how to coach a leader
Bruce Mayhew

Bruce Mayhew is an executive coach with Bruce Mayhew Consulting. He’s also a trainer and speaker. We speak to Bruce about the fine points of coaching a leader, how to coach a leader, and what to expect.

Defining leadership

Coaching a leader sounds fairly straightforward, but a key part of it must depend on the definition and understanding of leadership. Is this something you clarify at the start with clients and, next, what is your definition of leadership?

Yes – This is a great place to start when working on leadership development. Too often people have an idea that a leader is a boss. They have to be all knowing, all seeing and all powerful . . . which is (in my belief), a legacy idea from the 1900s.

But today, studies show 65-80 per cent of leadership is soft skills, being able to intrinsically motivate and support people to do THEIR best as a collaborative team Or at least all running toward the same goal/vision and demonstrating/reinforcing the same corporate values.

Aspects of leadership

What are the key aspects of a good leader? 

Some of the important aspects of a great leader are:

  • They build a strategy to meet the company needs today and tomorrow. Focus on results/sets Priorities
  • They focus on values and vision.
  • They promote cooperation/collaboration
  • They are innovative/open to change, improvement
  • They are accountable for the decisions they make.
  • They are ready to be a role model for others. Strong yet Humble.
  • They help their individuals and their team (and themselves grow). Leadership is a constant learning experience.
  • They are prepared to do difficult work and have difficult conversations. They know they/their decisions won’t always be popular.
  • They build relationships with their team/company/community/partners.
  • They are trustworthy – they keep the trust of the people they work for and who work for them.

Bruce Mayhew’s goals for coaching leaders

What do you aim to achieve when you coach leaders?

Given my list in Q2, it is unlikely (near impossible) that a leader can demonstrate all of these . . . and that should be OK. The trick is to know:

  • What you are good at
  • What you enjoy
  • What you are great at
  • What you are lousy at
  • What you don’t enjoy doing… at all

Knowing this enables the people I work with to be OK with who they are and to make the most of what they do. This also allows people to not only NOT beat themselves up on what they are not great at or don’t enjoy doing… it allows them to focus on what they are good at/great at and do enjoy doing.

It is better to hire someone to do the work you don’t enjoy/are lousy at than to spend instead of spending your valuable time and to focus on all the work you really enjoy and are really good at.

How to coach a leader

This is a big question which might be hard to answer in a few paragraphs, but what is your starting point with most clients, and how do you go about coaching them?

The beginning is all about conversation. It’s about building trust between us. It’s about being able to share great information and to also be able to share difficult information / have difficult conversations.

Most people know what they are good at and where their challenges are. They don’t need a lot of expensive 360’s or other analysis. And if they are at the leadership level they have years of performance reviews where people have told them what they are good at and especially where they need improvement. So, we usually start there.

From there, we start looking at their personal and professional goals. Wants and needs in the next year to three years? What does their family need if they have one or are starting one? What does their career need if they are starting a new chapter or want to start something new?

A coach helps them clarify what is important to them and to help them make decisions and track the progress of those decisions moving forward.

How to coach a leader and the roadblocks along the way

Generally speaking, what are the roadblocks to coaching? For example, does a client require a good degree of adaptability or flexibility? And what kinds of leaders will find the greatest success from coaching sessions?

  1. A trusting relationship with their coach
  2. A knowledge that something does have to change. This is especially true if the coaching is suggested by their employer
  3. A commitment to the process – that doing the same thing they are doing now is not going to give them the results they want. They are at the centre of the situation. They are responsible for the outcome – I am a guide to help them see the path they are looking for and to help them avoid the cliff.

Measuring coaching progress

Is it possible to measure coaching progress and a client’s success?

Actually yes – but I don’t. This gets back to 360’s and other self-assessment tools like SuccessFinder (both of which are great) when implemented by organizations that know how.

I find measurement can get into the way… unless it is a straightforward goal like, “I am close… but I want to make sure I’m a VP in 2 years.”

I like to think of coaching as more organic because coaching can often start with one goal and quickly uncover many more – sometimes more important – sometimes more foundational goals.

Good leaders respond to employees as individuals

You’ve talked about good leaders seeing employees as both a team and individuals. This sounds as though it could be hard to achieve. How’s it done?

Individuals have to be responsible for their own performance – but they have to also be committed to the team. Great leaders spend time to know what each employees needs/goals are and help them achieve them.

For example, some people may want to move their career forward while others are happy with where they are and like the stability. Leaders need to be able to know what the team needs and to 1. Hire based on those needs 2. Motivate team members as individuals and as team members accordingly.

Coach vs mentor

What’s the difference between a coach and mentor, and how can a good leader know when to be a coach or mentor? What are the signals he should look for?

As a coach it’s your job to be curious but stay out of the way. It’s the employees’ choice to determine their need and their goals, it’s also their choice what action they take. It’s you job as the coach to be curious and be present but also put aside their personal and professional opinions, preferences and needs. You are not there to provide solutions; your employees have to find their answers.

As a mentor it is your job to be a bit more engaged in guiding the employee than a coach. Mentors introduce employees to other people, open doors to opportunities, give advice, shares their experiences and can even teach the employee how to do certain things. A mentor is usually an ongoing relationship that is focused on supporting the short and long-term development of the employee.

What is leading from behind?

A leader must lead from behind – many of us have heard this. What exactly does it mean and, more importantly, how’s it done?

This gets back to the 80 per cent soft skills idea. Leading from behind means:

If 20 per cent of the leader’s work is strategic – they set the vision – they define the big picture. This is the old-school component of leadership that is still important.

If 80 per cent (leading from behind), of a leader’s work is supportive, it means they now hand over HOW to their team(s). The leader cannot have all of the expertise in today’s market to know and be an expert at everything. The team has to now use their expertise to make the dream happen.

The leader watches from behind and makes sure the team is doing things like:

  • Being responsible
  • Moving the project forward
  • Hitting the deadlines
  • Has the resources they need
  • Is being creative / collaborating / sharing responsibility based on each of their expertise
  • Is meeting the budget
  • Bringing challenges forward

If the leader sees this is not happening – they step in and help solve the challenge and get the team back on track – but they do not go in and start dictating all of the decisions.

Tapping into internal motivators

I remember reading a survey that revealed that most people’s number one reward for work is not money; that’s usually second or third on the list of motivations. At the top of the list are things like contributing, self-worth, or sense of achievement. How can a leader tap into these internal motivators to bring about the best in an employee?

This gets back to your question #7.

The survey you read is correct for almost all people. Some people (very few) are still only motivated by money. Especially Millennials – intrinsic motivators are very important to them.

Leaders have to know what the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators are for each of their employees. You do this by having regular conversations with them . . . I would hate to think of it as a test or survey to take.

This year my intrinsic motivator may be work flexibility because I have a parent who is ill. Next year my intrinsic motivator may sway closer to achievement and career goals. But, if a leader treats everyone the same – or as if the year-end bonus is all that matters, they will have a loyalty / retention AND motivation problem… not to mention a performance and likely, a customer satisfaction problem.

Workplace flexibility / Virtual workspaces is an important part of this… but has to be seen as one option not the only option. Why? Because I may need flexibility and you may not. And if the company decides to go 100% virtual, then they have a whole other challenge on their hands which is a far bigger discussion than individual leadership. (a discussion I am happy to have).

It’s a matter of trust

Employees, especially Millennials and Gen Z, want to do quality work, where they KNOW they are making a difference, where they know they are growing – gaining new skill and where they feel appreciated. They want to trust and be trusted. Trust, in particular, can be a sticking point. How can employees earn trust, and how can leaders modify their coaching/style so that they are responsive to older and younger employees?

This gets back to your #9 question… and your #10 question. Leaders have to show they know and trust their individual employees. Leaders must also show they know and trust their teams.

Employees and teams have to keep that trust by meeting goals, working collaboratively, coming to their leaders early… when they need help, taking the responsibility they are asking for and not falling short / letting down the leader and/or team.

How to coach a leader  . . . yourself

When your work with a leader ends, what must they do to ensure they remain a strong leader?

They have to want to be one because they want to be a great / strong leader… not for money or power… especially power. Great leaders don’t crave power – they crave impact.

How to coach a leader, by Bruce Mayhew

Bruce Mayhew is a corporate trainer, professional conference speaker and executive coach. He specializes in soft skills communication training like email etiquette training, leadership, motivation, generational differences (Millennials At work/Generations@Work), time management, having difficult conversations, emotional intelligence (EI) and hiring best practices.

Bruce knows that when employees are happy and proud of the company and leader, they are more productive and enjoy their workplaces. They develop deeper customer relationships, support employee work/life balance, and are more loyal. So another of his roles is to help employees develop greater communications kills and confidence so that they are proud of their work and better at time management. Find Bruce on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Sheelagh Caygill

Sheelagh Caygill is an award-winning content marketer, communications practitioner, and journalist. Based in Toronto, Sheelagh has worked for media outlets including The Edmonton Journal and The Northern Echo, as well as the corporate and non-profit sector in Canada and the U.K.

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