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Coaching leadership style: Examples and skills to get started

June 24, 2022 - 20 min read

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What is the coaching leadership style?

Coaching leadership style examples

Coaching leadership compared to other leadership styles

Pros and cons of a coaching leadership style

When to use coaching leadership style

Key skills for a coaching leadership style

Steps to employ a coaching leadership style at work

How you lead a team has a direct impact on team performance. But unfortunately, many leaders are coming up short. For example, according to research from SHRM, 57 percent of workers in the US say managers in their workplace could benefit from training on how to be a better people manager — and 84 percent say poorly trained people managers create a lot of unnecessary work and stress. Leaders need a better way to motivate, inspire, and lead their teams. And that’s where the coaching leadership style comes in.

Taking a coaching approach to leadership can be a great way to help teams hit their goals and drive results. But what, exactly, is a coaching leadership style? Why is it effective? And how can you use it to improve performance and take your team to the next level?

What is the coaching leadership style?

There are a number of different organizational leadership styles. And all of them take a different approach to leadership. For example, some companies embrace servant leadership, which focuses on leaders supporting employees. Others lean toward democratic leadership, which involves employees in leadership decisions. Still other organizations swear by strategic leadership. And others? They may embrace charismatic leadership, authentic leadership, situational leadership, or a blend of multiple styles.

Clearly, there are almost as many ways to lead a team as there are leaders.

So what, exactly, is the coaching leadership style? And what sets it apart from other styles of leadership?

Some of the key elements of coaching leadership style include:

  • Professional development. Just like coaches need to develop their players, under the leadership coaching model, leaders are focused on developing their people.
  • Goal-focused. In the coaching leadership style, leaders help their direct reports define and achieve their goals. This includes on both a team and an individual level and both short-term and long-term goals.
  • Future-minded. Professional sports coaches know they can’t change a team overnight. Change takes time, and so they’re invested in long-term strategy and growth. And it’s the same for the coaching leadership style. With this type of leadership, leaders are future-focused and invested in long-term results. They work on making improvements and changes today that will pay off in the long term.
  • Feedback. Under the coaching leadership model, leaders need to be continually delivering constructive feedback. This helps them hit their goals and grow into their best selves professionally — and often personally. Effective leaders should also be open to feedback from their teams on how they can improve their management style.
  • Mentorship. With the coaching leadership model, leaders often take more of a mentoring role with their teams.

As the name suggests, the coaching leadership style is a style where leaders take on the role of coach. Under this type of leadership, the leader invests their time and energy into developing individual team members. They also show them how their role plays a part in the larger team strategy. This elevates not only the individual’s performance, but the team’s (and the organization’s) as a whole.

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Coaching leadership style examples

There are a variety of well-known leaders that embody the coaching leadership style, including:

  • Satya Nadella, Microsoft. When Nadella stepped into the role of CEO at Microsoft, the company was experiencing a period of stagnation. Nadella encouraged employees to embrace a growth mindset. He made himself available to employees for questions, feedback, and support. Ultimately, this coach-like approach shifted the company culture. It also led to a more successful, innovative period of Microsoft’s history.
  • David Morley, Allen and Overy. David Morley was elected Global Managing Partner of international law firm Allen and Overy — and led the company through 2016. Morley made coaching a foundational aspect of the company’s approach to leadership. More specifically, he focused on the benefit of high-value conversations. And the coaching approach? It paid off in a big way. During his time at Allen and Overy, Morley won three successive leadership elections and increased profits by 175 percent.
  • Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook. During her tenure at Facebook (now Meta) Sandberg set the bar high for her team. But she also offered the support and resources they needed to reach their goals. And, like any good coach, offered plenty of praise, encouragement, and feedback along the way.
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Coaching leadership compared to other leadership styles

As mentioned, there are a huge variety of leadership styles. And each has a different view of how to be the most effective leader.

Let’s take a look at a few of the most popular leadership styles — and how each compares to the coaching leadership style:

Transactional leadership style

With the transactional leadership style, leaders look at things through a very “black and white” lens. There are strict rules around how work gets done — and rewards and consequences associated with those rules. Leaders stick to their defined rewards and consequences — regardless of the circumstances. 

So, for example, under this leadership style, there would likely be a clear consequence for missing a deadline. And leaders would likely keep that consequence, even if the employee missed the deadline for a valid reason, like a family emergency.

This leadership style varies greatly from the coaching leadership style. The coaching leadership style is more flexible and fluid. While on the flip side, the transactional leadership style is more rigidly structured.

Autocratic leadership style

Under the autocratic style of leadership, all of the power lies with one person — the leader. The leader makes decisions and dictates how and when work gets done. Employees don’t have any input into their role on their team or their professional growth.

The autocratic leadership style also dramatically differs from the coaching leadership style. There isn’t much in the way of collaboration, and no real support. The environment discourages employees from delivering feedback to the leader.

Laissez-faire leadership style

Under the laissez-faire style of leadership, responsibility and power fall on the employee’s shoulders. Leaders take a hands-off approach, letting employees take the lead on decision-making and how and when things should get done.

The laissez-faire leadership style is similar to the coaching leadership style in one way. It relies on leaders trusting their people. However, the similarities end there. With this leadership style, there’s no real relationship, mentoring, or oversight between the employee and the leader. This makes it extremely different from the coaching leadership approach.

Transformational leadership style

The goal of the transformational leadership style is to transform organizations. This may include taking a new approach to the way the organization functions. It’s also focused on inspiring teams to go above and beyond to hit their goals.

The transformational leadership style is arguably the most similar style to coaching leadership. They are both focused on goal achievement and improving performance. However, the transformational leadership style is more focused on organizational transformation. The coaching leadership style is more focused on supporting growth at the individual and team levels.

Pros and cons of a coaching leadership style

Like any approach to leadership, the coaching leadership style offers some major benefits and drawbacks. And those pros and cons extend to both leaders and employees. 

Let’s look at some of the biggest pros and biggest cons of the coaching leadership style:

Pros

Cons

  • Requires a large time and energy commitment from leaders
  • Can take a long time to see results (since it’s focused more on long-term wins vs. short-term wins)
  • Only effective if employees engage in the process
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When to use coaching leadership style

There are certain situations where a coaching leadership style is especially effective.

Those situations include:

  • When teams are working towards long-term goals
  • When leaders need to inspire and motivate employees to perform at a higher level
  • When leaders need to build and foster trust with their teams
  • When leaders need to align organizational and individual/team goals
  • When teams and/or individuals face a professional setback

Key skills for a coaching leadership style

There are leadership characteristics and skills leaders will need to thrive with this coaching model.

So what, exactly, are those skills? Some of the most important skills for a coaching leadership style include:

Development skills

Coaching leadership style is centered around developing employees and teams. So, in order to be an effective coaching leader, you need development skills. For example, coaching leaders need to be able to visualize long-term goals for their team. They also need to be able to create development plans to help individual contributors, and the team as a whole, hit those goals.

Communication skills

Communication is a key part of effective coaching leadership. Leaders need to be able to communicate clearly. They also need to be able to communicate the importance of the goals they’re working towards. This includes communicating each individual’s role in achieving those goals.

In addition to clear communication, excellent leaders can communicate in a supportive, empathetic way. They can motivate their teams, which requires strong communication skills.

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is one of the most important elements of effective coaching leadership. Effective coaching leaders need to be perceptive, empathetic, and compassionate. They also need to showcase humility in leadership

Self-awareness

Effective coaching leaders need to show self-awareness. For example, if their team is struggling, they need to be able to recognize if and when they’re contributing to the problem—and find a solution. (For example, investing in leadership coaching or reading a few leadership books to improve their skills).

This is especially important because it’s a skill many leaders lack. This is particularly true when it comes to coaching skills. For example, in one study cited in a 2019 Harvard Business Review, researchers asked executives to assess their coaching skills. They found that 24 percent significantly overestimated their skills, ranking themselves as above average while their colleagues ranked them in the bottom third of the group).

Accessibility

Athletes need to be able to trust and talk to their coaches. And with the coaching leadership style, employees need to be able to trust and talk to their leaders. This requires a certain level of accessibility and approachability.

The ability to effectively give — and receive — feedback

Feedback is one of the foundational elements of the coaching leadership style. In order to help their teams grow, leaders need to be able to deliver feedback and constructive criticism. They also need to be willing and open to feedback from their team — even if that feedback is hard to hear.

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Steps to employ a coaching leadership style at work

Want to try out a coaching leadership style at your organization? Here’s how to get started:

1. Meet with your team

Before you can effectively coach your team, you need to get to know them better. So the first step is to meet with your team.

Schedule one-on-one meetings with each of your team members. Ask open-ended questions about their career development and career goals. What do they feel are their strengths? Where are they struggling? Are they happy in their current role? If not, what would they like to see change? And where do they ultimately see their career?

You should also ask team-related questions. How do they think the team is currently functioning? What do they think the team is doing well? And where do they think the team is struggling?

Meeting with individual team members will help you get a better handle on where your team currently is. This includes where they are, both individually and collectively. And that information will help you better coach them to where they want to go,

2. Set development goals

Once you’ve met with your team and have a better understanding of where they are and where they want to go, it’s time to set goals.

Create development goals for each individual team member. You’ll also want to create development goals for the team.

Use the SMART goals system to set development goals. This means every goal should be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Once you’ve created your development goals, meet with your team to get their insight and feedback. Make sure they’re on board with the goals you’ve set for them. And, if not, adjust as necessary until you’re on the same page.

3. Offer feedback and support

Once your team has their goals, you’ll need to be there to coach them along the way. (It is called the coaching leadership style, after all!) And in order to do that, you’ll need to offer plenty of feedback and support along the way.

Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Meet with your team members regularly. 
  • Ask them how they’re progressing towards their goals and if there’s anything you can do to help. 
  • Offer feedback on what they’re doing well and what they might be able to improve. 
  • Make yourself available to listen if they have any challenges, questions, or just need to vent. 
  • Help them rethink their approach if and when they’re struggling.

The more feedback and support you give your team, the better coach (and leader) you’ll be. And the more successful your team will be as a result.

4. Celebrate wins

When a sports team wins a championship, there’s plenty of celebrating—both from the team and the coach.

And if you’re employing the coaching leadership style, you’ll want to do the same thing.

When your team member or a team member succeeds, you’ll want to celebrate those wins. And that includes wins big and small.

There are a variety of ways you can recognize employees for their achievements. For example, it might be casual, like congratulating a team member when they solve a particularly difficult problem. Or it might be more structured, like hosting a recognition meeting each week where you highlight a win for each team member. Or it could be on a larger scale, like throwing a celebration when the team successfully completes a big problem.

How you celebrate your wins is up to you. Just make sure you make celebrating wins a priority.

5. Be willing to adjust your strategy as necessary

The coaching leadership style is all about long-term strategy and successes. But in order to achieve success over the long-term, you need to be willing to pivot and adjust as necessary along the way.

Monitor how your team is progressing towards their goals. If you notice something isn’t working, change it. If, as time passes, you think another strategy would be more effective in helping your team hit their goals? Give it a try. Remain agile and change in whatever way you need to in order to support your team’s success.

Use a coaching leadership style to empower your team

As a leader, you want to do everything you can to motivate and empower your team. And embracing a coaching leadership style is a great way to do it.

Are you a coaching leader that wants to inspire growth and transformation in your team? BetterUp can help. Schedule a demo today.

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Published June 24, 2022

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