Businesses today are investing significantly in developing leadership and management talent, and leader coaching is increasingly becoming a core component of development programs. If you are making decisions about how to leverage coaching for leader development, there are lots of variables to consider. And there is a lot at stake – what leaders learn and achieve through a leader development program can impact hundreds, perhaps thousands of others in your organization.
Today, most leader coaching is targeted at developing the capabilities of high-potential performers. Having built leadership coaching programs in two organizations, and being a practicing executive coach, I want to share some observations and advice with those responsible for facilitating leader developing programs, specifically around selecting and using coaches.
First, let me say that good coaching is almost always helpful. Despite the fact that the field of coaching is criticized for its lack of outcomes data, I happen to believe that coaching can provide good value if a client is motivated to learn, and if the coach has relevant expertise and a coaching methodology that pairs well with what the client wants to learn.
However, I think many organizations that want to develop either current and/or future leaders would increase the likelihood of success by using coaches with solid skills and experience in organizational development and change.
Leaders learn most from hardship. There is ample evidence that leaders learn the most from the actual sweat and toil of fixing a dysfunctional team, negotiating institutional conflict, expanding the scale and scope of a business line, and so on. In fact, the “curriculum” of the best leader development programs put these real experiences at their core and build around them.
Most hardships leaders face involve complex change, which, in turn, requires broader organizational support. These challenges almost always require a leader to shape and influence complex systems, but the developing leader can’t do it alone. It is at these moments that this leader needs a team of skilled resource people – a higher level boss, internal HR/OD staff members, mentors, and a good coach – to help weather the challenge successfully and harvest the learning from it.
Coaches need skills in organizational change if they are going to be successful at coaching those leading change. Unless a coach has a firm understanding in how organizations develop and change – through prior study and/or successful leadership experience – they may be of limited help to a developing leader who must navigate a complex organization in order to plan and execute a change effort successfully.
Matching a coach with a developing leader, therefore, requires a careful pairing of organizational change skill and relevant experience, in addition to style. Some leader development programs I have encountered leave too much of the matching work up to their participants. Sure, chemistry is important. But a leader who has to tackle a complex change issue needs to be paired with a coach who possesses subject matter expertise in both human and organization development and some relevant experience. Facilitators of leader development programs must shoulder the responsibility for finding, vetting, and matching coaches to create the right fit.
Using coaches with OD consulting skills as part of the faculty for leadership programs will increase their value. Coaching without understanding organizational context is like being blindfolded. Knowing as much as possible about the organization the leader lives in is critically important. A great way to position coaches for success is to involve them more fully as designers, presenters, advisors, and/or evaluators in the leadership program. Yes, this costs more, but it’s worth it. At minimum, leadership program facilitators should hold orientation sessions for coaches so they can get to know the organization, the program, and each other better.
Hiring coaches with good OD consulting skills can have additional payoffs for your business.
As the head of an internal organizational development and learning unit, I asked coaches who were equipped with good consulting skills to both coach and consult with developing leaders and their work units at the same time. This allowed coaches to observe, coach, and give feedback in the moment to leaders. In turn, the leaders gained an additional resource to mobilize change. For example, a physician leader in our executive development program, who was stepping into the new role of academic chair, used his coach to co-plan and facilitate a new departmental strategic planning process, to great success.
The use of coaching in leadership programs is becoming ever more popular, and there a lot of variables to consider when selecting coaches. My advice is to look for coaches who are skilled in both coaching and organizational development to get the best value for your investment.
Ken Broadhurst, MHSA, PCC, is a seasoned Executive Coach and OD consultant with over 30 years of experience as a leader and practitioner. Ken has spent the majority of his career in internal OD and leadership roles in education, health care, and bio-pharmaceutical companies.