Many people are aware of the benefits of coaching, having had the opportunity to be coached themselves, or have friends or colleagues who have. What’s discussed less is the benefits of coaching for the coach. Here, we have a look at why it’s worth building coaching others into your career – particularly if you lead others, or aspire to – and three practical ways to go about it.
“Power stress” is a term that resonates with many of my clients. Fascinating research from eminent professor Richard Boyatzis and his colleagues from Case Western Reserve University suggest that leaders experience “power stress” – the potentially chronic stress that comes with working on things that are personally important, risky, and having others watching or critiquing as you seek to influence others. So this isn’t limited to those in official positions with a leadership title, but broader forms of leadership. This may include being a thought leader in introducing innovation or new ways of working. It may be in the context of teamwork or collaborative ventures and seeking to influence peers. Leaders can experience psychological and physiological effects from chronic power stress, and it can make it difficult to sustain the mental, emotional and behavioral processes that enabled him/her to be effective. Interestingly, they argue that coaching with compassion – focusing on others and helping them with their desired, intentional changes, can mitigate the psychological and physiological effects of chronic power stress.[i]
Coaching can be not only hugely beneficial for the person being coached; it can have powerful, positive effects on the person coaching. As a leader, building coaching into your career will not only help develop the people in your team, it is likely to help you sustain your leadership effectiveness.
You can build coaching into your career in many different ways. Here are three practical ideas that clients have found useful.
1. Don’t think of coaching as all or nothing. The concept of “coaching conversations” is applied widely. It may feel strange for people you work with on a regular basis to suddenly have a coaching “session,” where you put on a coaching hat, have a 30-90 minute conversation one-to-one where you follow pure coaching methods and ask questions and facilitate but don’t offer advice or give your opinion. Being wary of suddenly going into full coaching mode can make leaders reluctant to coach their teams at all. You can start to apply coaching as a style in your toolkit and build it into conversations, rather than feeling you need to introduce formal sessions. This works well for some leaders, but not everyone. You may find that coaching conversations are a step towards more formal coaching sessions with your team members and colleagues down the track as you upskill and gain confidence in coaching.
2. Fight against taking open questions for granted. When running executive education programs or in-house client leadership programs, teaching “open questions” is my least favorite topic. It’s something we all think is so easy and obvious. My nine-year old could tell me the difference between an open or closed question. This instinct that we just “know it” can lead us to be apathetic about them. But asking well-crafted open questions in a manner that is authentic, grounded in genuine interest, and without judgment requires skill and intention. Powerful, open questions are one of the key foundations of coaching along with active listening. Despite the sigh that may follow my reluctant suggestion to practice open questions during a leadership program, this session is typically the most powerful of them all. Both those people asking and those being asked find that a few, well-phrased open questions can lead to meaningful reflection, new insights and a way forward that is both profound and practical.
3. Use coaching to shift culture. Years ago I was asked to teach the 70 leaders of one of India’s largest banks to coach. The day on coaching was added onto a four-day leadership program covering topics such as strategy, globalization and market analysis. My concluding day to the program with these leaders – each responsible for literally thousands of employees – didn’t seem a natural fit, so I asked what inspired this addition. The CEO said, “We need to shift the culture. It’s time to change how we lead.” People were always waiting for their leaders’ ideas and decisions, and they wanted to shift the culture to be more proactive. They wanted their people coming to leaders not just with problems but with ideas and solutions. He recognized the change didn’t need to just be made with employees themselves – telling them to speak up more and come with solutions. They believed good ideas could come from anywhere, but saw that leadership behaviors could unintentionally stifle the extent to which these ideas came to light. To genuinely shift the culture, leaders would need to change the dynamic; to engage in a different way with the people in their teams. He wanted them all to be able to coach. And so I spend a day teaching dozens of leaders, with decades worth of business experience, the foundations of coaching. This is one of my most positive memories of facilitating a leadership development program – starting the day with a fear the participants would find the topic menial, when the reality was that they embraced it, found it positively challenging and ended keen to introduce it into their leadership practices with a belief it would shape the culture in the direction they needed the organization to go.
There are significant benefits of coaching not only for the person being coached, but for the person coaching and for the wider teams. Coaching is a skill anyone can choose to build in to their leadership and team dynamics, rather than a personality-based style. A senior professional in consulting who I’ve known for a decade shared his interest in becoming a coach. But his starting point was, “Rebecca, I couldn’t do this… could I?” If you’re interested in the idea of coaching, don’t let the negative self-talk of, “I’m just not like that” hold you back. It’s a powerful tool available to all leaders and professionals who seek to positively impact others at work.
[i] For more on this see R.E. Boyatzis, M.L. Smith, and N. Blaize, “Developing Sustainable Leaders Through Coaching and Compassion,” Academy of Management Learning and Education 5, no. 1 (2006): 8–24; R.E. Boyatzis, Notes from a coaching workshop (Cleveland: Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University, 2003), unpublished paper; R.E. Boyatzis, M.L. Smith, and A.J. Beveridge, “Coaching with Compassion: In- spiring Health, Well-Being and Development in Organizations,” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 49, no. 2 (2012): 153–178; and, R. Newton, “Gravitas in the Dark,” Chapter 5, Authentic Gravitas: Who Stands Out And Why, New York: TarcherPerigee (Penguin Random House), 2019.