, day-to-day basis. You will also need the discipline to consciously practice your new ways of thinking and behaving in your everyday work. Becoming a better leader requires that you build some new leadership ‘muscles’. This demands daily workouts on operational challenges, not just a monthly visit to the coaching gym. One huge additional benefit of establishing these working patterns for yourself is that you will be well prepared to drive your own self-development, beyond the point when your contract with your coach comes to an end.
- Involve trusted colleagues to support your learning
The ultimate test of your progress as a leader will be back on the job, in the context of the relationships you have with the people you are seeking to lead. Rather than hiding your personal agenda behind the scenes, one powerful way to give it momentum is to open up and involve your colleagues in your development.
The most important person to think about is probably your line manager, if you have one. They will have a big impact on how your progress is assessed, but they can also make a significant contribution in coaching you themselves as they are likely to see you in action a lot more than any coach you work with. It’s usually well worth setting up an open and honest three-way discussion with your manager and your coach, right at the start of the coaching programme. This will help make sure you are all fully aligned and committed to the agenda you’re planning to work on.
But it’s not just about your formal reporting lines. Who else can you ask to give you ongoing feedback about how you’re coming across? How can you show a little vulnerability to engage other people in helping you address some of the challenges you’re facing?
Not only will this make your journey a less lonely and unsupported one. There is also substantial research evidence to suggest that leaders who involve and follow up with their colleagues in this way ultimately make greater progress towards their developmental goals.