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How leadership coaching helps leaders get (and keep) an edge

September 1, 2021 - 18 min read

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What is leadership coaching?

5 benefits of a leadership coaching program

What can you learn through leadership coaching?

How do you choose the right leadership coaching program?

6 amazing books every developing leader should read

Can you imagine a professional athlete not having a coach? Of course not. Athletes use coaching continue to improve their game and to be more effective with their teammates. Even when at their peak, athletes use coaching to continue to perform and thrive in a dynamic and competitive environment.

Executives and other leaders need coaching for all the same reasons.

Many have heard of leadership coaching or know of someone who has participated in a leadership coaching session, but what exactly does that mean? Is leadership something a person can learn or is it an inherited trait?

The good news is that research suggests that leaders are more often made than born. With an evolving workforce, the modern leader needs to have an adaptable set of skills to pull from. They need to inspire and lead others to do work in a more collaborative and productive manner. And, they need to do it all in a way that is personally sustainable over time.

What is leadership coaching?

Leadership coaching is the conscious process of developing talents and competencies within individuals so that they can work more effectively with others. Leadership training often centers around effective communication skills, business coaching, and understanding the impact of different leadership styles. These coaching experiences often happen in mentoring relationships or in a more formalized executive coaching program.

5 benefits of a leadership coaching program

Leadership coaching in particular can have many benefits for individuals as well as the organizations they are a part of. Here are five of those benefits:

  1. Enhanced performance
    Leadership coaching can help leaders more accurately examine their weak points, gain better perspective about their abilities and how to better make use of them.
  2. Empowerment
    Working with an executive coach can help those in leadership positions learn how to empower themselves and those on their teams. This has the added benefit of increasing team member’s engagement in opportunities to collaborate.
  3. A fresh perspective
    We do not know what we cannot see. Having an outside perspective can be extremely powerful when looking to make meaningful and lasting changes.
  4. Confidence
    Having a coach’s support while making meaningful changes, as well as celebrating their wins, can positively impact a leader’s confidence levels.
  5. Job and life satisfaction
    By taking the time to step back and clearly assess their lives with the help of a coach, leaders can find more time for work/life balance. This tends to lead to better performance, retention, and increased satisfaction with their job.
man sitting on windowsill in leadership coaching session

What can you learn through leadership coaching?

The benefits mentioned above can be powerful and impactful, but it’s also worth looking at how how individuals can learn and grow from leadership development coaching

  1. Self-awareness
    Self-awareness is one of the top growth areas of any type of coaching. We all have blind spots and while a leader may be satisfied with his own performance, others on the team may see it differently. The reverse can be true as well — the leader may be too self-critical or suffer imposter syndrome while others think she is doing fine.

    Or perhaps the leader is mostly doing well, but there are specific behaviors or thoughts that are clouding the their perspective or making them less effective than they might be. They might not recognize how a belief or mindset is affecting their approach or being felt by the team. 

    For example, coaching can help a leader become more aware of their negative automatic thoughts. A common one involves seeing everything through an “all or nothing” lens. This perspective views everything as either good or bad, yes or no, right or wrong. It triggers an automatic thought that there is only one way and anything else is a failure or an attack. When a person gets trapped thinking “my way is the right way to complete this project,” they don't tend to be responsive to input from team members or even peers and leaders. Lack of self-awareness leads to not recognizing the value of the nuances and perspectives that others can offer, which means not finding the best solutions but also not strengthening important relationships. It can limit creativity and innovation, demotivating a workforce in the process. 

    By developing awareness about automatic thoughts and myriad other behaviors, thoughts, and feelings, the leader can start to have a different engagement with themselves, their team, and others in their life.
  2. Communication style
    Building a higher degree of self-awareness around your communication skills, both verbal and nonverbal, can be a game-changer. It’s easy for leaders to overlook communication as a skillset — at least, until the need becomes obvious. Perhaps it’s a new situation (e.g., a company transformation) or an interpersonal challenge (e.g., a toxic team member). In either case, leaders may find that their usual communication style doesn’t get the intended results. 

    Coaching a leader to communicate more effectively can include setting clear expectations, offering constructive feedback, or even shifting a leader’s nonverbal communication. Additionally, leadership coaching can help leaders create a more inclusive and supportive environment for their teams by examining the language they use with others. 
  3. Listening skills
    Are you listening well? (Hint: if you don’t know, ask). Are you hearing what others are saying or merely waiting until the person across from you stops talking so that you can talk? Good leadership involves more listening than most would think. 

    By honing one’s listening skills and being attuned to others, leaders can unlock a wide range of potential benefits for themselves and their teams. A coach can aid in developing communication and active listening skills that can be invaluable when leading teams.

  4. Self-regulation
    Leaders do not exist in a vacuum. Rather they are constantly interacting with others, and it has an impact. In fact, we know from our own data and others that these day-to-day interactions with one's manager have the greatest impact on direct reports' sense of belonging and inclusion, job satisfaction, and empowerment. So when a leader can't regulate their emotions, it can cloud their own judgment and negatively affect the environment and experience for everyone else.

    Effective leadership coaching can help a leader to become better at regulating their own emotional responses.

    By identifying ways to step back, they give themselves the opportunity to calm down and re-engage in a more productive conversation. Learning to self-regulate may include identifying patterns and potential triggers to decrease their impact on the leader and their team. Even naming the emotion that is present can go a long way towards helping one better manage their responses to various situations.
  5. Growth mindset
    Leadership coaching can help individuals unlock a growth mindset, as opposed to a fixed one. With this type of mindset, leaders can see obstacles as opportunities for growth, not something to be dreaded or feared. Being flexible, bouncing back from setbacks, and thinking creatively is a powerful skill to develop.

    Some of the most effective leaders of the last several generations demonstrate an ability to think holistically and a commitment to growth. When challenges occurred, they didn’t think of them as roadblocks. Instead, they looked for growth opportunities for their product, business, or team. 
  6. Cultivate empathy
    Ever heard the saying, “No one cares what you know until they know how much you care?” This is essentially about empathy. Leaders who readily tap into empathy for others are generally more effective in their roles. When an employee is struggling, senior leaders can provide value just by seeing their pain and acknowledging it.

    In turn, this allows employees to see leaders as a safe place to speak their truth when they are feeling particularly stuck or challenged. It is not necessarily for the leader to solve the issue, but rather to look for understanding and ways to better support their employees in trying times.
  7. Leverage strengths
    Leadership coaches are particularly adept at helping others to see the strengths they bring to the table. Not in the way that one might answer an interview question, but a real examination of what a coachee's strengths are and how to best leverage them. Strengths are often specific to the individual. With the help of a coach, a leader can put their particular strengths to use in unique and unexpected ways.
  8. Executive presence
    More than just a buzzword, executive presence is about how a leader communicates, shows up for others, and how they generally present themselves to the world. A leadership coach can help each individual leader gain insight into what their current personal brand is and how to work towards making both big and subtle changes to achieve the most effective executive presence possible.

woman on laptop during leadership coaching session

How do you choose the right leadership coaching program?

All in on working with a leadership coach? Great! But how do you find the right coach and program for you? Look for a training program that has each of the following 6 qualities: 

  1. Safe and supportive environment
    The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines life coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” Finding a coach that is the right fit for you and can help you reach your potential is critical. Someone whom you feel safe being vulnerable with is extremely important if you want to be able to open up to them.

    Coaches and coachees sometimes don't click. If, after a few coaching conversations, you still don't feel like it's a good fit, it's okay to move on. It may be a mismatch in coaching style, personality, or even schedule. Rapport and comfort is necessary to developing a strong coaching relationship.
  2. Provides support for your agenda
    You are the expert on you, not the coach. Look for a program and coach that does not have their own agenda for what success looks like for you. Being clear about what you want from coaching can help find the best fit for you that will help you reach those goals. 

    If a coach wants to sell you specifically on their agenda, talks about their own experiences solely or only what worked best for them, move on to another development program or coach.
  3. Provides targeted and specific feedback
    Some of the best leadership coaches act like mirrors. They reflect back what they are seeing and hearing, bringing awareness in a compassionate and nonjudgmental way. This helps you see your blind spots and dive into finding productive solutions. Look for a coach and coaching program that is willing to do the hard work with you rather than one that will let you vent without moving towards reaching your goals. 
  4. Length of engagement
    Most coaching programs last anywhere from 3 to 12 months. At BetterUp, the accumulated Member data shows that significant and sustained growth requires a minimum closer to 6 months. Beyond that, the best timeline will depend on what goals you want to achieve and how much time you have to dedicate to those goals. 
  5. Consistency is key
    Look for a coach and program that will schedule with you weekly or bi-weekly, especially at the beginning of your work together. It is important to be consistent as you gain momentum towards your goals. You want a reliable coach and program that is going to show up and hold you accountable on a consistent basis. Without consistency, your chances of achieving your desired outcome are significantly lower.
  6. Keeps you on track with tools and follows up
    Lots of programs and coaches offer tools and methodology to support their coaching. While one is not necessarily better than the other, you do want a coach and program that will hold you accountable and follow up with tools and action items to keep you working towards your full potential. Bonus if they have measurement tools to assess your progress along the coaching journey. 

6 amazing books every developing leader should read

Looking to learn more about some of the leadership skills mentioned above? Here are a few good reads to get you started. 


book-conscious business

Conscious Business: How to Build Value Through Values, by Fred Kofman

In this book, teacher and consultant Fred Kofman discusses how being more conscious in how we approach leadership can lead to dramatic changes both internally as well as with those on our teams.


emotional-intelligence book cover

Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ, by Daniel Goleman

Goleman popularized the term emotional intelligence in this ground-breaking book in 1996. He argues that emotional intelligence is made up of five components; self-awareness, self-regulation, internal motivation, empathy, and social skills. These also happen to be incredibly useful skills to develop for strong leadership.


emotional-agility book cover

Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, by Susan David, PhD

Building on Goleman’s emotional intelligence work, this book helps the reader understand what you can do about emotions that arise throughout the course of the day. 


mindset book cover

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck

Ever heard “whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right?” Carol Dweck shows how that is often true given what mindset you take. Looking at famous examples of leaders across multiple arenas, Dweck shows how mindset can change more than one person’s life.


radical-candor book cover

Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, by Kim Scott

As feedback and communication are important in any leadership skill set, Scott looks to give practical guidance on how to more effectively do both. 


youre-not-listening book cover

You’re Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters, by Kate Murphy

What are you missing by not listening intently? This is a central question Kate Murphy poses in her book that looks at how communication in a digital age is impacting our ability to connect to others in a meaningful way. An eye-opening perspective on the importance of listening for any leader.

Final thoughts on leadership coaching

One of the most important things you can do to ensure the growth of your organization is to foster leaders. Leaders aren’t born, and they aren’t really made, either. They’re developed with conscious effort, support, and feedback. Leadership coaching is a powerful tool to invest in the well-being and growth of your best, most worthwhile resource.

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Published September 1, 2021

Kealy Spring

BetterUp Coach

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