Jack Canfield, co-author of the Chicken Soup For The Soul series, says that “when we help others, we help ourselves". Coaching people, he says, is so crucial for developing leaders that Jack Welch, the legendary former CEO and chairman of General Electric, decreed that those who did not coach others would not be promoted.

Robert Hargrove, in his book Masterful Coaching, said 80% of the best CEOs in the world spend their time coaching. Research shows that managers have the single largest impact on turnover and retention, while learning and opportunities for career development are often top drivers of employee engagement.

Yet, the corporate world is really bad at capitalizing on the strengths of its people, says Marcus Buckingham, a British author and engagement researcher at Gallup, in his book First Break All The Rules: What The World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently.

According to a survey by research group The Conference Board, 63% of the organizations surveyed have some form of internal coaching; the rest plan to. However, coaching did not feature as a significant part of a manager’s job description in most cases. And only half of these managers spent 10% of their time in developmental conversations.

Virat Kohli. Photo: Reuters
Virat Kohli. Photo: Reuters

Believing is not doing

Coaching isn’t part of what managers are formally expected to do at most firms, and it doesn’t come naturally to most leaders. Achieving organizational revenue targets and profitability determines a manager’s success. Only in the early 1990s did this rhetoric change, with the introduction of the balanced scorecard, a performance management tool, among other things bringing about a distinct shift in tone and tenor, and experts acknowledging that financials would not be enough.

Then there is what we refer to as the Peter Principle. Based on a satirical 1969 book, it provides an unlikely explanation for managerial incompetence: People climb the ladder as long as they work competently till they are promoted to a position where they are not competent. So, work gets done only by those who have not reached their level of incompetence. Predictably, it results in an organization staffed by managers operating at a sub-par level and unable to do well at their jobs, let alone develop and coach others—key to building the next line of leaders

The other key reason for managers not spending time on coaching employees is because it has traditionally been viewed as something that human resource departments organize through external certified coaches. Coaching is often perceived to be the job of experts, and limited to C-level leaders. It is also frequently confused with life coaching, therapy and management consulting.

Understanding the need

Middle managers are now increasingly exposed to external coaches but more often than not it’s simply added on to an existing leadership programme focusing on key behaviours or skills. While these are excellent avenues for a leader’s growth, that growth needs to come from more than a few one-off conversations with an expert. It needs to be constant and on the job.

It’s vital to understand that coaching is about enablement and building the next line of leaders. It’s about motivating and inspiring but it’s also about ensuring your people learn on the job. A good leader/manager is no different from a good sports captain—Mahendra Singh Dhoni or Virat Kohli are examples of great cricketers who are constantly coaching team players on the field to get the best out of them.

Today, there is wide acknowledgment that organizations, and leaders who succeed, must also do the right things for their people, investing in internal systems, processes and governance apart from the relentless focus on numbers.

Top-tier business schools now increasingly supplement the core MBA curriculum with programmes focusing on the softer (but probably hardest) aspects of leadership, topics that help build real leaders, not simply managers or CEOs.

Coaching, then, is about finding time for enabling conversations that shape future managers. It’s also about maintaining the fine balance between managing and guiding, appraising and supporting. That’s the stuff good leaders are made of.

Ruchira Chaudhary is an independent strategy professional, an executive coach and adjunct faculty. She divides her time between Singapore and India.