Bosses can be effective coaches, assuming that they’re able to exercise patience when needed because coaches have to be able to listen.
Compared with external coaches, bosses have both advantages and disadvantages.
Two disadvantages are obvious
One is that external coaches usually have been trained as coaches and most have years of experience learning their trade. They’re experts at sizing people up and knowing what works and doesn’t work to help different types of individuals build on strengths and address limitations.
But the main advantage external coaches have is that they are not their coachees’ bosses and they are not full-time employees of the same company. So they potentially represent a confidential, “safe” space where individuals, assuming they have developed trust in the outside coach’s discretion, can be more open about their concerns and motivations.
A third, less-obvious advantage is that, when people become resistant to recognizing limitations in their own performance, an external coach is freer to push them to understand what is “behind” the issue, put them on the spot, and keep up the pressure until they understand what they’re doing and how they might do it differently. When leader coaches try to apply these kinds of techniques, individuals tend to feel intruded on, and this may cause them to dig in and reinforce their defenses. No one is comfortable when the boss takes on the role of psychologist.
But leader coaches have two significant advantages over external coaches
First, they’ve already had more experience with their direct reports. In many cases they start with a better understanding of individuals’ strengths and limitations—and how these currently translate into actual behavior on the job.
The other advantage is that leader coaches can assign work tasks for specific developmental purposes. External coaches can encourage individuals to try different approaches in handling a given challenge or opportunity, but they can’t assign growth-oriented work tasks.
Moving beyond the comparison with outside coaches, however, there are other important benefits that leader coaching can generate.
The leader coach is really doing a different kind of coaching
At times it may be very similar to or overlap with the work external coaches do, but it yields six additional benefits.
1. Although supervisory meetings are of course essential, periodic developmental coaching sessions with direct reports may significantly enhance work relationships, which can lead to increased trust on both sides. The payoff may be, for example, that the coachee is quicker to buy in to new initiatives. Or that, with more trust in leader coaches and sensing the confidence those coaches have in them, they may be more willing to try ideas that involve personal risk. A stronger relationship can also result in coaches giving individuals more room to act on their own initiative.
2. Developmental sessions may help leaders see a side of their direct reports they hadn’t noticed before, giving them a better take on what really drives them at work. This can improve communication and affect the responsibilities the leader coach assigns.
3. Coachees may also gain a better understanding of what makes leaders tick, which can result, for example, in a willingness to take the longer view and carry out leaders’ directives they disagree with, without resentment. They may also feel freer to ask questions and offer their honest opinions.
4. Leader-coaches’ developmental sessions are also models of an approach coachees can turn around and use with the people they manage.
5. Word gets around. Investing time in developmental sessions demonstrates the value leader coaches see in their people. It not only strengthens the organization’s coaching culture, but shows the concern leaders have for individual growth.
6. Through coaching, leaders continually develop emotional intelligence skills that can serve them well in addressing an array of challenges.
How leader coaches can be effective developmental coaches
Multiple resources—including books, videos, and training—are available to help any leader become a better coach. What follows here are three fundamental practices that deserve special notice and two others that are rarely mentioned.
Leader coaches need to:
Become effective listeners.
There are a number of commonly cited best listening practices, but it’s worth singling out the ability to be patient and to withhold judgment.
Being non-judgmental while listening, which definitely requires patience, takes time to learn because our judgments arise reflexively when we hear others talk and it’s hard to separate the picture we have of the other person from what they’re saying. It’s a skill that only grows with practice.
Assume the positive
This is part of effective listening and withholding judgment, but it goes further. Often we tend to assume the other person is defending, justifying, or self-promoting, and this frames our reaction, whether we express it verbally or otherwise.
But we can change the whole tenor of an interaction if we start by assuming the other’s intentions are positive and constructive. This doesn’t mean we have to live in some happy place, divorced from reality. But it does mean we should recognize that anything we say, even criticism, which issues from a positive frame of mind on our part will be more easily received.
Ask open-ended questions
Instead of questions that prompt yes or no answers (like, “Do you like your job?), learn to ask open ended questions (“What do you like most about your job?”). Or:
Is there any way we could be helping you do your job better?
What would you like to see happen that isn’t happening now?
These questions are not only less risky to answer but yield responses more likely to help the leader coach understand their direct reports. Open-ended questions also signal a willingness to recognize individuals’ approaches and support them when they act on their own initiative.
Develop trust by being open
Leader coaches can relieve some of the underlying tension coachees feel by setting an example of openness and vulnerability.
By trusting that their own openness will be well received, leader coaches gain trust from coachees.
Leaders might say something about the nature of their interactions with the other person, their own work situation, other colleagues, their own limitations, or their own personal concerns.
“I’m wondering if we’re fully understanding each other. Do you think so?”
“I have a really hard time with Tom.”
“Do you think I talk too much at meetings? I thought I went on and on this morning.”
Trust the process and let it unfold
Many coaches have found that they sometimes strike gold when they listen without an agenda. The paradox is that, from time to time, the best way to get where you want to go in a coaching session is to, temporarily, stop trying to get there.
There is still a framework to the conversation, so the two participants are not simply wandering aimlessly. But when the discussion is allowed to take its course, it often ends up yielding significant insights for both parties. It’s similar to the dynamic involved in brainstorming sessions, where ideas are allowed to develop free from immediate criticism.
Of course, time is limited for both leader and coachee. Knowing when to carefully guide the discussion or let it flow is a sensitivity coaches develop over time. It doesn’t always bear fruit, but the fact that it sometimes does makes it worth trying.
Letting things unfold may also allow coaches to relax more, and this is communicated non-verbally to coachees, making it easier for them to open up and respond constructively.
Even though leader coaches make it clear they are wearing their developmental rather than supervisory hats for coaching sessions, there is still no getting around the fact that the coach is the boss.
So there will tend to be limits to how open direct reports can be. They may find it too risky to say what they really think about leaders’ initiatives, coworkers, other senior executives, job conditions, and company policies. And they may not want to mention any outside-the-workplace circumstances impacting their performance.
The good news is that there are still many areas they CAN talk about without getting into risky issues. And, over time, as they develop trust in the boss, some of those obstacles will fall away.
It can also happen that, for reasons of temperament or working styles, the leader coach and coachee simply aren’t a good match or that discussions end up continually going over the same ground. When this happens, the leader coach can look for a colleague, someone from another department, or an external coach to take over coaching duties.
For the reasons already noted, however, even if no specific competencies develop from regular coaching sessions, substantial benefits may ensue as a result of strengthened relationships—including not only improved performance by direct reports but increased engagement shown by others down the line.