Academic view: The call for coaching skills in today’s leaders

Companies increasingly want their leaders to have coaching skills. Professor Julia Milner (pictured), Academic Director of the Global MBA at EDHEC Business School, explains what business schools can do to address this

WHEN MBA graduates finish their degrees, we want them to have a variety of capabilities. One of the main ones is “leadership skills”. Yet the eternal question remains: which leadership skills should we focus on?

The first step, as in any business case, is to explore industry demands. There is already a break from the past in what organisations want from their leaders. In a companywide internal review at Google in 2013 to establish what made an effective manager, “being a good coach” came top of a long list—trumping technical expertise. The millennial generation, who already constitute the largest segment of the workforce, crave coaching by their managers.

New developments in the world of work require new leadership approaches. Leading no longer happens solely face-to-face: technology allows individuals and teams to work remotely and on-demand. Workers join and leave projects more frequently, so employees must act more as entrepreneurs. The manager’s skillset must allow people to experiment, to find their own answers and to learn from their mistakes. A traditional “command and control” approach in which people are told what to do and are micromanaged won’t work. Managers might miss out on great ideas because they are telling their staff what to do. By contrast, a coaching approach enables the employee to come up with their own ideas and enables their intrinsic motivations. Research shows that when leaders use coaching it improves employee’s motivation levels and performance, and boosts satisfaction with both their job and manager. 

Coaching skills may be more in demand, but they are in short supply.  In a 2017 Financial Times survey that asked what skills employers are looking for in MBA graduates, coaching was listed as being one of the most difficult to recruit. This issue is a regular occurrence in my consulting work. Understanding what coaching is can be a challenge. I have seen executives tell managers to “Just Coach”, without providing the necessary training. Some leaders think of someone yelling instructions from the sidelines but that is simply solving an issue for their team member. Instead I help managers to develop their listening skills and how to ask the right questions: what are your own observations; what is working; what is not working and what alternatives are yet to be explored?

Business schools therefore need to teach how leaders become good coaches. In the Global MBA course I teach, my starting point is to cover basic coaching techniques such as: 

appropriate questioning instead of prescribing solutions

constructive feedback 

assisting with goal setting

effective listening skills

identifying and working with employee strengths 

alignment of individual & organisational values

perspective, ie, understanding the challenges. It takes longer initially to manage in this way, but it is quicker in the long run because teams are more able to manage themselves. Managers can then focus on more strategic issues instead of getting lost in dealing with day-to-day issues.  

One of the most important points in learning coaching is a focus on receiving feedback and reflection. Managers may think they are asking a question, when they are simply disguising an instruction: “don’t you think it is a good idea to go with option A?”. By contrast, open questions such as “What do you see as a way forward?”, allow a team member to come up with their own answer. It is also important to encourage feedback on one’s own coaching skills and take the time to reflect on this. 

The good news is that leaders can learn coaching skills. The bad news is that in most cases they have to be taught them. In a recent study I co-authored, we found that out of 580 human resource and general managers at Australian companies, 40% said they wanted initial or more training in coaching skills. Organisations should not expect to employ natural coaches and managers are demanding training in coaching. Google now makes good coaching practices part of its leaders’ evaluation system and training portfolio. Business schools need to arm their MBAs with these skills, and organisations should further this training and incorporate coaching into their culture. 

Professor Julia Milner teaches an MBA core subject on ‘Managing Human Capital with Coaching’. Training leaders in coaching skills, she co-developed the LEADER model, which caters to the unique situation of leaders as coaches. She has just been named among the world’s top 40 business school professors under the age of 40 by Poets & Quants.

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