PowerPoints and endless presentations – you might think you know learning and development. If the thought of a classroom leaves you cold, you’ll be pleased to hear that there is a better way. The catch? It means swapping the cosy predictability of a presentation and foregoing the numerical safety of a group session to go it alone.
Thankfully, coaching is a highly effective leadership development tool. The experience isn’t always easy, in fact it’s often challenging, uncomfortable and emotionally taxing. Of course, group coaching is beneficial in many scenarios. But when there’s pressure to make a change or deliver important results, one-to-one coaching is effective at targeting specific issues and generating powerful outcomes, making it a valuable investment.
What it means to be a leader
Responsibility makes for a heavy burden, and this is especially true for those in a leadership position. Whether at the ship’s helm as MD or CEO, heading up a department, or sitting on the board, the head that wears the crown is often heavy. Leaders can become stuck, trapped by old habits, thoughts, and unconscious beliefs. Yet it’s challenging for leaders to admit to that and allow themselves to be vulnerable. In an ideal world, leaders have many qualities, vulnerability being one, emotional intelligence and authenticity are further examples. When these elements are missing or off-kilter it can have an impact on everything from leaders’ behaviour to their performance.
Maybe over the years they have developed certain behaviours, or found themselves repeating familiar patterns which no longer serve a purpose. When this happens, and behaviour is out of alignment with the situation, leaders may appear insincere, distant or heavy-handed. In the work that we do at Farscape, we see leaders become unpredictable, unapproachable and hot-headed. This behaviour does not help colleagues or the organisation as a whole.
That isn’t to say that leaders are simply the wolves terrorising the shepherd’s flock. There are many reasons for such a situation to arise. Ideally, leaders are their authentic, emotionally intelligent selves. Among the many things that coaching can help with, it is a powerful tool to help leaders rediscover the qualities that may be missing or off-kilter.
Why is coaching so effective?
Coaching can be used to explore many different things: behaviours that are no longer helpful, confidence, skills or values to name a few. As indicated above, admitting that these things need to be re-examined is a vulnerable place, which can be difficult. Initially, these things might be viewed as negative and exploring them undesirable. But, like a crucible which holds raw material, it’s possible to apply intense, focused heat to a subject in the private coaching space which results in a change, the emergence of a new material that is malleable and apt to be shaped to something new. Though the process is often uncomfortable, it is transformational nonetheless.
Subjecting things such as confidence or values to scrutiny often helps leaders to understand how they impact on behaviour; in light of this exploration, leaders can then develop new behaviours and beliefs which are much more helpful. Bringing consciousness to how they behave, and illuminating the fact that they have a choice over their behaviour, enables leaders to make choices which suit the situation, instead of just reaching for whatever their go-to tool is from their own personal toolbox of behaviours. This puts them in a far better position to make decisions and behave in a way which benefits the organisation. And when things such as confidence and skills are in balance, the leaders’ external behaviours are much more likely to align with their internal values, creating a positive circle of happy, effective leaders.
Why choose coaching over group development?
Group coaching is very effective at developing senior teams – it’s something that we do a lot of. However it isn’t always the right tool, and comparing the limitations of group work and the benefits of one-to-one coaching helps explain why the latter is so effective.
Limitations of group development
- The most evident limitation of a group development scenario is that, despite it being a safe and confidential space, there’s still an element of ‘publicness’ which is hard to eradicate entirely. It’s vital that individuals spend time exploring their deepest concerns, shortcomings and failures to move forward. Yet doing so in front of one’s peers, the colleagues that one works alongside every day, is profoundly difficult. Hence the tendency to hold back is strong, which caps the extent to which group development can affect real and long-lasting change.
- The group facilitator can also be a limiting factor. Whether in their own eyes or those of the delegates, they can morph into the ‘expert’, the lecturer leading the discussion while everyone else studiously takes notes. The biggest drawback with this, is that the very people who are supposed to be developing themselves and challenging their thinking become passive.Instead of looking within to find out their own truth, they look to their ‘teacher’ for the answer.
Benefits of coaching
- In direct comparison to a group environment, coaching is a private experience. It’s far easier to open up and get to the heart of what’s going on; the fierce heat of the crucible feels much more tolerable without an audience to witness your suit of armour, and all the dents, dings and imprints left by years of slings and arrows, melt away.
- Where the facilitator in a group scenario may start to be perceived as the fountain of wisdom, the playing field in a coach-coachee relationship is level. The conversation-based approach means that it’s difficult for the person being coached to put the coach on a pedestal; rather they are walking side by side.
How your leader’s attitude influences coaching; and how their attitude to coaching influences everything
Throughout the course of our work, Farscape encounters leaders who believe that they don’t have the time for coaching. Or they may have had a poor experience of development work in the past and feel disinclined to pursue any in future. So if leaders are going to commit their time to development work, they need to feel that the investment is justified. Increasingly, we are seeing that leaders view an outsider’s perspective as very valuable and it therefore feels like a justifiable use of time.
That external perspective of course comes at a cost, although with coaching able to tackle specific issues in a tight timeframe, the results are powerful and delivered quickly. When you’re faced with an imminent crisis, the laser-targeted, outcome-focused approach delivered by coaching, quickly proves its worth.
It doesn’t stop there. By virtue of their very position, if not their personalities, leaders are influential; their attitude to development in general, and coaching particularly, affects the rest of the organisation’s attitude. So, while coaching is an effective tool for leadership development, the scope for positive influence is so much broader. If a positive outlook on development exists at the top, coupled with a belief that coaching can help you change what’s around you by starting with yourself, this will trickle downwards. Our blog, Coaching shouldn’t be elitist, and it must begin at the top, explores this and explains why investing in coaching for your leaders to benefit everyone else isn’t the paradox it first seems.
Committing to the unknown to achieve a desired result
When the pressure is on to deliver an outcome, it’s tempting to resort to familiar ways of doing things. Yet as the saying sometimes attributed to Einstein goes, if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. Leaders aren’t geniuses, and that’s fine; nobody expects them to have all the answers. What is expected, is that leaders perform to the best of their ability and take steps to find the most suitable way around whatever obstacle the organisation faces.
Coaching is the most effective way of developing leaders’ ability to do this, because it encourages them to acknowledge what behaviours and attitudes are no longer serving a purpose. And while coaching, as with any service, comes with a price tag, the individual, team and organisational rewards that emerge put the investment into insignificance.
If you’re under pressure to deliver or if you’re caught between a rock and a hard place and trying to find a way free, give us a call. We can’t make obstacles disappear, but we can help you overcome them more effectively than you thought. Call us on 0117 370 1800, we’d be happy to hear what you’re dealing with.