By John Hall
There’s a lot of talk these days about executives integrating coaching into their leadership style to establish a coaching culture within their organizations. Recently, I’ve been curious about what actually makes an effective coach.
A friend connected me to a pioneer in the field of building coaching cultures, Cylient CEO Dianna Anderson, to understand what coaching-based leadership really is. Dianna says, “Coaching can be a bit like love. You think you know what it is until you experience the real deal, and then you may realize it wasn’t what you thought it was.”
The hallmark of coaching as a leadership style is the igniting of insight in day-to-day conversations, which enables people to learn from their experiences “in the moment.” That kind of coaching builds confidence, encourages people to become more resilient, and energizes them to take action and continue learning. That’s why coaching-based leadership is the foundation of a coaching culture.
Unfortunately, all too often, “coaching” is practiced in ways that produce the opposite results. When coaching is done poorly, it can leave people feeling bruised, used, and disenchanted. The true value of coaching cultures won’t be realized when coaching is practiced in these limiting ways. That’s why it’s essential to understand what coaching really is — and what it isn’t.
Having been in the field of coaching since its infancy, Dianna has identified the seven most pervasive myths about coaching as a leadership style. She shared these myths with me, along with the real story behind the misconceptions.
1. Myth: If I’m asking questions, I’m coaching.
Not all questions are created equal. Consider leading questions that direct people to do what you want them to do, such as, “Don’t you think that if you did it this way, it would be better?” Or even questions that are intended to gather enough information so you can tell the person what to do, such as, “What are all of the contributing factors to this problem?”
These aren’t coaching questions.
Reality: What is the intention behind your question? If it’s to gather enough information to tell someone what you think she should do, or it’s a roundabout way to direct her actions, you’re not providing her any real value.
2. Myth: Coaching is getting people to do what I want them to do, without them knowing it.
When “coaching” is practiced in this way, it’s actually just an overbearing approach to leadership — albeit thinly veiled in directive questions. That’s manipulation, and it doesn’t feel very good. Do you know when you’re being manipulated? So does everyone else.
Reality: If you’re working your own agenda, trying to get people to do what you want them to do, you’re not coaching — you’re directing people with questions. It’s annoying, and it gives coaching a bad name in organizations. Even worse, this practice can actually inoculate your organization against creating a true coaching culture because people naturally defend themselves against manipulation and close themselves off from actual learning.
3. Myth: Coaching is only for “fixing problem people.”
Let’s be clear — coaching is never about “fixing” people, because people don’t need to be fixed. Treating people as though they’re broken or wrong leads to resentment and disengagement. Only reserving coaching for your most challenging people is a very limited use of a powerful leadership approach. Yes, coaching people who are stuck in limiting patterns of behavior can be helpful, but there is so much more to it.
Reality: The goal of coaching is to help others realize their potential. Everyone has the ability to improve, and coaching can help bring about that change. Coaching your solid performers and your top talent to expand their capabilities and reach further is one of the most powerful and rewarding uses of this leadership style. It’s also a great way to keep that talent engaged and loyal to your organization.
4. Myth: You can only ask questions when you’re coaching.
This “rule” probably originated when coaching was first evolving as a profession, and coaching schools needed a simple way to stop people from directing others. The easiest way to do that was to take away all of the tools and approaches that could be used in a directive way. For the most part, asking questions was all that was left.
We’ve learned a lot since then. For example, when people aren’t aware of something — like how their behavior is limiting their own success — just asking them questions probably isn’t going to help them to change their perspectives.
Let’s say Danny just gave a presentation to his team that didn’t go well, mostly because he took a dismissive tone when they started challenging some of his ideas. His story is that the team is a bunch of small-minded jerks who don’t like him. Asking Danny questions about what he could do differently isn’t likely to help him see his role in the situation. You will need other coaching approaches — such as analogies, offering insightful observations, or even providing developmental feedback — to help him understand how he contributed to the outcome of the meeting.
Reality: If questions aren’t igniting the insight needed to create meaningful behavioral change, you have to use alternative approaches. Otherwise, coaching turns into a bad game of “20 Questions” that goes nowhere, which leads us to our next myth.
5. Myth: Coaching takes a long time.
Coaching generally takes a longer time when you only ask questions, which is another good reason to broaden your coaching capabilities. It can also take a bit longer when you’re first learning to coach because, like anything that is new, it takes a while to get the hang of it. The more you practice, the more quickly you can get to the heart of issues.
Reality: When you get really good at integrating coaching approaches into conversations, you will save yourself a lot of time because you will be able to get to the heart of issues faster. More importantly, when you coach others by igniting insight, you teach them how to think for themselves. Essentially, you’re showing them how to use their own brains instead of yours, so they’ll stop asking you to tell them what to do all the time and start figuring things out for themselves. That’s one of the greatest benefits of a coaching culture.
6. Myth: Coaching is something you do to others.
Coaching is never done to others — it is always done with others. This is an important distinction. When we think about doing something to someone else, there is an assumption of hierarchy and control. Doing something with others implies an equal exchange of thoughts and ideas.
Reality: Coaching evokes the greatest potential when both parties are fully contributing their thoughts, ideas, and creativity to the conversation. That’s when the insights generated create the most significant shifts. Coaching can be done with anyone — your peers, friends, even children and teens. When coaching is practiced as an inviting exchange of equals, it’s received as an empowering conversation that draws people into the dialogue and invites change.
7. Myth: Coaching is a tool or technique.
Coaching is what you believe it to be. If you think it’s just a tool, that’s what it will be for you. But coaching is so much more than that.
Reality: When coaching is fully engrained as your dominant leadership style, it rewires your worldview and becomes a way of life. You go from seeing people as problems to appreciating their unique contributions. And you see your role as a leader differently. Instead of feeling obligated to have all the answers, you get curious about how you can support others to find answers that work for them.
When coaching-based leadership becomes your way of life, the true potential of individuals and the entire organization flourishes with it. That’s why it’s so important to practice real coaching because that’s what delivers the genuine results you’re investing your time and energy to realize.