When Leaders Are Asked to be Coaches
By: Krystal Foster
Although it was a while ago, I’ll never forget it…
The sting of disappointment.
The feeling of failure.
The subsequent frustration.
The ultimate self-doubt.
It was my first experience coaching someone and it didn’t go as I had expected. I had such high hopes for this individual and saw magnificent potential. For them, leadership was second nature and there was a perceived desire to grow both personally and for the success of the organization they were leading. I envisioned them stepping into extremely influential leadership positions and building highly skilled teams of people to accomplish the mission and vision of the organization (which I believed in wholeheartedly). I saw the organization growing along with this leader and becoming significant in our culture, and even spreading nationwide. I was excited to help them be successful through coaching and I was looking forward to an amazing outcome. We were going to change the world. In my mind, there were no limits to what this leader could achieve with just a bit of coaching. Sure, there were some identified barriers and challenges ahead, maybe even some past wounds that needed healing but I was locked and loaded. Let’s do this!!
But wait. Why weren’t they with me?
Didn’t they see what I saw?
The barriers we had uncovered weren’t debilitating—they could easily be overcome. Didn’t they see that?
Didn’t they want to grow?
I eventually put down my pom-poms as the coaching relationship came to an end. I searched within for answers as to why it didn’t turn out how I had imagined and picked apart each coaching conversation, every meeting and my approach. Something was amiss and I hated feeling the way I did about how things ended. I was losing sleep and that is never a good thing…
Where did I go wrong?
What did I miss?
How can I be better next time and achieve better results?
More and more we’re hearing of leaders being asked to not only manage folks, but to coach them. So, our role as leaders becomes twofold: we manage and we coach. Managing is about the work itself while coaching is about developing our people. Coaching is an investment for both parties and I believe that contributing to someone’s growth and development is one of the greatest joys of leadership. We love to see our people succeed and step into their potential. This not only elevates them but also improves the organizations they are affiliated with and positively impacts those in their sphere of influence.
The challenge in coaching is in knowing that ultimately we are not responsible for someone’s development… they are. We provide them with the best leadership and coaching possible, but we cannot control the outcome. They must choose to put in the effort and do the work. This means that we, the coach and the leader, have to: maintain a certain level of objectivity, hone our emotional intelligence skills and have well-defined boundaries. When a leader needs to also be a coach, there are four major fundamentals to keep in mind:
- Never be more invested in the goal than the person you are coaching.
Have you ever been more excited and passionate for developing someone else’s potential than they seem to be? I have. Many times, actually. It makes you wonder why they don’t see what you see and why they aren’t responding as you are.
We deeply desire our people to flourish under our leadership. We are invested in seeing them grow and evolve and we want to do everything in our power to make it happen. We meet with them regularly, we have coaching conversations, we set specific developmental goals and we encourage them to run hard. We do everything we can to set them up for success and, sometimes, we take it too far.
When we become more invested in the goal than the person, the responsibility shifts from them to us, and we become the driver. We brainstorm, find solutions and think for them. Subconsciously, we start to expect results to manifest in the way we have imagined them because of our over-investment.
When we take on the responsibility for someone else’s development, it can also demotivate and cause complacency in them. If the goal is achieved by us taking responsibility, then it is likely that it will not be sustained by them and the sense of reward will not be as great because they did not invest adequately and drive it.
I allowed my excitement and passion to plant me in the driver’s seat of developing this leader’s potential. I wanted to see the outcomes that I had envisioned come to life so bad that I took on the responsibility of trying to make them happen. Yikes! When we find ourselves in these situations, we have to reign ourselves in and remember to coach, not control.
- Never mistake hope for certainty.
We want to have hope for others. Hope allows us to see the potential in people. However, we must understand that our hope for another does not equal certainty. It is important that we draw a line between our hope, and what is realistic for them to achieve. We can hope for a certain outcome but the person we are coaching has a choice. Regardless of their potential, they may choose to not develop it as much as we’d like for them to.
Having hope for people while also viewing them holistically is a tough balance. We can’t lose hope – we must maintain it in order to coach to someone’s potential. But we also have to use wisdom in managing our expectations and see others for who they are as we consider their strengths, weaknesses, needs, barriers, drivers and motivations.
When I envisioned the aforementioned leader tapping into their leadership potential, overcoming barriers and growing the organization to take over the nation, I unknowingly mistook those hopes and desires for growth as certainties. I saw all the possibilities but didn’t see any of the reasons why they couldn’t be achieved. I was certain that together we could make it happen! And that was the problem. My overinvestment and excitement led to me mistaking my hopes for that individual as certainties with their development. When we mistake hope for certainty, it opens the door for self-doubt, disappointment and discouragement to creep in.
- Know that sometimes people aren’t ready to receive what they’ve asked for.
Yes, you can tell what people are committed to by what they say. But what they say they want, oftentimes, is not something they’re committed to…yet. Part of our role as a leader and a coach is to discern desire versus actual commitment and readiness.
Picture an iceberg. What people say they want is the ¼ of the iceberg you see above the water. What people will actually be committed to and are ready for lies in the ¾ of the iceberg under water along with their psychological and philosophical attributes. So, we don our scuba suit, flippers and oxygen mask and dive deep to discover the submerged iceberg of patterns, level of self-awareness and ownership of behaviors, thoughts and feelings. Once uncovered, we have a tough decision to make, to coach or not to coach. It can be difficult to look someone in the eye who does want to grow and tell them they aren’t ready for coaching.
This leader said all the right things, read all the right books and listened to all the right podcasts leading me to believe that they were committed to overcoming barriers and developing their leadership. I took what they said and their actions as a green light to coach instead of looking below the surface at the rejection, insecurity and fear they were immersed in. These struggles caused them to be defensive, closed off, resistant to change and shift blame to others. Did they want to grow? Yes! Were they ready? No. What they needed in that moment was healing, maybe further mentoring, but not coaching. Jenni Catron says, “Leadership is a series of tough conversations we must have” and sometimes, this is one of them.
- Be a coach, not a therapist.
A coach and a therapist are similar in that in order to be effective, they must be open, trusting relationships. They are both typically initiated by a person’s desire to achieve a goal – most often the elimination of some behaviors or feelings that are creating negative consequences. To succeed, both interventions require some degree of emotional intelligence, particularly self-awareness, and candor on the part of the client.
A coach and therapist differ in a few ways. The goal in therapy is to find the wound and heal it. Healing takes place over a long period of time by exploring how the wound came about and teaching a person how to self-administer healing. Coaching is a shorter-term solution that acknowledges the wound exists but instead of seeking to heal it, teaches the person to co-exist with the wound and successfully work around it. Coaching and therapy can take place simultaneously but that doesn’t always mean they should. Sometimes we need to take the necessary time to focus solely on healing before we step into a coaching relationship and chase after our goals.
We are all broken, wounded and carrying baggage from our past. None of us are perfectly put together and that is okay. Because of God’s grace, we don’t have to be. And everyone say, “Amen!” He has the power to heal us and make our mess, our message. He’s also placed some pretty brilliant therapists on this earth as a resource. Coaches have to know the limits of their oxygen tank and when to resurface. We can – and should – dive to the darkest depths with people and uncover wounds that may be impacting their leadership. But we have to know where our responsibility as a coach ends and where a therapist’s begins.
I saw the brokenness and deep cuts this leader had experienced in their recent past – I had empathy for them. I didn’t just try to coach them around it, I also tried to help heal it. I took responsibility for something that I shouldn’t have and in doing so, missed an opportunity to encourage them to seek therapy and the healing they needed. Taking time to focus on their healing would have set them up for even greater success down the road with coaching.
So, what can we do to prevent overinvesting, being overly optimistic, misled by intentions and overstepping our boundaries? I’ve found that these three principles will support us in being an effective, more emotionally intelligent coach:
Coaching is not about us. Ever.
What we want for someone and the potential we see in them can never outweigh what the person is committed to changing. As much as we want our vision for them to come to fruition, they must want it for themselves.
Talk less, listen more.
The answer to most of our own problems lies within us. Remember that submerged ¾ of the iceberg? A coach simply serves as a scuba instructor to help others dive down and evaluate their psychological and philosophical needs and bring answers to the surface that are a catalyst for effective change. We don’t impose our resolutions on them or tell them what they should do . We find out what they know, what they are battling beneath the surface and what they are ready to change through strategic communication, motivational interviewing and asking open-ended questions.
See what they see.
When we strive to see things from their perspective and empathize, we build trust and gain closeness. This matters…a lot. This gives us a propensity to see individual’s needs as unique and, by approaching each person differently, we establish a successful coaching relationship based on trust – that will likely result in good outcomes. Creating a safe environment allows them to open up and permits us to be their scuba instructor.
People are messy. They can’t always be conformed to a paper outline or process. As much as we want to fit them perfectly into our coaching plans and goal worksheets, sometimes we have to pause and set them aside as we link arms and dive deep together. Putting these fundamentals and principles into practice will help us to coach well and lead even better.