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Why Coaching is the Number One Skill for Leaders in an Uncertain World

It is often said that everyone wants to change the world, but no one wants to change themselves. There are few groups for which this is more apt than senior leaders. It was once thought that leaders needed to have all the right answers. They were lauded for their deep knowledge, their mastery of the details, and their ability to solve problems and issue commands expertly.

But the world changes—and recently, it has done so at breakneck pace. The dramatic increase in market turbulence, complexity, and uncertainty with which many businesses must contend means that tough decisions must constantly be made in real-time. No leader, however smart, can possibly have the cognitive capacity, knowledge of activities, or physical presence to make all such decisions and make them well. All too quickly, those who attempt to do so become bottlenecks and barriers to both speed and agility.

Leading effectively in conditions of high uncertainty requires that decision-making be decentralized, and teams be empowered at all levels to find their own solutions. This, however, does not happen overnight. Leaders must first work hard to ensure clarity and a shared understanding around objectives, align individual, team, and organisational interests, and build up people’s knowledge, skills, and ability to solve complex problems systematically. In short, in order to transform their organizations to be more nimble, more adaptive, and more innovative, leaders must first transform themselves. When it is no longer possible to have all the right answers, all that remains is to ask the right questions.

That is where coaching skills come in. Coaching is, at base, about helping others to grow and reach their potential, yet few leaders actually possess the skills to do that—and coaching techniques rarely form part of MBA or leadership development programs. Having worked with many executives over the years, I have found that there are five key coaching skills that can help modern leaders to thrive in an uncertain world. 

Building rapport and establishing a safe environment. Deep trust and psychological safety are the foundation of all relationships. The language leaders use, and the behavior they exhibit can go a long way toward creating a climate of safety and open and honest conversation. This is a fundamental building block of a coaching relationship.

Listening to truly understand. Active listening is one of the most powerful, and least practised, techniques in business. To really listen to someone is to care about him or her as a person, and to demonstrate an interest in what he or she is saying. Nothing will make a person feel more valued than being listened to, yet very few experience this feeling in a business context. Leaders are taught to focus primarily on advocacy—that is, articulating their own views. But the most effective leaders balance advocacy with enquiry; they seek to understand other perspectives. When listening, be truly present. Focus all your attention on the other person. Make eye contact, and clear your head of thoughts. Finally, provide plenty of space for people to think as they talk. Resist the urge to jump in too quickly. It’s amazing where people end up when given a little space.

Helping people to clarify their growth goals. Before starting any journey, you first need to know your desired destination. Too many fail to identify their development goals. This is a surefire way to ensure that they will not be achieved. People should own their own paths and set their own development goals; that way, they have complete ownership of them. Leaders merely provide support and guidance. It takes time and focused attention to identify one’s goals and areas of future growth. Great leaders make time for this conversation, provide input, and encourage people to identify their own development paths. Doing so can be the most important step toward achieving them.

Asking powerful questions to generate insights. This is true during intentional coaching conversations, and it is equally true in day-to-day conversations. It is all too easy to give an answer to a question or a solution to a problem. This feels helpful and efficient in the moment and can help to justify one’s position as a leader. The reality, however, is that every time you answer a question or solve a problem for people, you deny them not only the opportunity to solve the problem for themselves but to learn and grow. Far better is to ask powerful questions—questions that can lead to deep reflection and the generation of new insights.

Holding people to account for taking action towards their growth goals. While identifying development goals is important, what really matters is taking action. It is increasingly common to replace annual performance reviews with ongoing coaching conversations. These involve short weekly conversations around progress and next actions. These can be actively tracked in the form of OKRs or something similar. The constant focus ensures that progress continues and that leaders provide both accountability and support.

Twenty-first-century agile leadership is as much about developing people as it is about setting the direction of an organization. The legendary Silicon Valley-based coach Bill Campbell once said, “Leadership is about recognizing that there’s a greatness in everyone, and your job is to create an environment where that greatness can emerge.” We should start to consider leaders not as superheroes who single-handedly keep their companies moving but instead as organizational gardeners. Gardeners do not make the flowers grow, and they do not do the growing themselves—they merely create the environment for growth. With the right combination of soil, nutrients, water, and sunlight, the flowers will bloom. People are no different. When you cannot predict the future, all that is left is to create an environment in which empowered teams can meet whatever strategic challenge comes around the corner. After all, the higher you rise in an organization and the more complex your business, the more your success depends on making those around you successful. To achieve that, the next generation of CEOs must not only be expert managers and strategists, but also skilled coaches.

To find out more about the importance of organisational culture, check out Karim’s upcoming book The 6 Enablers of Business Agility: How to Thrive in an Uncertain World. This topic is also covered in detail in his Certified Agile Leadership (CAL) course.

This article originally appeared in Leadership Excellence by