Recently, I described to a department head what happens during coaching. In response, he told me how he goes about handling his employees: he constantly must explain to them what they are supposed to do and how they should go about doing it. And how he would do all of this with the patience of an angel. Even the smallest, most mundane things, they can’t manage on their own, he told me.
Hearing that hurt. Apparently, I hadn’t succeeded in conveying what coaching is about. And there’s a reason for that: Coaching is difficult. It is not so naturally ingrained in our culture that we could simply rely on it. When we coach, we don’t give advice in the sense of: “Do this, then that, and then do this, and you’ll have your desired result.” When we coach, we work with the client to help them find their own solution path.
A detour also leads to the destination In other words: A coach has no clue. The client doesn’t know the answer to their problem either – otherwise, they wouldn’t have one – but they are the only person who can find and tread the path to it. Perhaps it’s a detour, and as a coach, I know a shorter way to the goal. However, just as I can drive from Berlin to Munich via Hamburg because I need to pick something up in Altona, a client can take an absurd-sounding solution path that solves a deeper problem. As an advisor, I would have said: Berlin to Munich – just take the A9 down the left lane. As a coach, I ask: What do you need to be able to arrive well? And that’s where Altona comes into play.
Coach = good leader? – By no means. If you want to work like this, you need a few resources: patience, acceptance, trust, the ability of being at eye level with others, empathy, presence, and tolerance for mistakes – to name just a few. A good coach possesses these qualities, but they are not considered part of the ideal image of a leader for many people. When leaders are patient, maybe even empathetic, one might ask: Will they be able to deliver good results? The ever so skeptical Homo Economics whispers in our ear: It’s difficult.
And there it is, the core problem of coaching for leaders: They have a more problematic role and a different attitude than a coach. The impact this has can be devastating. In other words, can I let myself be coached by someone who can give me a reprimand? Can I entrust myself to someone who may fire me one day? Who might use confidential information against me? A leader cannot ‘not know’ what they have learned about me as a coach.
A working relationship is not psychoanalysis Leaders are not coaches; they are leaders. They usually have the authority to give instructions and they exercise it. That’s what their role demands. Issuing an instruction is the perfect opposite of what a coach does.
But there is a way out for leaders. They don’t necessarily have to reflect on half of their employee’s lives with them. After all, a working relationship is not psychoanalysis. Instead, leaders can try picking the cherries from the coaching process. And these are listening, showing you understand, being tolerant of mistakes, uncovering development potentials, reflecting together, showing trust in strengths, demonstrating patience, making agreements and working towards their fulfillment, conveying meaning and inspiring others.
Becoming a coaching leader in four steps There are great training and coaching programs that teach you how to achieve this. You can approach this in simple, easy-to-remember steps. For example, through simple processes like one developed by Ken Blanchard, one of the developers of the theory of situational leadership. He structures coaching leadership as follows:
1. Listening 2. Inquiring & deepening 3. Expressing your own opinion 4. Expressing confidence
And all of this is spread across a spectrum of building trust, setting focus, developing a plan of action, and concluding with an organizing summary.
Following such steps is very theoretical. Sustainable impact is achieved when dealing with your own matters. How can I work with Mrs. Schulze to help her feel confident, sharing her extensive knowledge with higher-ranking executives in compliance matters? How can David translate his creative product ideas into manageable concepts? And as a boss, how can I avoid being seen solely as someone who delivers harsh statements?
A coaching leader should not deceive themselves: perhaps, they are a good coach – that might be true. However, their employees will never be the right clients for them. The match does not fit because there is a clear conflict of interest. Nevertheless, one can learn to lead in a coaching manner if they assess their own role and attitude – and thus the limits and possibilities of coaching as a leader – correctly. This brings us directly to our own potential for development.
Martin Kruse is a journalist, speechwriter and freelance author. As a coach, he is fascinated by the challenges of the people who put themselves in his hands. He has experience as a graduate in business administration and management, as well as a lecturer at a Swiss university.