Can leaders ever be good coaches?

To be more specific the leaders I am referring to are managers in organisations with formal authority for employees and outcomes.  I would argue that so long as the leader will be held accountable for the outcome the team, department or business the opportunity for a coaching led approach is limited.  Coaches are focused on the process of coaching rather than the result.  The outcome of course is important, coaching does have a clear action orientation, but the action is defined primarily by the client.  In my experience most managers do not have the luxury to ‘let go’ of the outcome.

I have observed so many times good managers using coaching with their own reports and getting confused and frustrated. The most common question I get from managers is (some version of) “How can I use coaching to make him/her/them do what I think is needed?” I have no good answer for them.  Managers in larger organisations are encouraged (even sometimes trained) to use a coaching approach and at the same time given ever more challenging targets to meet in order to survive and succeed at the organisational ‘game’.

Don’t get me wrong, managers and organisations are trying to embrace coaching for good reasons.  Many traditional organisations need employees that are highly engaged, make good decisions and take action and coaching can help deliver this.  However, organisations cannot have their cake and eat it.  It cannot be both an environment of ‘command and control’ and ‘distributed leadership’.  For managers to become effective coaches requires a cultural change in the organisation, the top down mindset needs to be reversed.  The very definition of what leadership is needs to be unlearnt and relearned so as to re-define the function of managers.

Are company’s ready for such a radical change in thinking? not without some sort of major disruption in the way we normally do things.  For the last few years I have observed an increasing pressure in organisations to adopt flexible working practices, it was being piloted and experimented with but for every advocate of flexible working there was an anxious manager concerned about how working from home would impact on control and productivity.  Then we had Covid-19 and everything changed.  Working from the office was not possible, like it or not, many of us were working from home.  Trust was replacing control, not because it was the right thing to do, but because it was the only thing that could be done.  Here we are in 2020 in the process of creating the ‘new normal’ for flexible working and the #futureofwork is here but we needed a real crisis to get us there quickly.

What would be the event or conditions needed for organisations to create a coaching culture internally.  To embrace networks at the expense of hierarchies.  To give up control in order to gain speed and agility.  To let go of status in service of employee engagement and wellbeing.  Yes, leaders can be good coaches, but it is much less about specific coaching training or skills and much more about leadership and mindset.  Without a major external disruption what would it take for large organisations to undertake such a radical change in how they think about themselves?

 

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