Every Manager Should Have a Leadership Coach

From athletes to actors, everyone improves with a good coach. More companies should invest in their potential future leaders, not just the lucky few who break through to the corner office.

Will was a young up-and-coming director at a brand-name technology company.

Articulate and polished, he was well-liked by both his executive team and direct reports. Will’s career was soaring, and so was his confidence. He didn’t consider himself in need of development and only engaged in leadership coaching to check a box along the executive path. Upon beginning his coaching engagement, Will was surprised to discover a significant misalignment between his perception of himself and his reputation among his peers. His colleagues reported finding him untrustworthy and sharp-elbowed, willing to do anything to surpass his team’s goals — even to the detriment of the broader organization. Because of his strained peer relationships, company leaders were reluctant to promote him further; yet because he exceeded functional department benchmarks, constructive feedback hadn’t surfaced in annual reviews. Will’s career had hit a ceiling, and he didn’t even know it.

In the tech sector, as in other industries, many bright, competent professionals sail through their early careers, only to plateau a few years later due to under-developed and highly coachable soft skills like self-awareness, consensus-building and executive presence. Whereas most companies reserve coaching only for senior executives, Will’s company invested heavily in training and development. As part of those efforts, they contracted with coaches who engaged with mid-level professionals to achieve the following goals:

Facilitate self-awareness, which, according to executive search firm Korn Ferry, is the most commonly coached topic among CEOs. According to former Google CEO and chairman Eric Schmidt, “The one thing people are never good at is seeing themselves as others see them. A coach really, really helps.” Coaches help professionals realize when and why they engage in behaviors, which helps stimulate long-term behavior change.

Learn to apply theory to real-world application. Leadership classes, workshops and books are helpful, but just as watching basketball can’t transform someone into an NBA champion, reading about leadership can’t transform professionals into great leaders. It takes sustained, active practice, rigor and iteration to improve in any significant way.

Improve within the confines of a safe space. Most professionals want to project strength, both to direct reports and to the managers evaluating their success. Coaching by someone outside the reporting structure creates a safe space for leaders to be vulnerable, assess themselves honestly, and change long-standing behaviors.

Push themselves past their comfort zones. A coach will encourage consistent reinforcement of new behaviors to prevent the leader from falling back into old, negative patterns. It often takes a firm push to get a leader to engage in tough conversations she may prefer to avoid or delegate even when it feels uncomfortable.

Coaching is a great opportunity for HR business partners, learning & development (L&D) teams and business leaders. In fact, in many companies, mid-level coaching engagements are funded by business unit budgets, not central L&D budgets. However, not every mid-level manager is appropriate or ready for coaching. It requires time, openness to feedback and a genuine commitment to growth.

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Coaches also vary in quality and return on investment. It is important to ask for referrals, check references, review credentials, and conduct interviews to learn about coaching style and typical engagement format. Ineffective coaches breed dependency; strong coaches empower.

Will was fortunate. His company invested in him, enabling him to tackle his challenges before they impeded his advancement. Through coaching, Will came to understand that his drive for his team’s success, while well-intentioned, was perceived by his peers as domineering and grandstanding. He gained perspective on the broader business objectives and the value of supporting versus outshining his peers. He began softening his approach with colleagues and building alliances where previously he’d built walls. Six months later, he was promoted to senior director.

It isn’t just Will who was fortunate. His peers now enjoy working with him, his team reports to a stronger leader, and the company saves money and resources by promoting from within rather than recruiting outside the company. Better leaders have more engaged, motivated and productive employees. And employees who believe their employers invest in them and help them develop not only perform better; they also stay longer. As Will’s experience demonstrates, coaching should not only be reserved for the C-suite. Everyone — from first-time managers to seasoned CEOs — improves with a good coach

Michelle Vitus

Michelle Vitus is founder and CEO of Slate Advisers, an impact-driven leadership and career coaching firm on a mission to empower leaders to thrive.

Previously, Michelle was director of business development at two startups and, prior to that, a vice president at Wells Fargo Commercial Banking.

Michelle holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and a BSB in Finance from the University of Minnesota. 

Christy Tonge

Christy Tonge is a veteran executive coach for Silicon Valley tech leaders and the podcast host of LeadersGetReal.com.