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Good leaders coach more than they manage people.

For the past two years, Covid-19 has had us in its grip. This global pandemic impacted all organizations. Employees, leaders, and organizations had to be resilient to survive this crisis. Because of this worldwide crisis and other rapid societal changes, organizations realize the importance of human capital more than ever. It is no surprise that over the past few years, employees’ well-being and personal growth have become two critical topics on the corporate agenda. And if not yet, it should be soon. To support employees’ (mental) health and foster resilience among teams, organizations need effective leaders. 

But what is an effective leader? Evidence suggests that an essential part of effective leadership and positive workplace cultures is about having good coaching skills.² In other words, a good leader in 2021 coaches employees rather than manages them.

Let’s say you need to do both. A supportive coaching approach is sustainable and aims at developing people, making them resilient, self-reliant and productive. But there’s no doubt that leaders need to be forceful as well. It’s not a bad thing, but like always, there needs to be a balance between being supportive and being directive. And we know that some leaders feel more comfortable in either one of these styles.

David Ducheyne

The “who do you want to be”-question is relevant for both the coaching leader as for the more forceful one. Being forceful should also happen in a way that allows you to stay who you are. An effective leader masters both styles and knows how and when to smoothly “transition“ from one to the other.

Karl Van Hoey

It all starts with who you want to be as a leader? That's an question you need to ask yourself as a leader throughout your career. Your values, motives, and needs serve as the foundation for this. When leaders are asked who they aspire to be as a leader, they frequently respond with broad generalizations or remain silent. Therefore the key question is: Who do you want to be as a leader?

Philippe Persyn

What is Coaching-based Leadership?

Coaching-based leadership focuses on employee relationships. It takes a people-oriented approach that leads to a strong feeling of shared meaning.  A coaching leader supports and guides his team on a daily basis when it comes to both organizational and individual development. He or she demonstrates a set of skills or values all in favor of growing the employee relationships. Also, teamwork and collaboration are two important characteristics of coaching-based leadership.

We know that one of the most important success factors for leaders is their capacity to build fruitful relationships with their team members. This is referred to as LMX (i.e. leader-member exchange). One of the key characteristics of a leader-member relationship is trust.

David Ducheyne

When leaders foster employees’ basic needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence, personal growth and optimal performance can arise. In terms of effective employee work behavior, the quality of the relationship between a leader and its employees is critical. High quality relationships are characterised by trust, open communication, and information sharing.

Eva De Winter

When at least three core coaching skills have been embraced persistently and generically in one's daily leadership behavior, I consider leadership to be "coaching based”. Those three are: (1) active listening, (2) open questioning, and (3) non judgemental presence. This means that coaching is the foundation of leadership, even though it is beneficial for a leader to switch to a more directive approach when necessary.

Karl Van Hoey

How to Be a Coaching Leader?

The International Coach Federation (n.d.) classified four coaching competency dimensions consisting of eight core coaching-based leadership skills. Those eight skills make a coaching leader. This results in employees who generate their own responses and therefore are better able to develop and perform.

Firstly, build a trustful alliance with employees. Create a safe environment for employees by focusing on mutual respect, genuine interest, transparency and trust in order to generate opportunities and achieve performance.

Trust makes everything possible.

David Ducheyne

Creating a context where people can learn from their successes and mistakes and where they feel supported, builds strong teams and relationships. Employees thrive in a learning environment, not in an environment of judgement.

Philippe Persyn

Secondly, focus on open communication. This consists of asking powerful questions in order to stimulate motivation, awareness, and encouragement. But active listening is just as important, this generates empathy, understanding, compassion, and acceptance so employees feel free to voice their thoughts.

Active listening is easier said than done but requires practice. Our mind is a beautiful thing. We can comprehend approximately 500 words per minute while the average speaker speaks 125 words per minute. That is why we get distracted so fast. Actively listening requires concentration and being in the moment.

Philippe Persyn

Thirdly, recognise the importance of learning and development. Boost continuous learning by providing a learning environment, guide employees towards the desired results by providing constructive feedback and help employees to identify, develop and deploy personal strengths to stimulate talent-orientated behavior. 

In order for feedback to be fully understood and processed and thus for people to be able to learn, we have to create a safe/supportive environment. Although we all have a need to continue to grow and evolve, preserving and protecting our self-esteem is also paramount. By giving sincere attention, promoting reflection, making feedback future oriented and strengths-based, a feedback conversation will not be seen as a threat but rather as an opportunity to continue learning and developing.

Eva De Winter

Lastly, manage employee progress by establishing and following-up the individual development goals and the agreed-upon action steps of employees. Don’t forget to supervise, re-define, and assess employee performance action plans. 

Goals help us to focus and keep progressing. Intermediate monitoring helps us to adjust and keep our motivation and wellbeing high. For example, biweekly progress check-ins are a great way to provide support, possibly adjust goals and help employees make progress.

Eva De Winter

What happens when a leader takes a coaching-based approach to leadership?

Many studies show that coaching-based leadership has a favorable impact on a variety of outcomes, including less employee control and greater individual development.³ In addition, coaching helps organizations maintain and improve their psychological wellbeing by facilitating organizational and personal change.⁴ Zuberbuhler, Salanova, and Martínez (2020) studied the impact of a coaching-based leadership program on psychological capital, work engagement, and in-role and extra-role performance in particular. The results of the study show that coaching-based leadership is a successful strategy. Managers who handle a coaching-based leadership style show increased levels of Positive Psychological Capital (i.e., self-efficacy, hope, resilience, and optimism), work engagement (vigor, dedication, and absorption), and in-role and extra-role performance. 

I have worked with hundreds of leaders and I see how leaders focus too much on the content of their role. Especially experts flee into the what, but they should focus on the how (i.e. relationships). Strategy is about human behavior, and human behavior is messy. Neglecting the behavioral side of business is a common but fatal mistake.

David Ducheyne

Leaders often think it is not a priority or too soft, where in reality it is hard to work on human behavior. It requires dedication, attention and persistence.

Philippe Persyn

We have known for quite some time that we can achieve long-term results by engaging in a leadership style that commits to a more supportive approach. Yet it stays difficult as we are all swayed by the issues by the day. It remains an ongoing balancing act to persist in this.

Eva De Winter

Sometimes, coaching is actually being referred to as a "technology" for growth and development. Whether this is true or not, it is undeniable that coaching cannot be regarded as a "soft" activity. It can be one the toughest and most confronting ways of communicating with each other.

Karl Van Hoey

In Conclusion

The moment has come for leaders to devote time and resources to improving their coaching skills. This will not only enable them to be a better coach, but it will also help them to be a better leader in general. An organisation led by a coaching leader will flourish, since these coaching skills increase self-efficacy, hope, resilience, optimism, work engagement, and in-role and extra-role performance among employees. In light of the current interest in psychological well-being, it is critical to invest in psychological capital by investing in coaching programs for leaders to reach their full potential. In conclusion, being an effective leader means being an effective coach. 

If we put it very simply, it is about behaviors that make us all “human”.

Eva De Winter

knowing when (not) to coach, makes all the difference.

Karl Van Hoey

I would like to correct that: being an effective leader means having coaching skills. But we cannot ask leaders to be a coach in the strict sense of the word. The combination of supportive and directive leadership behavior means that leaders can never assume the role of an independent coach. Their interest does not lie solely with the employee. They need to balance the employee’s, the customers’ needs and the organizational needs. That is not what a coach does.

David Ducheyne

¹ Goleman et al., 2012

² Ellinger et al., 2011; Stehlik et al., 2014

³ e.g. Cox et al., 2010; Milner et al., 2018

⁴ Spence and Grant, 2007; Salanova et al., 2012


Based on the article: ‘Coaching-Based Leadership Intervention Program: A Controlled Trial Study’ by Zuberbuhler, Salanova en Martínez (2020) 

Goleman, D., Welch, S., and Welch, J. (2012). What Makes A Leader?. Solon, OH: Findaway World, LLC.

Ellinger, A. D., Ellinger, A. E., Bachrach, D. G., Wang, Y. L., and Elmadag ̆ Ba ̧s, A. B. (2011). Organizational investments in social capital, managerial coaching, and employee work-related performance. Manag. Learn. 42, 67–85. doi: 10.1177/ 1350507610384329

Stehlik, T., Short, T., and Piip, J. (2014). The Challenges of Leadership in the 21st Century Workforce Development. New York, NY: Springer.

Cox, E., Bachkirova, T., and Clutterbuck, D. (2010). The Complete Handbook of Coaching. London: Sage.

Milner, J., McCarthy, G., and Milner, T. (2018). Training for the coaching leader: how organizations can support managers. J. Manag. Dev. 37, 188–200. doi: 10.1108/jmd- 04- 2017- 0135

Spence, G. B., and Grant, A. M. (2007). Professional and peer life coaching and the enhancement of goal striving and well-being: an exploratory study. J. Posit. Psychol. 2, 185–194. doi: 10.1080/17439760701228896

Salanova, M., Llorens, S., Cifre, E., and Martínez, I. M. (2012). We need a hero! Toward a validation of the healthy and resilient organization (HERO) model.
Group Organ. Manag. 37, 785–822. doi: 10.1177/1059601112470405

Authors of this blog are Mareline De Schipper, Eva De Winter, David Ducheyne,Philippe Persyn and Karl Van Hoey

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