What is Leadership Coaching? Debunking 3 Common Misconceptions

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Leadership coaching is a highly personalized methodology that cultivates leaders and grows companies from the inside out — but it’s not widely understood.


It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when coaching first made its way into the corporate world, but many people point back to the 1970 publication of a book called The Inner Game of Tennis, by W.T. Gallwey. Although ostensibly about tennis, Gallwey’s book transcended sport and became crucial reading for business leaders who were looking to overcome obstacles such as fear, doubt, lapses in focus and others. 

In the decades since The Inner Game of Tennis was published, leadership coaching has been embraced by Human Resources executives as a crucial method for nurturing their best talent and driving measurable business outcomes for their organization. But despite its surge in popularity, leadership coaching is still not widely understood, and even today there are a lot of misconceptions about how it can best be implemented in a corporation. Let’s take a look at three of the most common ones, so your team knows what to watch out for. 

What is leadership coaching, and why does it matter?

Before we jump in, let’s start by defining what leadership coaching actually is. Leadership coaching is a highly personalized, action-oriented approach to professional leadership development. Coaches partner with coachees to increase self-awareness and generate insights that can lead to lasting mindset and behavior shifts. To maximize results, coaches also align growth objectives with business KPIs.

In today’s environment, employees often receive managerial promotions without adequate training. Without dedicated resources for growth and development, leaders can find themselves stuck in a cycle of reactivity. Coaching breaks that cycle and empowers leaders to make their greatest possible impact for the organization.

Misconception #1:
Leadership coaching is the same thing as life coaching

So what is leadership coaching? Well, for starters, it’s not the same thing as life coaching. Although life coaching is a valuable tool, the approach is distinct from leadership coaching.   While a leadership coach considers the whole person, their goal is not to coach someone’s whole life. In today’s performance-driven work culture, corporations often reference bringing the “whole self” to work, which adds to the confusion.

The critical difference between life coaching and leadership coaching is that the latter has concrete goals that link directly to business KPIs. Goals related to one’s personal life, like marital satisfaction, for instance, are not a focus in this context. Instead, leadership coaches will share strategies that help leaders manage their personal and professional responsibilities, enabling them to show up as their best selves at work.

One reason this misconception is so common is that the quality of leadership coaching varies throughout the field. Some programs underemphasize business goals in favor of personal objectives. Others zero-in on specific skills like decision making or crisis management, rather than proactive skill cultivation in general. When selecting a coaching partner, you’ll need to ask hard-hitting questions about the role of data and measurement in their program. If their targets are ambiguous goals that seem subjective or situational, such as overall happiness, that’s a red flag.

Sounding Board coaches certainly help leaders find a healthy work/life balance, but that’s not their primary focus. Their core objective is to aid their professional development so they can contribute to the growth of the company.  

Misconception #2:
Leadership coaching is only necessary at the executive level

Research shows that about 85% of leadership coaching goes to C-suite executives. The prevailing belief is that coaching generates the most ROI at the executive level and that it’s too expensive to scale the approach for lower-tier leaders. However, the number one piece of feedback we receive from C-suite executives is, “I wish I had coaching earlier in my career.” What’s more, we’ve witnessed the transformational impact coaching can have on new and rising leaders first-hand.

When companies offer leadership coaching to new leaders, it accelerates their growth. Leadership styles vary, and leaders are most successful when they can identify and hone their approach earlier in their careers. Because there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership development, coaching supports individual growth most effectively. Everyone has a specific recipe for leadership, and a coach can help them perfect it.

Neuroscience research indicates that the earlier we leverage brain plasticity to develop a “growth mindset,” the greater our performance will be. In fact, performance can improve by more than 80% with growth mindset intervention. Supporting new managers through leadership coaching is one way to facilitate this. Early coaching also allows them to practice positive leadership behaviors. This intervention is crucial, given that emotion and experience are the primary drivers of leadership development.

At Sounding Board, we work with leaders at every rung of an organization — from CEOs and Vice Presidents to beginning managers, who are just learning on the job. The key is to pair leaders with the right coach based on things like their experience level, growth needs, and overall personal style.

Misconception #3:
Training is sufficient 

When it comes to leadership development, HR professionals often gravitate towards training or workshops. While these programs have considerable merit on their own, leaders need more than a sense of the basics to be effective. Training sticks better when we integrate it into the day-to-day — after all, people don’t internalize the lessons until they use them in context. Coaching can work alongside traditional training to boost its efficacy by addressing present business needs and individual growth blockers.

According to the Harvard Business Review, context alignment is more important than theoretical skill development when it comes to corporate learning programs. Because coaching is a one-to-one approach, it makes that context alignment possible. We’ve found that learning is most effective when it relates to and supports an existing challenge. New skills are integrated faster when they can be put into practice immediately.

Coaching can also inform training program design. Through coaching, organizations can uncover real challenges, issues, and themes that emerge from sessions. The Sounding Board platform shares insights in real-time to help guide business decisions and enable companies to invest in specific developmental areas consciously. One client of ours that was experiencing a major shift identified “strategic thinking” as a serious challenge across its entire leadership team. They were all so busy in the day-to-day and focused on urgent work — none of them had the chance to step back and think about the important things. Coaching feedback indicated that many leaders understood the new strategy, but struggled to translate it into action. This insight prompted the company’s HR team to invest in additional training around strategic thinking — a topic that had not arisen in their initial assessment.

Finally, coaching can also level-up training programs by offering candid feedback tailored to the individual. A good coach will nurture leaders with support and encouragement, but they will also be brutally honest when necessary. Sometimes, honest feedback from an unbiased third-party closes the loop and maximizes the impact of training. 

Conclusion

Leadership development will undoubtedly be a core focus for many organizations in 2020. As they move into planning, it’s important for HR and talent leaders to understand exactly what leadership coaching is and what it is not. A leadership development program that includes coaching helps organizations maximize their employees’ talent and grow their next generation of leaders. But, when implemented poorly, these programs become a burden on the HR team, not to mention a waste of time and money for the company

Understanding the truth behind these three misconceptions can set your leadership coaching program up for success. To get more tips on how to implement an effective leadership development program in your organization, download our e-book, The Definitive Guide to Developing a Successful Leadership Coaching Program.

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Lori Mazan

Co-Founder & Chief Coaching Officer

Lori Mazan is the Co-Founder and Chief Coaching Officer of Sounding Board, the preeminent global leadership development enterprise platform changing the face of leadership development through innovative technology for leaders at all levels of an organization. Lori is a seasoned executive coach who has guided hundreds of corporate executives through 1:1 coaching focused on business outcomes and developing critical leadership skills. Client companies advanced by Lori’s expertise include Fortune titans such as Chevron and Sprint as well as high growth and public companies like Intellikine, and Tapjoy, plus 10XGenomics, which became a public company in 2019 while top executives worked with Lori and the Sounding Board team.
Lori has spent the last 25 years coaching C-Suite executives to leadership excellence. Many of those public and private company CEO’s expressed that they would have liked this caliber of coaching earlier in their careers. Inspired by these experiences, Lori joined with Christine to launch Sounding Board as a feedback-driven, cloud-based leadership coaching platform that could maintain best-in-class leadership coaching while lowering costs to make it affordable and scalable for leaders at every level of their careers.
Before founding Sounding Board, Lori received her Masters’ in Adult Educational Psychology/Counseling from the University of San Francisco and a Bachelors’ in Psychology from the University of Virginia. Lori is an educator and has spent over 10 years as a professor of social psychology and group dynamics while acting as the interim Dean of Students at Holy Names University, She is certified by the industry’s gold standard, the Coaches Training Institute, and is a founding member of the Genentech Preferred Network of Coaches. Sounding Board is one of <3% of sole female founded startups receiving venture funding. In 2019 Sounding Board was selected as 1 of 7 startups (out of 100+ applicants) as part of SAP’s HR tech cohort, a group that represents the rising stars of the next-gen HR ecosystem.

Christine Tao

Co-Founder & CEO Sounding Board, Inc.

Christine Tao is the co-founder & CEO at Sounding Board, a Silicon Valley startup redefining how organizations are developing their leaders. Her extraordinarily rapid career growth to executive management in the media, mobile and tech sectors of Silicon Valley became her inspiration for founding Sounding Board. As she began to manage larger teams and be responsible for growing revenues, it became clear that she needed a “sounding board” to coach her on the development of her leadership skills. That’s where her Sounding Board co-founder, Lori Mazan came on the scene. A seasoned executive coach focused on leadership development, Lori coached Christine on real-world leadership skills that had a direct impact on business outcomes. Based on her positive and impactful experience with leadership development, Christine was driven to make leadership development coaching accessible to people at all levels of the organization.
Christine advises several startups, is a budding angel investor and is also a Tory Burch Foundation Fellow, a foundation dedicated to investing in the success and sustainability of women entrepreneurs.
Prior to co-founding Sounding Board, Christine was a Senior Vice President of Developer Relations at Tapjoy, a venture-backed, leading mobile advertising & publishing network. She led the growth of Tapjoy’s publisher advertising business from 0 to over $100 million in revenues in less than 3 years. Prior to that she led e-commerce partnerships and strategy at YouTube. Christine holds an MBA in Marketing & Operations from Wharton and a BA in Business Administration from UC Berkeley.

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