Coaching--One Approach to Leadership Development

"We need leaders now as never before."
Warren Bennis
Founding Chairman of the Leadership Institute, USC
Thought leader and author on leadership


The pressure to deal with uncertainty in these tough economic times has been immense. Now more than ever we need leaders with vision. We need leaders to teach, to model appropriate behaviors, and to shape our future. We also need leaders who are effective managers (as Peter Drucker so aptly pointed out in his writings).

Learning and development professionals have found the need to get creative about how to develop the leadership talent in their organizations. While most organizations have experienced a cutback in resources, the good news, according to results from the ASTD's 2009 State of the Industry report, is that "workplace learning and performance has withstood the challenges of the difficult economy." Despite the worst economic conditions in decades, businesses have allocated substantial resources to developing talent, particularly their leadership and management talent.

Characteristics of the best learning organizations indicate that they use many approaches to leadership development, including external and internal learning opportunities; knowledge-sharing systems; coaching; and, the ability to attend conferences.

This article will focus on how leadership coaching is one approach (a particularly effective approach) to leverage leaders' strengths, challenge development areas, and achieve organizational objectives.

Value of Coaching

More and more companies are using leadership coaching to improve their bottom line. It is one of many approaches to developing leadership talent. Three reasons that leadership coaching is particularly effective include:

  1. Individualized attention. Unlike many other approaches to leadership development, each participant gets focused attention to learn about their strengths and development opportunities; and, develop specific action steps that tie to organizational results.
  2. Accountability. Coaching is results-focused. The client creates goals and the coach helps hold the client accountable to those goals. Coaches provide clients with the process, tools, structure, and support to achieve higher levels of performance.
  3. Safe environment. Coaches create a safe learning environment where clients can discuss confidential situations, use the coach as a sounding board, overcome roadblocks, and create change.

In a study focusing on "Maximizing the Impact of Executive Coaching," (The Manchester Review), the authors found:

  • Coaching programs delivered an average return on investment of 5.7 times the initial investment.
  • Benefits to companies included improvements in: productivity, quality, organizational strength, and bottom-line profitability.
  • Benefits to the leaders who received coaching included improved working relationships with direct reports, immediate supervisors, and peers; better teamwork; and, increased job satisfaction.

So, while there are many ways to develop the leaders in your organization coaching is an effective, proven process that achieves individual and organizational results.

Who is a Good Candidate for Leadership Coaching?

Coaching can be particularly effective for:

  • High potentials
  • Executives
  • Individuals getting ready for (or recently promoted to) a new position
  • Leaders taking on a new/different task, challenge or team
  • Leaders who have a behavior/habit that is getting in the way of achieving their full potential

Other circumstances where leadership coaching is particularly effective include changing expectations, a highly political environment, increased complexity (job or organizational), and, a leader’s movement (or readiness to move) to a more strategic role.

Selecting a Leadership Coach

If you know you desire an executive or leadership coach, how do you go about finding the right one? In a recent Calibra article we discussed five tips to help you engage the coach that is right for you. These include:

  1. Look for good fit.
  2. Ask about methodology.
  3. Discuss expectations, roles/responsibilities, accountabilities, etc.
  4. Ask probing questions of your perspective coach during the interview/selection process.
  5. Ask for testimonials and/or references from existing and past clients.

For more information, see Five Tips for Selecting an Executive/Leadership Coach.

The Coach/Client Partnership

A partnership is created between the coach and leader that is like no other. While the leader's boss provides coaching, it is in the context of a hierarchical relationship. Leadership coaches are not in a "power" relationship with the client. They are non-judgmental. The coach/client partnership is a powerful alliance based on trust and respect. As mentioned, one reason leadership coaching is effective is the safe, confidential learning environment. It is this environment along with a thought-provoking and creative coaching process that helps the client achieve extraordinary and sustainable results.

Types of Leadership Coaching

One-on-one—This is what most people think of when they think of leadership coaching—a one-on-one engagement/partnership between the coach and leader. The leader's boss provides support and input but the relationship is between the coach and the leader/client. The basis of one-on-one coaching is to help the leader identify strengths and development opportunities and move to even higher levels of success.

Group coaching—This coaching process involves two or more individuals who have similar needs/interests (often on a leadership or executive team). The focus of group coaching is not training; although the sharing of learning and presentation of content may be part of the process. Group coaching can be a cost effective way to bring several people together (over a period of a few months) to develop, learn, and achieve specific goals.

The effort might include:

  • The use of assessment tools (e.g., 360 degree feedback, MBTI)
  • Individual development planning
  • A focus on strengths to leverage and improvement areas to develop
  • Sharing of ideas and coaching from the facilitator/coach as well as other participants

Because of the nature of group coaching, a climate of trust and confidentiality with both the coach and fellow group members is essential.


Leadership coaching involves challenging and supporting people to achieve higher levels of performance. The process helps leaders assess strengths and development needs, set goals, recognize and overcome roadblocks/barriers, and achieve sustainable results. Leadership coaching provides specific benefits to the individual and the organization making it a valuable approach to consider in your overall leadership development efforts.

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Context for Leadership Development - Regardless of which approach to leadership development you use (i.e., coaching, workshops, information sharing, conferences, a combination), it is important to remember the following:

Tie leadership development programs and practices to business goals and strategic initiatives.Cast a business lens on leadership development (e.g., business strategy = leadership strategy; talent development is mission critical). Institutionalize leadership development; make developing leaders a way of life in your organization. Have an active talent management process (i.e., talent review, succession planning, and, focus on developing talent and assessing strengths and risks in the talent pipeline). Use your existing leadership talent to actively coach, mentor and teach. This develops others while developing their own skills and abilities. Require individual development planning for all of your leaders.



For additional discussion and insight on this topic and others, check out our blog:



Others that read this article also viewed:

Two Gaps Are Better Than One in 360 Degree Feedback

Building the Business Case for Talent Management

Invest in Top Talent - 6 Steps to Grow Your Talent Pool

9 Best Practices in 360 Degree Feedback

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