Coaching as a powerful tool for improving leadership

Ben, as an MCC focused on Professional Coaching, could you share with our readers how you started your journey as a coach?
I would say that it was more a progression of my own professional growth than an intended path. As a project manager in IT, I was managing for the government their IT systems, and from that perspective I understood that working with people is really the key towards success of any project. That’s where I discovered the significance of soft skills and people development and decided to move into personal development to help individuals further develop and improve their leadership capacity. I started off with training as the initial platform and soon realized that people get a lot of inspiration and sparks of change during our interaction time in a training environment. I also witnessed that when they return to their operational environment there is often a decline in performance or motivation. The skills and the knowledge just weren’t successfully being transferred. That is where I realized that it’s not enough to develop skills or knowledge or impact motivation. Individuals need another component to support them in their journey of integrating the learning into their being, which will allow them to apply it in their environment. At that point in my career I chanced into professional coaching.

What attracted you to becoming a professional coach?
What really attracted me to professional coaching is the capacity to help people gain awareness. I understood that any transformation, may it be applying skills and knowledge or any other context, it all begins with us gaining awareness. Awareness of where we are, what it is that we know, what we are capable of doing, what we are aware of that we’ve not yet developed, or what we are aware of which is important for us to explore further. To be able to help clients through coaching to connect to things that they are not even conscious about that are at work with them, that’s where I get great delight in what I’m doing right now as a professional coach.

What is your opinion on coaching being able to align potential with performance?
There are three main components to this question: potential, performance and alignment. Let’s address “Performance” first. I see performance as an intent to exercise particular skills to achieve a specific result. The intention here deals with the person being aware of what it is that the person knows. And one thing that I’m very intrigued with is this concept that “what you are aware of you control, and what you are not aware of controls you”. One of the road blocks to achieving performance therefore is “what we are not aware of”. When we set out to achieve a specific result we have to know how things need to end. This requires us to have a great degree of knowledge about what we are capable of, and what we are not capable of, so that we can plan for it and tackle it. This conscious knowledge is one of the key factors towards delivering high performance. “Potential” on the other hand is the ability to make an impact. Something which is available to us but not yet tapped upon. In order for us to create impact, there must be something which triggers us to realize it exists so that we can act upon it. As a coach my question is what might be a catalyst for a person to unleash that potential? It goes back to the concept of awareness. This ability to know will allow us to act upon this potential. And that’s where “Alignment” comes in, having the dynamics of intention to do something, to achieve this specific result. Putting all these three together is professional coaching at its highest form.

It sounds like coaching is a solution for high-performance?
I have no doubt that “having a solution” is important to people, but coaching doesn’t help someone to design a solution, or put some action steps forward. It is definitely not “solutioning”. What I believe professional coaching offers to people is an opportunity to gain awareness around what is within their ability or within their reach of access. To discover what is out there and not yet explored. Gaining this knowledge through coaching allows them to act upon it and that’s where we can see results beginning to take shape. Compiling over time this intentionality coupled with doing the right actions in the right way, I believe that’s an effective way in which coaching helps an individual achieve high-performance.
Do you see coaching then as a powerful tool for improving leadership?
Professional coaching is about personal leadership, or rather about improving one person’s leadership. First, being able to know where you stand and what you can do. Second, to take ownership about what you know, and you do not know. And third, to act upon what you are responsible for. That’s how we are being empowered as individuals. We know what we are capable of and we take responsibility to act upon it. To accomplish anything, we have to take responsibility to do what is within our ability, even if it is eventually not leading to the result that we wanted to have. To me, that is what personal leadership is all about.

How does coaching impact personal leadership?
Professional coaching returns this ownership to the person who is being coached. When a leader works with a coach, it enables the leader to be responsible as he becomes able to see and understand through his own eyes and lens. However, one of the most valuable things a leader gains through coaching is what I like to call a “third person perspective”. Leadership in many ways can be described as a way of looking at things. It’s how far a leader can see, how wide a leader can see, and how high a leader can see. It’s all about how the leader sees things and translates that into a meaningful understanding of what needs his attention.

Why is it important for a leader to work with a coach?
When this ability of a leader to see his current reality is impacted, when that vision is distorted or limited, the resulting action will inevitably be impacted. Leaders in many instances are often put into a “frontline battle” where they need to deal with many important and urgent matters. We cannot blame them for being in a reactive response state as they have to respond quickly. That is when things get challenging for them. When, as leaders, we allow our automatic systems to kick in, our ability to see our current reality decreases, and we may not have enough perspective to see how things might work out. Therefore, we may go for an easy path of least resistance, to fit something in, to deliver a temporary solution. Because of this we lose the opportunity to position ourselves to achieve a better outcome in the long term. That is a “blind spot”. If a leader works with a professional coach who has the ability to offer a perspective outside of what the leader can perceive, then a “co-creation” of two persons coming together to look at the same situation happens. And this offers a leader a wider choice to consider and serves as a reference point for the leader to challenge his own way of looking at things. As a leader he becomes better informed about how he is making sense of the current reality.

What about highly positioned leaders, is there a difference?
I feel it’s inevitable for leaders at a high position to work with a coach on multiple levels during the course of their career. On one level, as I’ve mentioned, they work with a coach to gain a different perspective of how the situation could be perceived. I think we all heard the famous statement about “how it gets very lonely when you’re on top”. In a corporate environment it’s so difficult for a leader to talk to their peers regarding some personal and professional struggles for the sake that it might jeopardize their career progression. So, on a second level, being able to work with a coach, for a highly positioned leader allows him to find safety to talk about things that would not be easy to share with their immediate professional environment.

Ben, do you think that coaching can change a whole company culture?
I wouldn’t want to be very definite about it because it requires a lot of other factors to come together to successfully implement a company culture. And one of these factors definitely is leadership. To what extent coaching can support leadership to change company culture? Well I would say that it’s not about coaching as a process, but rather about the essence of coaching. If a leader is able to use a coaching approach in the way he is leading the team, in that sense, he embraces “collaborative leadership style” which is a key foundation to ensure a successful implementation of a culture. A culture is not implemented by brutal force, by stating it in black and white and cast it in stone as if it were the ten commandments. It requires the leader to work around people, gather them along a common cause and purpose. That necessitates a leader to embrace collaboration. And in its essence, coaching is an embodiment of collaborative leadership at work. It requires the leaders to work together with a group of people and achieve buy-in of values by working through with individuals what these values represent. This leader must understand where the rest of the company is coming from, so that a merger of two systems of values can happen, in which we can then support implementation of a company culture. So, if the leader has the coaching skills of asking questions, active listening, establishing trust and intimacy, I’m sure that it helps when communicating and getting people to buy into a vision. In this sense I find that approach and skills professional coaching embodies add value to leaders who are responsible to implement or support a company culture.

What are the factors which will ensure a successful coaching engagement especially for first time clients?
There are three pieces of puzzle that have to complement each other in order to ensure a successful coaching engagement. First sponsors need to be very careful and clear about what it is that they want to get out of the coaching engagement. To achieve successful impact a development intervention itself might require a combination with other development interventions like a proper training if there is a skill or knowledge gap. It also may require consultation, to advise the person about some things he’s not aware of and transmission of knowledge about the right thing to do in a right way. And certainly, there is a big part in which the person has to gain his own awareness about what he is noticing about his current reality as he evolves through situations. As you can see, in order to impact a person’s performance different interventions might need to be put in place. At implementation level sponsors need to clearly recognize how much of the intervention requires coaching and how much requires other aspects of people development to come in and support it. Number two is measurement. As in any projects; we must have very clear definitions on how we are to measure progress. Often sponsors rush into coaching with fanciful ideas about what coaching can offer and as a result have no concrete steps on how to measure implementation. I would advise any sponsor not to rush, and rather spend some time exploring feasibility of the intervention and get some factual data first. Only then, together with the coach, map out how to measure progress. Only then can we understand what kind of coaching intervention is required. Coaching has its own spectrum and the intervention type must suit a particular individual’s need. It could be coaching to help address a person’s degrading behavior, or move the person to the next level, or it could be coaching the person to understand where their growth opportunities are. The third element of this puzzle is agreement. The person who is supposed to be coached, together with the coach and the sponsor needs to have an agreement in which everything is laid down on the table with transparency. When a company sends a person to work with a coach, it is common for the person to feel that the company has some hidden agenda. Having everything laid out increases the person’s trust in the coaching intervention as the sponsor can clearly state what it is they want to achieve and how they intend to carry out the intervention and measure its progress. When the sponsor and the person being coached can have an open discussion around the intervention, I see that as really a strong emotional deposit into achieving success with coaching engagement.

What should the coach pay attention to with first-time clients?
In such a situation the coach is there to witness this agreement being made and offer what they see as their role in terms of what a person can expect out of coaching. The person to be coached needs to be managed in regard to his expectation about what coaching can do and what coaching cannot do so that we can save a lot of time. A good coaching process requires a well thought through reflection about what it is that is bothering the person, concerning him, or what is unclear that needs to be explored further. We can’t just enter into a coaching conversation just because a person has a problem situation. We are not here to take care of people’s problems, as a coach we are there to help people sort through their thinking. Some of these things can be managed easily by explanations, but based on my own practice, I find that preparing clients, asking them to pre-read an article about coaching, is a very good way of managing expectations of what a coaching conversation is and is not. And if you find that an article is not enough, you can always provide for them a sample of a coaching conversations to get a sense of how the conversation is carried out.

Ben Koh
About Ben Koh 1 Article
Ben Koh (PH.D) Master Certified Coach (MCC) Organisational Effectiveness & Leadership Transition Coach, Singapore

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