The coaching paradox: Why leaders stop doing what they know works


By Peter Grist

We all know that coaching and developing our teams is important, don’t we? So why is it the first thing that gets dropped when we “get busy”?

I remember asking my business partner this question when I first started as a consultant 12 years ago. I posed this question out of frustration when I realised that after getting a group of leaders to consistently coach their team and see the results improve, they had simply stopped coaching a few months later. Given how much benefit the business had generated out of the coaching I just could not fathom why they would stop.

If we make the reasonable assumption that leaders want to deliver results, then we are faced with the following paradox: we know that coaching works and helps deliver results, yet we don’t find the time to do it.

What is it about us that inexorably pulls us away from our people unless we make a conscious effort to stay on track? Why is it that our default setting is to prioritise everything else above coaching?

Here are some observations I’ve made over the years about why the paradox exists, along with things you can do to ensure coaching is a priority for you and your team.

We are all just a little bit lazy

Most people’s preference is to do the reactive versus the proactive. Being reactive is easy: someone else sets the agenda and you just have to do it. Being proactive means you have to make decisions about where you spend your time and this takes planning, prioritisation and most of all effort. So unless your organisation constantly encourages your leaders to be proactive, they will slip back into reactive tasks.

Have a think about how your organisation encourages leaders to be reactive by bombarding them with emails, focusing on short term targets and dragging them into unplanned meetings. All the while, we have absolutely no measure of the quality and frequency of coaching.

Remember, what gets measured gets done.

What to do

Develop a system that measures the quality and quantity of these leadership activities. Put this measure on leader’s scorecards to incentivise them and hold them accountable. Make it a decent percentage, say 30-40% of the scorecard.

We are not clear about the skills we want our team to demonstrate

Every time we go into an organisation and talk to a group of sales leaders we ask: “If I played a recording of one of your team talking to a customer and asked you all to rate it, how consistent would you be?”

You guessed it. There is usually silence and sideways looks, followed by mutterings about inconsistency, then arguments. If your leaders aren’t on the same page about what a great customer conversation looks like, what hope have you got of achieving it through coaching?

What to do

Clearly define what a great customer conversation sounds like and develop a shared understanding of this through constant calibration.

We want to be liked

Let’s face it, we would all rather be liked than disliked. Getting people to change the way they do things is hard work and requires leaders to have open and frank conversations with their people.

These conversations can cause conflict – even if we have all the skills required – and so we often avoid them. We have all walked past behaviours we don’t condone and done nothing about them with the vague hope that they’ll magically go away.

What to do

Remember your role is to develop your people to reach their potential and achieve the objectives of your organisation. Ensure your feedback is based on evidence and observation and delivered in a judgment-free way. Work with your team to build their self-awareness, so that rather than you having to prescribe changes to behaviour, they are empowered to drive the change themselves.

We forget how long it takes to ingrain new habits

Effective coaching and leading is an iterative process, which builds layer upon layer of learning and practise until the desired behaviours become second-nature and are truly embedded. Many leaders declare victory too soon and stop coaching as soon as they see any sign of improvement in the behaviours of their team, mistakenly thinking that the results will maintain themselves.

If you are leading a team of people whose success is determined by how proactive they are then you will never be finished coaching. As soon as you stop being proactive with them they will revert to reactive tasks.

What to do

Provide leaders with absolute role clarity by developing an operating rhythm that defines the cadence of leadership activities they are expected to deliver to their team. In our experience the most critical leadership activities to define are:

· One-on-ones: Performance conversations and developmental coaching conversations tailored to individual team members

· Sales meetings: To get everyone on the same page and share new and better ways of doing things

· Time in the business observing the team: Leaders must know what their team can and can’t do so they know where to focus their efforts

· Calibration sessions: To develop a shared understanding of what a great customer experience looks like

Conduct this exercise for all levels of leaders so that a disciplined execution of the operating rhythm becomes part of your culture.

Have you ever found yourself in the situation where – despite being a fan of coaching in principle – you don’t make the time to do it?

Peter Grist is managing partner of Grist and one of Australia’s leading behavioural change consultants. Connect with Peter on LinkedIn and follow Grist on LinkedIn


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