Coaching leaders: how to make it effective

Coaching leaders is now a widespread practice among larger organisations. What should it comprise to make it effective?

Do senior people and potential leaders respond better to coaching than to group-based activities?

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) certainly thinks so. Its study Coaching in Organisations, published late last year, found that one-to-one coaching is seen as a more appropriate type of learning support than group-based interventions for senior people.

It also discovered that external coaches were the most appropriate for this activity. Although many organisations are trying to implement internal coaches, the CIPD points out that external coaches often sit best with this type of work in terms of working at a senior level and offering a broader perspective gleaned from coaching in a number of organisations.

In demand

At training materials provider Video Arts, managing director Martin Addison is not surprised by the popularity of coaching. Video Arts recently undertook research into training and coaching trends. This found that 70% of organisations have said they would do more coaching in 2008 than in 2007, especially for leadership roles.

“Coaching is good for moving people into roles and lets you road-test beforehand, helping the coachee to try out reactions and emotions in a safe environment,” he says.

Deploying external coaches is an approach appreciated by large organisations such as Tesco, which uses coaches with broad business experience as part of its leadership development programmes. “All the coaches are qualified, have a business CV and can look at business performance,” says head of leadership development Maxine Dolan. “This is definitely not life coaching or counselling.”

Tesco has a clear model – identified by its business needs – of what the coaching should deliver, but elsewhere opinion is divided on how the leadership coaching should be designed and monitored. Some experts have identified generic leadership models, whereas others see leadership coaching as bringing out the innate qualities of a potential leader.

In the latter camp is Lindsey Masson, director of executive coaching at business school Ashridge. She is interested in an open-minded approach to the different types of leader.

“What is wrong is telling high potentials what they ought to be and then cannot live up to,” she says. “We’re about what’s authentic and being who you are, not what you should be.”

Masson thinks that pressuring leaders to follow generic models causes stress. “The best organisations find those who can work with them, and hence have no such thing as leadership models.”

She believes the cornerstone of leadership coaching is in the relationship between coach and coachee, because the aim of the coach should be to get people to be more aware of how they want to lead. “For example, when inviting the coachee to choose a coach, I offer the biography notes of two or three people and discuss how they work.”

Masson warns that asking the coachee to interview the potential coach is not enough. “Interviewing does not work – it’s not a job, it’s a relationship,” she says.


At Penna, head of executive coaching Sally Baxter says the coaching approach should not be prescriptive. “It’s not about emulating a leader, but formulating what makes them a great leader,” she says. “It’s about authentic leadership and asking ‘Who am I, why am I, and what values do I never want to get rid of?'”

So if coaching is about helping the coachee be the best version of themselves, how is an organisation to know if it is getting a good return on its spend?

Baxter recommends self-assessment of emotional intelligence (EQ) via an instrument such as the inventory known as EQ-i. She says self-assessment is important because it is less intimidating for the coachee.

“We ask them to do this to see if they have changed. EQ shows who has got a high level of intuition as a leader, because leaders need more than technical expertise. They also need the ability to inspire others – a mixture of hard and soft skills.”

She is keen to add another element to the coaching: mentoring, from an internal source, whom she sees as a local guide to the challenges of a new role or responsibilities. “This is a great way of providing rounded development,” she says. “The coach builds a sense of who they are as a leader and the mentor helps with organisational politics.”

Office politics

Organisational politics and energies are a top priority for Peter Shaw, a partner at coaching consultancy Praesta Partners. “The key ingredient in leadership coaching is agreement between the line manager and the individual [coachee],” he says. “There needs to be agreement on the right areas to work on, which leads to a clear understanding between the sponsoring organisation and the coach.”

He adds that the organisation has to be clear as to whether they have chosen the right candidates for leadership development, taking into consideration feedback on individuals from their line manager, their performance in a wider context and the results of assessment centres.

“A very powerful approach is real-time observation,” says Shaw. “I spend a day with them and see what is really needed.”

According to Francois Moscovici, managing director of White Water Strategies, what organisations really need is to develop ‘long-haul leaders’ who are also ‘balanced leaders’.

The consultancy has identified the concept of balanced leadership after recent research among directors and HR specialists. It found that such people should be: decisive, visible, resilient, strategic, emotional and intellectual, with the first three seen as the most important.

“New leaders need to manage the transition from specialist to generalist,” he says. “It is a big step up to a generalist role.”

But he warns that coaching should not be seen as a panacea. “It is part of an overall process and businesses should consider using business schools to expose coachees to the latest thinking and events, such as lunch a few times a year with the CEO, which can contain a lot of learning.”

Back at Ashridge, Masson says above all, coaching offers the coachee the chance to reflect. The business school has just launched a product called The Leadership Spa, which offers a block of coaching over a three-day period and costs £3,500. “Clients have told us that this intensive coaching has given them space to think,” she says.

This is beneficial to the coachee, and the organisation should feel the benefit as long as expectations are realistic, as Baxter warns. “Some people find that they are not a great leader in all situations,” she says. “For example, Winston Churchill was not a great leader in peace time.”

Case study: Tesco

A structured approach to coaching is paying dividends at Tesco, says head of leadership development Maxine Dolan.

“We use coaching for our unit managers and above,” she says. “We base it on the personal development needs identified by the personal development plan.”

The aim of the coaching is to embed skills from the leadership programme.

Dolan and the person receiving the coaching – “I hate the word ‘coachee’,” she says – can call on bundles of coaching which have been pre-agreed with external coaches. And they have a choice of two external coaches.

“Prices range according to the experience of the coach,” she says. The coaching lasts from four to six months, over a period of 20 hours in total.

“This timeframe helps because previously we had unending coaching relationships. We now have a way of giving structure to the process,” she says.

The coaching remains targeted because objectives are pre-agreed between the coachee and the line manager. Reviews are held mid-way and at the end of the process.

Dolan also works hard to ensure that the coaching remains relevant to the business. Coaches meet senior managers to discuss the aims and direction of the business, and are expected to understand its leadership models.

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