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Possible Pitfalls of Internal Leadership Coaching

James is an executive in an organization with five leaders who report to him and 200 people who report to his leadership team. John truly believes that coaching is a key competence for him and his leadership team. While they have all done a great deal of training and leadership development, none of them have taken any specific coach training. James originally felt that with the skills they learned in their training they would be able to coach others.  Through his work with a qualified coach, he recognized several issues with this belief and ultimately had his leadership team – including himself – go through formal coach training.

The issues around leaders attempting to coach employees, especially direct reports, without training are:

  • The philosophies, tools and processes in coaching are distinct and very different from other leadership activities such as consulting, advising and mentoring.

Leaders advise and give direction from experience and commitment to the employee’s success. They are also very invested in the outcomes that the employee has, as either accountabilities or desired behaviors.

Coaching is actually an advice free zone. It is based on a relationship of trust and deep rapport where the coach believes that the person being coached is able to fully assess where they are at, what is important to them and how they want to move forward. With the tools of contextual listening, asking powerful questions, reframing and facilitating learning, the role of the coach is to bring all of this out in the individual they are coaching. It is not dependent on the coach knowing what is needed or how to move forward – in fact, this often get’s in the way of true coaching.

When one has had access to real coaching conversations they are able to handle not only the current situations and goals but are better able to handle future situations of achieving desires and facing challenges from a very different perspective. 

  • The leader has the natural power in the relationship because of the reporting structure.

In a true coaching relationship it is the person being coached who must have the complete control of where they want to go in the session and what the outcomes of the session are. The coach needs to remain neutral and unattached to the outcome. This can be very difficult for a leader with something at stake in what the individual chooses. It is possible to create a distinct relationship with someone who reports to you that can hold the integrity of a coaching conversation if both people are committed and agree to the ground rules. Those being that the coach will not direct or advise in these particular sessions, nor will they be attached to the outcome. They will not influence the person’s direction or perspectives and there will be no consequences for choices made even if they impact the leader. The only exception to this is if the person’s choices can directly harm someone or the company.

  • Fear of consequences.

Often the person being coached – if the coach is the person they report to – will be restricted in their ability to really look and think outside of the box and come up with new ideas. They may fear that the boss will be upset or not want them to pursue a certain path especially if it might have them moving into a different department or role and will have a direct effect on the leader and the team. Real coaching needs to allow for all possibilities and only be restricted by integrity and operating from the greater good. The greater good must include the person being coached.

When one of the leaders at a large resort development was coaching a young receptionist (who, by the way, was the best receptionist they had ever had) she asked the receptionist what she loved most about her job, the receptionist’s answer was “nothing”. She would not have been able to say this if her relationship with her coach was not the kind of trusting, non-restrictive relationship previously discussed. In subsequent meetings they discovered that she was doing reception because she had young children, was a single mom and did not see a way to pursue what she really wanted. Through coaching, the receptionist came up with a plan to apprentice with the on-site architect for a number of years while she put away savings to go to school. She made a request of the company to match her savings if she promised to work for them once she had her degree. The company saw her value, determination and dedication and provided the funding for her to pursue a career in architecture part time while continuing to work with them in different roles while she was taking her education. This is what is possible in a true coaching relationship – when the coach (either internal or external) is willing to create a relationship of trust, safety and training – and make it available to employees.

As a leader who would like to make coaching available to your people, ask yourself:

  • Can I detach and be neutral in this part of our relationship?
  • Do I have the right tools and philosophies integrated within me to be able to coach someone?
  • Do I have a high degree of trust and rapport with this person already?

It is my belief that you need to be able to answer yes to ALL of these questions before you offer coaching. You can always bring in an external professional coach in the meantime.

If you are a leader in an organization and you want a coach you will want to ask the same questions of the person who is going to coach you especially if you report to them.

“My vision is that some day coaching will disappear as a profession and become just the way we do things around here.”