All traditions throughout the ages have had exceptional coaches.  We may have called them advisors, sages, elders, wisdom-keepers, teachers, mentors, shamans, gurus, or masters.  No matter what their titles, we have always turned to them to help us look at our lives and behaviors from deeper and broader vantage points.  These coaches helped their “coachees” – seekers, disciples, students, apprentices – see the world with fresh eyes, transcend what they thought was possible, and glimpse their fullest potential.

We know from our global research that most people rate “coaching and developing others” among the top three most important leadership competencies, according to 360° assessments.  However, despite the rated importance of this critical competency, it actually scores as the lowest practiced competency around the world.  No other leadership competency has such as wide gap between importance and practice.  We agree that coaching and development are critical to transformative leadership.  However, there is just one major problem:  we don’t practice it!  Why?  Leaders often tell us that they do not have enough time; they do not know a precise, proven process; and/or they feel it will slow down their immediate performance.  Regardless of the reasons, learning a pragmatic, straightforward methodology to coach and develop yourself and others is extremely critical to high-performing leadership.

For coaching to have a lasting, transformative impact, three interrelated foundations need to be constructed:  Building Awareness, Building Commitment, and Building Practice.  If all three are present and operating, breakthroughs will occur, and growth will be sustained.  If any one of the three is absent, the results will dissipate over time.  You may learn the best techniques and disciplines to practice, but if you lack commitment, you won’t continue your efforts.  Similarly, all the enthusiasm and commitment in the world won’t get you far if you don’t adhere to the right practices.  And without awareness of your strengths and weaknesses, how will you know what to commit to or what you need to do?

The Art Of Coaching Others

Emerson wrote, “We mark with light in the memory the few interviews we have had … with souls that made our soul wiser; that spoke what we thought; that told us what we knew; that gave us leave to be what we inly were.”  Indeed, coaching may be the most important of all leadership skills, because helping foster the growth of those around us gives sustainability to our leadership and perpetuates optimal, ongoing value creation.

Coaching is the art of drawing forth potential onto the canvas of high performance.  It’s the gentle yet firm hand of leadership guiding the way, like a caring friend, helping the “coachee” steer clear of danger or set a more positive course.

Leadership is more than just a job.  The leader of a group of any size, from a family, club, congregation, or classroom to a multinational corporation or a nation, sets the tone for all the members of the group.  Leaders touch lives and hold destinies in their hands; it is a sacred calling with sacred responsibility.

For many of us, the word coach evokes images of a hulking figure in a sweatshirt, blowing a whistle and barking directions to a more or less compliant group of players.  But a genuine coach has a far more interesting and refined role than giving orders.  If you are on a mountain climbing expedition, struggling with some difficult terrain, lost in a fog or snowstorm, and not able to see the top of the mountain or most of the path ahead, you are grateful for a veteran guide, calling down from above, “Go to the right.  Dig in.  Watch out for loose rocks.  You’re doing fine.”  The guide has perspective, experience, and crucial knowledge that you don’t have.  Similarly, the players on a sports team, caught up in the moment-to-moment action on the field, have little perspective.  An effective coach rises above the playing to get a more complete picture from which to guide optimal approaches.

Some coaches simply assert their expertise.  Great coaches blend expertise and facilitation to help players go beyond their previously held boundaries.  In his book, Masterful Coaching, Robert Hargrove notes, “When most people think of learning, they don’t think in terms of having to change themselves.  They tend to think of learning as … acquiring ideas, tips, techniquest, and so on.  Seldom does it occur to them that the problems they are facing are insperable from who they are or the way they think and interact with other people.”  Coaching helps us step back to see more of the whole person and more of the whole situation, as well as the dynamics between the two.

The Practice Of Coaching

Without practice, there is no transformation.  We can be fully aware of and committed to noble goals, but if we fail to practice them, it is like someone lighting a lamp and then closing his eyes.  “In the end,” said Max De Pree, “it is important to remember that we cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we were.”

A while ago, a somewhat skeptical coaching client came to me with his most recent 360° assessment and a knowing “I told you so” look on his face.  When I asked him, “Why the peculiar look?”  he said, “I’ve had the same 360° assessment for the past five years.  Every time, the same results!  What a worthless process!”  I tried to explore with him the specifics of what he actually practiced as part of the process.  It was no surprise to find out he had practiced nothing.  You know the moral of this story:  Nothing practiced, nothing gained.

Beginning practice makes the possible probable; advanced, enduring practice makes the possible real.  Practices involve the consistent repetition of new behaviors that transform our lives.  Exercise is a practice to build health.  Meditation is a practice to unfold our spiritual life.  Reflecting at the end of each day on how our interpersonal interactions went is a practice that builds relational effectiveness.  For most of us, not letting fears or limiting beliefs sabotage our goals can be a lifelong practice for self-awareness.

For practice to become a habit, it needs to be consistently engaged for at least forty days.  A day here and a day there will not bring transformation.  At first, our practice requires a discipline to do something we may not be inclined to do.  Over time, however, the discipline is replaced by the life-enriching benefits we are gaining; the practice becomes more self-sustaining and requires less effort.  Here is the key to practice:  if you stop practicing, no problem – just start practicing again.

The Best Practices For Practice

Practicing coaching is a challenge.  Disciplining ourselves to slow down and pause to develop others is not easy.  While coaching in real time is ideal for coaching effectiveness, it requires discipline to pivot from the transactive immediacies of management to the transformative opportunities of coaching.  Some leaders are so passionate about developing others that they not only coach in the moment, but they also develop practices that are more far-reaching.

Paul Van Oyen is CEO of Etex, a $3 billion building materials company based in Brussels.  Paul developed a “go-beyond” coaching practice to significantly advance the development of his key team members while also creating deeper intimacy and connection.  Once a year, Paul invites each senior team member to take a one-day special trip with him.  Each team member selects that date and the place, which can be anywhere in the world.  It is their choice.  Paul’s only caveat is that it be a place that is compelling to them.  The place may have a family connection, be a place that inspires them, or be a place they’ve always wanted to explore.

What is the purpose of the day and the place?  It is to share the exploration together, outside and inside.  As they walk the streets, visit notable sights, and witness small, minor things and impressive ones, they share it all together, and at the same time, they share more of themselves.  They talk and get to know more about each other:  what is important to them, their significant relationships, and their life stories.  The deeper purpose is to create the space and the conditions to foster intimacy through meaningful conversations about life and aspirations for the enterprise.  In short, it is a rich opportunity to pause together to give personal and business transformation an opportunity to emerge.

Commenting on this practice, Paul reflects, “I didn’t set this up to have greater influence with my people.  I did it because I care about them and their development.  I wanted the free-space to grow together.  It is one of the most important practices I have as a CEO to accelerate the growth in my team and myself.”  What will be your practices for pausing to grow others in your organization?

Elaborating on the principles guiding his commitment to developing others, Paul shared:

  • Coaching Principle One: Coaching Begins with Caring
    Coaching without care is a mechanical performance process.  When people know you care, they open up and become co-creators in the development journey.
  • Coaching Principle Two: Invest the Time
    While impactful coaching requires deep attention vs. lots of time, it is critical to see the attention and time as an investment that you have to do in order to get a significant return.
  • Coaching Principle Three: Be Present and Listen Deeply
    Deep presence and authentic listening give people a pause to reflect and to be.  Give the gift of presence and listening.  The gift of presence may be our most valuable coaching gift.
  • Coaching Principle Four: Lead with Questions and Curiosity
    Managers have the best answers, leaders have the best questions.  Use questions to help people sort out their needs, approaches and aspirations.
  • Coaching Principle Five: Meet People Where They Are At
    Mentoring imparts experience or expertise where we want people to be.  Coaching meets people where they are in order to help them move forward.  Mentor less, coach more.

Commit yourself to a lifelong process of Building Awareness, Commitment, and Practice to inspire authentic leadership in all those you touch.  Become a more generative leader:  a leader dedicated to equipping the next generation to both succeed and exceed us.