Why leaders who work with coaches are better

This week I started a coaching engagement with a young leader who hired me to become what he calls “a leader of leaders” within his Fortune 500 company. During our first meeting, when we explored his aspirations, it occurred to me for the umpteenth time that leaders who hire coaches are just better: more open, more fun to work with, more willing to learn, more willing to stretch for outstanding achievements, more willing to take responsibility, more concerned about the development of their people, more willing to laugh at themselves, and more positive.

In this case, the up-and-coming executive shared some wonderful goals for himself, his employees, and his area of responsibility. He had the self-awareness and wisdom to know that employing a coach could help him have insights about the most effective and efficient ways to get where he wants.

To his credit, he is paying for the coaching with his own money, because his company doesn’t support external coaching. He had hired a coach previously, a couple of years ago, and got so much value out of the experience that he is doing it again, and I am privileged to be the coach that he chose.

Leaders like my new client come across differently than their colleagues who are not so coachable. They are like professional athletes who are committed to being the best, and who hire a team to help them stay in shape and keep improving. They have that sense of drive, an internal fire, and the wisdom that an outside perspective is crucial for their ongoing improvement. These qualities are infectious, and make them more attractive to others. One could argue that these attributes alone – even without a coach – will lead to success, and yet these individuals are still willing to hire a coach to get even farther, faster.

Clearly, I’m not talking here about people upon whom coaching is forced. That’s the old way of coaching, in companies where coaching and progressive discipline are still synonyms; or in companies that hire a coach as a last resort – primarily as a way to document for legal purposes that they tried something – before firing the employee. When coaching is forced on someone, he or she rarely wants to be coached.

Unfortunately, despite multiple studies proving that coaching provides important career and organizational benefits, many leaders still do not want a coach. They will sometimes point to members of their team and say to the coach, “Go fix them. They are the ones who need help.” However, they don’t see the benefits of coaching for themselves – at least until something really negative happens in their careers, and by then it is often too late.

There is a different feel to leaders who are closed to coaching, at least from my admittedly biased perspective. They come across as a bit more closed down, unwilling to explore new possibilities, and perhaps even stagnant. They don’t like asking for or listening to advice and feedback from others, and tend to get defensive when constructive advice is offered. Sometimes they seem more concerned with other priorities than getting results, like looking good, being the smartest person in the room, dominating others, or winning some sort of popularity contest. They often have some sort of behavioral blind spot, for instance, getting angry too quickly, avoiding appropriate conflict, or letting their egos get in the way of getting results and building positive business relationships. Like the villagers in the story about the emperor who had no clothes, no one in the organization dares to give them a hint that they have opportunities to improve – and they don’t believe the messenger, usually from Human Resources, when he or she comes with bad news. Eventually, they get pushed out, never reach the next level, or burn out. This situation is a tragedy, because with a little bit of coaching and a mindset of being coachable, they could find new ways to get results and thrive.

There is one other category of leader that is relevant to this discussion: the leader who has a coach but never does anything despite the coach’s best efforts. These leaders like the status of having a coach, but aren’t really interested in making positive change. A coach is more like a status symbol to them, a way of saying, “Hey, I’m on the leading edge of the coaching trend. I have a coach with amazing credentials and a best-selling book. I’m getting enlightened as we speak. Now leave me alone.”  That’s not the type of leader I am talking about in this article either.

So, to get to the point, following are five attributes that I especially appreciate in leaders that hire a coach with the sincere intent of getting better, advancing their careers, and improving their organizations. You might have a different list or some tweaks to this one, and if so, please let me know!

One: They are committed to continuous learning and improvement. By definition, coaching clients want to get better; otherwise they wouldn’t have hired a coach in the first place. It is refreshing to work with people who seek ongoing improvement compared to those who want to preserve the status quo, complete a list of tasks every day, and hope nothing changes.

Two: Their high aspirations are exciting and often lead to great things. Leaders who seek out coaching usually have inspiring aspirations. They want to see great things happen, and people gravitate towards those with vision and a sense of purpose. At the same time, they hold themselves accountable for achieving their aspirations and goals, including ongoing gains in performance.

Three: They see possibility in themselves and others. It is more enjoyable to be around people who see the potential for greatness all around them than to be around people who are cynical, apathetic, and perceive the people on their team to be sub-par. This sense of possibility makes them more attractive to others, and gets people aligned towards a common purpose. 

Four: They are willing to be vulnerable in ways that allow them to leapfrog over other leaders. In my opinion, the best leaders have some degree of vulnerability about them. It is not easy to learn the truth about how we actually come across to others compared to how we hope we come across to others. It is not easy to take responsibility for improving a strained professional relationship, to see one’s own role in the situation and proactively make amends. It is not easy to hear feedback from our colleagues and then resolve to improve. It is not easy to allow give and take when pushing an idea forward, rather than win at all costs. However, this kind of vulnerability ultimately leads to improved results, relationships, and success. Leaders who are vulnerable also tend attract more followers – especially top talent — than those who are pushy, obnoxious, and who are unwilling to lighten up. By having just enough vulnerability, they are able to learn, grow, and get better.

Five: They are more flexible in how they get results, and this gives them more options. One benefit of coaching is that it often helps leaders develop new approaches to handle different situations. Many leaders are like the proverbial broken clock stuck on one time: They have one style that is right once or twice each day and wrong the rest of the time. Leaders who are coachable understand the need to be flexible, to have a range of styles and approaches for different people and situations. This allows them to lead more naturally and authentically, instead of relying on long-standing patterns that make them rigid.

The bottom line is that leaders who have coaches have a different quality about them and, to me, are better. I am so grateful to be in the coaching profession, because it allows me to work with the best of the best.

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