Leadership and coaching: commitment to personal development

Ignacio Alvarez de Mon.Professor. Instituto de Empresa

26 January 2004

What is coaching? The author examines its popularity, practical use - and its effect on you and your work.

Today’s executives might well ask, 'What is coaching, anyway?' as they contemplate desks strewn high with articles, training programs and consultancy projects on the subject. Skepticism may be the logical reaction to this avalanche. When managers have the opportunity to contrast messages preached on the subject with the policies and practices that predominate in their own companies, this skepticism turns to defensiveness and open rejection.

[*D Many executives believe that only results matter in professional development: 'everything else is just hot air' *]

It is not surprising therefore that many experienced professionals, fed up with programs that, at best, are no more than gimmickry, see coaching as the latest toy for professors, consultants and human resources managers. Since the facts of everyday life in their companies have instilled this idea in them, many executives believe that only results matter in professional development; everything else is just hot air.

Yet coaching is not just a fleeting fad. It responds to the needs of a new organizational business approach that is becoming increasingly generalized. Executives are ultimately responsible for the people under their charge. This new paradigm has been driven by the current business situation: the greater skills, diversity and multiculturality of an ever more qualified workforce; extension of the sphere of control; or reduction of hierarchical levels. We have to manage an ever-increasing number of employees who are more heterogeneous, capable and independent, and sometimes under greater stress.

What management style is most effective in this rapidly changing context? To what extent do organizations need their executives to assume greater prominence in the professional development of their people? And shouldn’t we be speaking more of leadership than management abilities? What relation does this leadership aspect have to the idea behind coaching?

Rules for new leaders

The new approach demands a fundamental rethink and a new business philosophy. One demand that must be made of organizations and their leaders is coherence. This means the principal organizational dimensions should be aligned on a consistent project path. Strategy, structure, policies and procedures, management styles, skills, disposition and types of people must all be integrated into a common vision. The vision which inspires coaching and personal development is one which accepts professionals as, first and foremost, persons. It is one which accepts that they cannot develop as professionals unless they enjoy parallel progress as individuals. This new vision assigns a more modern function to the traditional boss: that of coach or facilitator.

What is expected of these new bosses?
- That they help their people acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to perform their work well (aptitudes).
- That they contribute toward creating a healthy and challenging labor environment, where professionals can yield the maximum performance of which they are capable (attitudes).
- That they identify behavior patterns that lead to excellence in performance of their work (abilities – conduct).
- That these behavior patterns and superior levels of performance are translated into improved results for the organization.

What new abilities are called for to perform this new function?
- Analysis and observation. Identifying the most suitable employee-job combination and detecting causes of poor performance.
- Self-criticism. Accepting that some of our limitations as executives may be the cause of our collaborators’ defects. Often we wish them to be replicas of ourselves, which, apart from being boring, has an impoverishing effect.
- Strategic vision of both one’s and others’ professional careers. Is our management style compatible with our organization’s culture? How has our career progressed to date? What new achievements are expected of me? Where do I see myself in one, three or five years? To what extent does my success depend on the success of those who work with me?
- Closeness, or everyday contact with collaborators. It is essential to invest time and dedication, especially at the beginning. It is worth the trouble; we’ll be more than compensated later by the increased efficiency and autonomy of our team.
- Generosity, dedication, service. We must care about others, and their personal and professional development.
- Trust, or faith in human nature. None of the above makes any sense if we believe people never change, can’t change after a certain age, or if we fail to give them opportunities to demonstrate their worth.

[*D Developing oneself and contributing toward developing others is a reward of such magnitude that once you have experienced it, it is hard to turn your back on it *]

It is not easy to be a good coach, and even harder when so many hurdles can arise along the way. These include talent pools (where people are told whether they are good or not), lack of incentives (intrinsic, economic or emotional), or the fact that even if you are asked to develop your people, your actions have no impact. There is a consolation however, and it is perhaps the most important factor. Developing oneself and contributing toward developing others is a reward of such magnitude that once you have experienced it, it is hard to turn your back on it.

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