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Six lessons for coaching leaders

A market-leading retail company decided to commission a series of webinars to engage its 100 top executives in a conversation about leadership.  The company was doing well.  But it knew that, rather than be complacent, this was the right time to invest in leadership development and coaching to stay ahead of its increasingly aggressive competition.

During a briefing meeting related to the project where I was one of the consultants,the Human Resource Director (HRD) explained that she wanted to get her executives thinking about coaching. She asked: “Can you share a case study to illustrate what actually happens during a coaching programme and the key lessons for success?”

The exchange that ensued got me thinking about the lessons that emerged from coaching one of my clients – let’s call him Alan – the commercial director of a FMCG company. The CEO of the company had asked me to coach Alan on stepping up to the next level as a leader. Alan was a great commercial director – but could he become GM?  This was the challenge we tackled through coaching. 

Here follows the case study of Alan’s journey of leadership development and six key lessons for success that I shared with the HRD.

Lesson One: Start with passion

Alan’s coaching started with a conversation about motivation and purpose.  Alan described his attitude to life as “skiing the black runs”.  His eyes lit up as he talked about taking on the current challenge – it was clear he was passionate about driving change. And he was willing to work with a coach to accelerate the process.

Leaders come in all kinds of styles. However, what I’ve come to realise is that great leaders have one thing in common: they have a passion to make things happen. That passion is key – after all, you can’t light a fire with a damp match!   

Lesson Two: Get feedback

We’d established that Alan had the motivation.  But did he have the ability to make the shift from functional specialist to GM?  Could he involve and inspire people beyond his area of functional expertise? 

To answer this question, I started by gathering 360° feedback on Alan through a series of face-to-face interviews with colleagues and reports. The interviews explored Alan’s current leadership style, how it had changed, and what leadership style was now required by the business. 

Alan found the process invaluable. He realised that he needed to provide a very clear lead, but staff also want to be involved and coached. This would require a shift from his previously coercive ‘tell’ style to more of a ‘listen and lead’ coaching style.  

In the absence of feedback, coaching risks being an inward-looking and self-indulgent process.  If the client is in denial of the need for change, the coach can end up colluding with him or her.  Getting feedback keeps the process focused on the real issues.

Lesson Three: Set clear goals 

Alan was concerned that during the Manco meetings he seemed to provide all the leadership. He would like to have seen others stepping up to the plate and contributing their ideas to the strategic debate. Alan decided to set himself a stretch goal: to stand back from the strategic planning process and have his direct reports lead the next strategy presentation themselves.

Alan’s excitement about this goal and determination to stand back reminds me of the Lao Tzu quote: “When the great leader’s work is done the people say they did it themselves.”  

Lesson Four: Shift from telling to asking

Alan asked Ron to facilitate an event to get more people involved in the strategic process and to answer questions such as:  Where are we trying to get to as a business?  What objectives should we go for? What issues and obstacles do we need to tackle to get there? Ron interviewed each of Alan’s reports to explore their individual answers – drawing out what they would do if they were the GM and had to run the business.  

Initially the discussions are like pulling teeth.  It’s not so easy for the leader to shift from a coercive to a more collaborative style – and, equally, staff still hang on to the expectation of being told what to do.  In order for people to do their own thinking, the leader has to stop telling and rather engage people through questions and coaching.

Lesson Five: Build trust

Alan was very honest about his dreams and fears for himself and the business.  He encouraged people also to be honest about ‘naming the elephants in the room’ – in other words identifying the obstacles that might derail progress.
These conversations – around issues of reward, diversity and trust – are not easy, but as the group works through the issues openly and without blaming or shaming, the level of energy rises.

Lesson Six: Sustain momentum
The coaching process culminated in the team presenting their strategy to Exco and getting sign off – and Alan was delighted that he needed to provide very little input.  His people had stepped up to leadership.  This created enormous pride and energised them to deliver the plan and achieve double-digit growth.  

Everyone agreed it had been a tremendous process.  However, people also insisted that it should not be a once off ‘flash in the pan’.  They agreed on a series of monthly coaching meetings to sustain the momentum.

Alan was proud of the high performance culture he’d created.  They were delivering great results and at the same time there were high levels of mutual support, appreciation and openness.

Alan’s reputation spread – he became known as an exceptional leader.  And the question about Alan was answered:  Yes, he proved that he could shift to the next level of leadership and, yes, he could take people with him!  

Within a few months he was head-hunted to turn around another part of the business in Dubai and then, a year later, he was invited back to lead the South African business, this time as GM.

Ron Hyams MA (Cambridge) is part of the virtual faculty of USB Executive Development, where he facilitates on the Senior Management Development Programme and Executive  Development Programme . His fields of expertise are coaching, leadership and personal mastery.

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