Leadership

Coaching Leadership Style: How People-First Managers Transform Teams

Leaders who coach improve well-being and performance. Be a coach for your team with our guide, tips, and resources about the coaching leadership style.

You've built a fantastic team. They're talented and full of potential. I believe that you trust your team and be confident in their abilities.

One way to unlock your team’s potential and achieve better results together is to change the management approach and start thinking like a coach. 

In fact, the age of command-and-control leadership is over.

All 21st-century managers should adopt a coaching leadership style, as suggested by Professor Herminia Ibarra, author of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, in her Harvard Business Review article titled The Leader as Coach with Anne Scoular, cofounder of Meyler Campbell and author of The Financial Times Guide to Business Coaching.

“Coaching is no longer just a benevolent form of sharing what you know with somebody less experienced or less senior, although that remains a valuable aspect. It’s also a way of asking questions so as to spark insights in the other person.” - from The Leader as Coach, HBR.

This approach allows you to focus on autonomy and empowerment, and everyone in the team to develop even more skills to reach higher levels of success. 

There is always room for improvement, both for your team and for you as their leader. 

In this article, I collected the best practices and advice from experts into a simple guide to help you become a great leader as coach for your own team.

If you want to be even more up to date, check out our complete 2024 leadership conferences review.

What is the Coaching Leadership Style?

coaching-leadership-style-definition
What does it mean to be a coach for your team?

Bill Goerge, author of True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, and Zach Clayton come up with a nice way to explain the definition of coaching leadership style, using the acronym COACH:

  • C - Care for your people: Create trust and understanding by genuinely showing that you care about the well-being of your team as much as you care about the business results.  
  • O - Organize the “sweet spot": Understand the strengths and weaknesses of each team member and give them the “sweet spot" - tasks in which they can express their full capability.
  • A - Align the team's purpose and value: Show your team how their work contributes to the larger goals, motivating them to exceed expectations.
  • C - Challenge people to their full potential: Occasionally, push your people outside their comfort zone to help them grow.
  • H - Help people achieve their goals and celebrate success: Check in with your team regularly to help them with current blockers and recognize successes.

Like other management practices, coaching leadership is not a stand-alone tool.

Jan Karlsen and Morten Berg, Professors from BI Norwegian Business School, say that the coaching element is recognizable in other leadership styles, such as Servant leadership, Situational leadership, and Transformational leadership.

Benefits of Coaching Leadership Style

Coaching as a way of management has an array of research-proven benefits:

1. Unleash the innovative energy in your team

As leadership experts Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular put it, leaders can’t have all the answers in this rapidly changing and disruptive world.

You need to know how to ask coaching questions that bring out the best in your team and, from there, tackle challenges with the collective creative power.

2. Make your people happier

A 2022 study in the Administrative Sciences journal shows a correlation between leaders' coaching skills and team members' happiness. 

3. Boost performance

According to a study by the University of Shanghai, leaders who coach make their team feel needed and respected, and have higher trust in the organization. 

As a result, they become more enthusiastic about their work and perform better.

4. Increase employee engagement

According to Gallup, only 23% of workers worldwide are engaged at work.

Contrarily, I find it fascinating that 66% of people working for companies that value coaching can be categorized as “highly engaged,” as said by the International Coaching Federation.

5. Gain people's commitment in uncertain times

The layoff waves in the last year have made it difficult not only for the leavers but also for people who are lucky enough to stay.

As stated by an article from Frontiers in Public Health journal, after a company-wide layoff, the remaining workers will feel insecure about their jobs, which leads to higher stress and turnover intention, as well as lower trust and commitment in the company.

The research also identifies coaching leadership as an effective way to counteract such negative consequences.

The Baby Steps to Start Coaching Your Team Today

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Choosing the Team Members to Coach

While it is generally believed that coaching leadership can benefit all team members, as a manager, you may want to run some coaching “pilots" first with the outstanding people in your team.

According to Anthony Mayo, a Senior Lecturer at Harvard Business School, a high-potential worker is someone who can drive results and has strong expertise

Skills to focus on when coaching your team

Dr. Mayo points out that as those star performers move up the ladder, solid expertise and delivering results alone are not enough. 

Instead, they need to build their capabilities in:

  • Strategic management
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Communication
  • Leading at scale
  • Leading teams
  • Relationship management

With this in mind, along with the critical skills for hybrid and remote work we've discussed in our leadership coaching guide for people-centric leaders, you can discuss with your team members the areas they want to focus on.

Simple coaching questions to get started

Coaching is an art, but you don't have to be a coaching artist to get started. 

Here are five coaching questions every leader can ask their team today from Chris Westfall, a sought-after coach whose clients include HP, Cisco, Unilever, and more:

  1. Where are you, right now?
    A good coach always starts by listening with curiosity to truly understand the coachee's problems instead of jumping to conclusions and giving irrelevant advice.
  2. Has anyone ever solved this problem before - and if so, how did they do it?
    To remind your coachee that most of the time, the wheel has already been invented.
  3. What else could this mean?
    Often, when we find a solution to a problem, we are too happy to remember that most problems have more than one way to solve them. Finding new ways to win will greatly benefit your team in the long run.
  4. What's good about this?
    A boss complains, but a coach compliments. You don't have to sugarcoat everything, but it's helpful to acknowledge what your people are doing right, encouraging them to perform better!
  5. What could make this easier?
    Easier is a powerful word because when something is easier, it's doable. 

The GROW model: When you're ready for more advanced coaching

In their Harvard Business Review article The Leader as Coach, Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular categorize leaders into four styles of coaching:

  • Directive coaching: Leaders primarily draw from their experience and expertise to tell their people what to do. 
  • Laissez-faire coaching: Team members are doing their job well, and not much coaching is needed.
  • Nondirective coaching: Leaders listen to and question to “draw wisdom, insight, and creativity out of the people they’re coaching.” 
  • Situational coaching: The sweet spot between directive coaching and nondirective coaching.
style-of-coaching
Styles of Coaching - Harvard Business Review

While Directive Coaching often comes most naturally to most leaders, when you use this approach, you only use your expertise to solve the problem.

You need to practice Nondirective Coaching to help your team develop their own capabilities to tackle challenges. 

A classic but highly effective model for Nondirective Coaching is the GROW model. GROW stands for:

  • Goal: What does your coachee want to achieve after this conversation? 
  • Reality: Assess the current situation and ensure your coachee is grounded in reality by focusing on the what, when, where, and who.
  • Options: Explore the choices your coachee has. As people usually feel stuck in a difficult situation, your role is to broaden their perspective and discover new options.
  • Way forward: Talking alone is not enough. Hold your coachee accountable by having them commit to an action plan at the end of the conversation.

For a detailed list of GROW questions to ask, you can check out this article from John Polemis, an ICF-certified coach from New York University.

More tips for coaching a remote team

Last but not least, let me share with you some specific tips for coaching a remote team from Karine Sabatier, a product manager who has coached from afar during the pandemic:

Before the session:

  • Keep the session under 90 minutes: No need to challenge your coachee's attention span.
  • Share more ahead: To get more done during your limited time together.

During the session:

  • Have a mood check: To spark a human connection with your coachee.
  • Make sure every guideline is crystal clear: If you want your coachee to do an activity during or after the session, you can explain it several times to ensure your coachee understands the instructions. 
  • Record the session: This can give you more context for future sessions.
  • Double the appreciation: Because the more subtle signs of appreciation, like an encouraging smile or an approving look, may (actually very likely) be lost during a video call, you can try to double your verbal appreciative words.

After the session:

  • Send a recap, but make it fun: Add a bit of humor by including a GIF or a fun video in your recap email. This will help you build a closer relationship with your coachee. 

Various employee management software can help in streamlining this process.

Online Coaching Certifications for People-Centric Managers 

I have gathered several online courses you can take to improve your coaching abilities as a leader, and gain a professional coaching certification if you need one.

1. Coursera - Conversations That Inspire: Coaching Learning, Leadership and Change

Provider: Coursera

Course title: Conversations That Inspire: Coaching Learning, Leadership and Change

Best for: Anyone at the start of their leadership coaching journey

Cost: Free to audit, $49 per month to gain your certificate. 

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This course will give you a foundation of coaching, or more specifically, the science behind it. The course shows learners how “coaching for compassion" is much more effective than “coaching for compliance."

From previous learners:

“This course was beyond my expectations. I really enjoyed the topics and used them in my coaching sessions.” - N.A.

“Although it took me a while to read the papers and articles, it was well worth it. I use it for my training and workshops!” - S.Y.

2. UC Davis - Coaching Skills for Managers

Provider: Coursera

Specialization title: Coaching Skills for Manager 

Best for: Managers ready to commit a decent amount of time and effort to supercharge their coaching ability.

Cost: Free to audit, $49 per month to gain your certificate. 

coaching-leadership-style-course-2

This is a comprehensive coaching specialization consisting of four courses. 

You will learn what it means to coach as a manager, how to set expectations and assess performance, best practices to coach low, consistent, and high performers, and how to carry out effective coaching conversations.

From previous learners:

“I like the way the Instructor provides examples for each concept she presents. The course has really helped me to understand that coaching is very important as a manager and I need to use it.” - M.A.

“Very good course. Especially the assignment where the participant gets to record the coaching conversation and share it for review. Also, get a chance to review the assignment of fellow participants” - Gagan B.

3. Institute of Leadership Excellence - Coaching Managers & Leaders for Continuous Improvement

Provider: Udemy

Course title: Coaching Managers & Leaders for Continuous Improvement Change

Best for: Senior leaders who want to coach their managers.

Cost: $70

coaching-leadership-style-course-3

This course will show you how to coach managers to improve their performance, build effective habits, and contribute to a culture of continuous improvement.

From previous learners:

“I will highly recommend this course, very specific and practical tools to assist you as well as a very insightful book with further information to use as a reference guide.” - Antonie M.

“Excellent course and a very detailed one. Not only for the material and the intent but also the way it was presented by the coach.” - Sarabjit P.

4. Harvard - Leadership Coaching Strategies

Provider: Professional Development - Harvard Division of Continuing Education

Course title: Leadership Coaching Strategies

Cost: US$2,750

Best for: Managers and HR leaders who want to coach their internal teams or are responsible for hiring external coaches.

This is a foundational course that will walk you through the basic coaching frameworks. In this program, you can develop a coaching mindset, discover the important competencies for coaching, learn to use personal assessment tools, and more. 

You will learn with Cheryl Harris, a leadership coach, organizational consultant, founder of Cheryl Harris and Associates, Inc., and the primary trainer of Harvard University’s Foundations of Leadership Development Program. 

5. John Hopkins - Essentials of Leadership Coaching

Provider: Johns Hopkins Carey Business School

Course title: Essentials of Leadership Coaching

Cost: US$3,800

Best for: Leaders who want to maximize their team’s potential and rising managers who seek to grow their leadership capacities. 

This course will provide you with the basics and processes of leadership coaching, the key elements to set and exceed goals, and the coaching pathway to build a high-functioning team. 

You will learn with Carly Ackley, Ph.D. Executive Education Faculty and Director of Client Solutions, Carey Business School, who has over 15 years of researching and teaching business schools in the Mid-Atlantic, Smeal College of Business at Penn State, and Johns Hopkins University.

Great Leaders Don't Create Followers, They Create More Leaders

As my favorite quote of all time says, "Leaders create more leaders."

When you embrace a coaching style, that's exactly what you do - grow the next generation. 

Developing those around you highlights your capabilities to spot talent, nurture growth, and align people to organizational needs. Your influence amplifies beyond just your own direct tasks.  

Think back to a time when someone believed in you or challenged you to step up. How did it push your thinking or unlock some hidden potential? Now, you’re about to spark that in others through coaching leadership.

I hope this article has provided you with the much-needed guidance, tips, and resources at the start of your journey to be a manager-as-coach!

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