Wharton@Work

August 2019 | 

You Can Lead, but Can You Coach?


You Can Lead, but Can You Coach?

Most leadership programs focus exclusively on the individual, offering tools and techniques for filling in skills gaps and building on what you’re already doing well.

But leadership obviously doesn’t happen in a vacuum. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to motivate and empower your followers to raise their own bar. And there’s plenty of evidence that the demand for coaching skills is growing. Studies by Deloitte, the Financial Times, Gallup, and others indicate that younger workers in particular expect their managers to be good coaches.

“This is one of the key reasons we include a session on coaching in The Adaptable Leader: Strategies for Emerging Leadership program,” says Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard. “It is no longer a ‘nice to have.’ We’re committed to providing a toolkit for the most important skills that you can develop and hone throughout your career. Those include individual skills, team skills like coaching, and the skills required to navigate the organization and the larger environment.”

Rothbard, who serves as academic director of the week-long program, says there are numerous benefits of developing coaching skills. “First, by showing your willingness to listen and help problem solve, you will drive better engagement and increase job satisfaction. That will in turn elevate your team’s performance. You will also help create the next wave of leaders for your organization.”

What Coaching Is — and What It Isn’t

John Kanengieter, a senior fellow at Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, helps lead the interactive session on coaching. He begins by making distinctions between managing, mentoring, and coaching. Mentors provide direction to their mentees, giving them the opportunity to become more like them. Coaches, though, don’t offer directions or even answers. A good coach instead helps the coaching subject come up with their own answer.

Another important distinction — one that can prevent a manager from even being willing to coach — is that between coaching and therapy. Kanengieter says coaches acknowledge the issue (the proverbial “elephant in the room”) and help figure out how to work around it. Therapists instead work with their clients to get the elephant out of the room.

When managers understand that they are not expected to help someone change, or to listen for hours about their team members’ childhoods or marriage problems, the job becomes clear. Coaching is strategic, employing a set of tools and responses that can be used to address the current issue while also keeping a big picture perspective.

The Three-Step Coaching Model

In the program, a simple three-step model is presented. Then, participants gain experience both as coach and coaching subject.

  1. Understand the issue. Listen, take notes if you feel it will be helpful, and then paraphrase the issue to signal that you understand.
  2. Specify a clear problem and goal outcome for the session. It’s not uncommon to have multiple issues come up, so be prepared to identify them individually and paraphrase what each one is. Help organize the employee’s thinking, and limit the conversation by asking which issue the session will be about and what the ultimate goal is.
  3. Help develop choices that lead toward the goal. Show genuine empathy and respect through both words and actions as you help consider ways to resolve the issue. In The Adaptable Leader, exhibiting UPR, or unconditional positive regard, is stressed. During the process, self disclosure should be limited, even if you have extensive experience with the issue. The coaching session should not be about you.