Leader as Coach – The Next Step in Your Leadership Journey

Instead of this article being called Leader as coach as if coaching is a nice to have soft skill to add to your leadership tool kit. I want to convince you that developing your coaching capability is crucial to being a successful leader. I strongly believe without adopting a coaching approach to leadership you remain only a skilled supervisor or coordinator.

The world in which managers operate has changed in a very short period from overseeing predictable task-orientated work to leading teams who manage complex work in continually fast-changing environments. 

Why would it be helpful to embrace coaching if you are a busy leader? The paradox of successful leadership is that our success as leaders’ rests on the achievements of others. In the same way, the conductor of a great orchestra enables great music; they play not a single note themselves; however, without a conductor, the music never happens. Leader as coach is about becoming that conductor of human potential to create outstanding results for your stakeholders. 

Adopting a coaching approach to leading means you can achieve more from what may look like doing less from the outside. Leaders who begin to experiment with a coaching approach report feeling lazy or hands-off by taking a step back. The first steps into becoming a coaching leader can feel awkward and clumsy; that’s OK, stick with it. The rewards are great, and this feeling will pass as your coaching improves. 

We know from the science of coaching psychology that when people are intrinsically motivated (they have control over their lives and work), they are far more committed to their work, deliver greater productivity and exhibit higher levels of well-being.

So how does coaching leverage this potential in your people? And how can you use a coaching approach to be a leader who delivers superior results? 

At the core of effective coaching is a well-researched coaching psychology theory called Self-Determination Theory (SDT) (Deci and Ryan, 1985). This theory tells us that human beings are intrinsically motivated to do their best when three conditions are present.

Here are the three conditions to create your coaching leadership approach.

Autonomy – Having the ability to exert control over your own life and your work, having the power to make decisions about your work. It may not mean complete freedom, but you are consulted on matters, and your opinion is heard and valued. 

Competence – We all need to display mastery in a chosen area and be recognised for this achievement. We want to be good at what we do and be recognised for this by our colleagues. Having our competence recognised is essential. 

Relatedness – We all need to form positive relationships with others and experience a sense of belonging. Being a valued member of a team, having a positive social connection with others. 

As you can see, the three conditions of SDT are interwoven when you increase one; you support the other two conditions. When you decrease one, you can erode the others. 

Do you want to create a more significant impact by adopting coaching as part of your leadership style? Here is an easy-to-follow leadership experiment to help you create a coaching approach in your daily leadership. You may want to enlist a few of your leadership colleagues and try this together, reflecting together on what your experienced and learned. 

On day one, I want you to do nothing differently. All you need to do on day one is to pay attention to two things. Firstly, how you engage with your people on what I call the ASK – TELL spectrum. Do you tell your people what to do, or do you ask them to do things?

Secondly, you need to understand how much interaction you have with your team. Is it too little, where your team feels unsupported, or too much, where your team feels micromanaged? Or is it just right? 

On day two, you need to record your ASK – TELL score. Once you have an idea about, write down a number from one to ten. A score of one means you are too removed to ask for anything. A score of five means you have the balance about right. Scoring a ten means you tell your team rather than asking them to complete work. Reflect on your score.  

On Day three – for those of you who are courageous, the next step is to get some feedback from your team. Explain what the ASK – Tell spectrum is and ask a cross-section of your team where they would score you on this 1 to 10 scale. If you scored yourself a 10, perhaps expect that your team may be hesitant to tell you this. You also want to get feedback on the amount of interaction your team has with you, as this may need fine-tuning. 

Now that you know where you sit on the Ask – Tell spectrum, it’s time to either tell less and ask more, or if you scored below a five to ask more and set greater expectations for your team. 

Here are some useful tips to increase feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness in your team. They will help you to increase your asking score if you need to work on this. 

Autonomy – Ask your team to present plans for the work. How do they think it should be organised or approached? What resources do they think are needed? How do they think it should be scheduled or shared? 

Does your team benefit from flexible working conditions, or are they forced to comply with rigid working conditions? How can you provide choice and control for your people? Asking people for their input and ideas is an excellent way to champion autonomy. 

Competence – Look for opportunities to delegate work and develop your people. Provide your people feedback that rewards their efforts in stepping out of their comfort zone into their stretch and learning zone. Ensure each of your team has a living development plan and the plan is reviewed and worked on. Ensure your team members drive their development but ensure they have your visible support. 

Relatedness – Your team wants to feel like they belong to a distinct team and the organisation. What are you doing as a leader to create a sense of team? How engaging and interactive are your team meetings? How do you celebrate the work the team does individually and collectively? Does your team have a social heart? When was the last time you shared food or socialised as a team? 

Finally, find yourself a professional coach; they will help and support you in building and developing your unique coaching approach. Look out for any internal coach training your department may provide. Find mentors in your business who have developed strong coaching skills and ask if they can support and mentor your development as a coaching leader.

The effort you put into developing your coaching skills as a leader will continue to see your team and your leadership career flourish. It may be hard at first, but once you see the results your coaching creates, you will never look back or go back to the way you used to lead. I wish you the very best on your journey to becoming a coaching leader. 


About the author.

Simon Popley is an executive leadership coach originally from the UK who now lives in Brisbane, Australia. Simon holds a Master of Human Resource Management and Industrial Relations and a Master of Science in Coaching Psychology from Sydney University. Simon also practices as a coach supervisor, having trained at Oxford Brookes University in the UK. He works with executive and C-suite leaders and their leadership teams to develop leadership capability to lead through complexity. He has a passion for developing leaders and believes that we can all learn to coach. 


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