Designing and Implementing Leader as Coach Programs

{Grant & Hartley, 2013. Developing the leader as coach: insights, strategies and tips for embedding coaching skills in the workplace. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research, and Practice, 2013 Vol. 6, No. 2}

Short description: This article describes the basic steps and ingredients of effectively implementing an initiative to build and deploy a positive leadership culture based on the “leader as coach” as an essential component. These steps are:

Select and use an evidence-based approach;

Make it theoretically grounded and practical;

Design the program content;

Brand the program internally;

Use the organization’s respected figures as champions;

Use attraction rather than coercion;

Monitor, evaluate, and embed the culture change;

Make it personal;

Provide follow-up coach-the-coach sessions;

Mobilize a competent HR team;

Use prompts and cues to action.


Leadership behavior patterns in work organizations are the focus of leadership development initiatives. Workplace coaching skills are a recent addition to the leader’s toolkit. Many executives and organizational consultants have noticed that sending a leader to a workshop doesn’t make for an instant brilliant leader. Changing behavior is not a linear, single-step process. The road to effectiveness is somewhat slippery and wet. Developing a skill is one thing; adopting it into daily action is another. Three to six months is a realistic timeframe to embed new intentional behaviors, such as a new style of communicating and relating, as in the case of coaching skills. Learning transfer to the workplace cannot be separated from the learning initiative and is as important as its content and delivery.

The Strength-Based Development Program is based on a theoretical framework with highly practical program content. The evidence-based program design ensures program alignment with the organization’s goals, values, and language as essential foundations for embedding coaching skills. The purpose is to foster flourishing, thriving “positive work and organization.”

Developing and embedding coaching skills

Regular prompts serve the formation of a new, intentional, and useful habit to perform the desired behavior. Prompts, in addition to cues, are reminders about one’s intention to change.

Regular prompts refresh memories of specific techniques and remind them to apply the coaching skills daily in the workplace. In addition, reminders, prompts, peer coaching, and follow-up sessions provide internalizing and embedding support.

Reminders and cues range across the full spectrum of leadership capabilities focusing on personal and professional issues, including self-management, active listening, personal authenticity and values, or core solution-focused coaching skills.

Examples of useful coaching tips and reminders:

Use these tips as prompts to help leaders develop and embed their workplace coaching skills. Send the tip with a preface and introduction, such as:

“Please take a moment to read and reflect on this tip and think about how you could apply these ideas in your work today or over the next few days.”

Tip 1: Role model leadership coaching skills

What? A leader’s behavior impacts significantly on others. When leaders display arrogant, dismissive, or rude behavior, those around them copy them or turn away in disgust – the antithesis of a positive coaching culture. Good leaders model the coaching behaviors they wish to adopt – even under pressure.

How? Ask yourself: How can I better model positive coaching behaviors as a leader?

Tip 2: Pay attention to how you listen

What? How we listen determines what we hear and how people perceive us. But we rarely think about our listening styles. How do you listen? Are you people-focused? Do you listen for meaning, or are you typically more focused on listening for errors? Are you judgmental in your listening? Are you time-poor and get impatient when listening? What effect does your listening style have on your work relationships?

How? Today I will pay attention to how I listen to others and adjust my listening style to become a better listener and coach.

Tip 3: Recognize the personal strengths of others at work

What? People work best when they are aware of and use their strengths. Yet all too often, leaders, in the rush of daily corporate life, do not take the time to acknowledge others’ strengths, which is particularly important in coaching conversations.

How? Today I will take the time to recognize and acknowledge others’ strengths at work.

Tip 4: Enhance social capital through coaching

What? Organizations run better when people know and trust each other: teams are more productive, deals move quicker, and people perform better when relationships are strong. An organization’s social capital is vital to its success and people’s wellbeing.

How? Ask yourself: What can I do today to increase trust and social capital through my coaching?

Tip 5: Take time to pause

What? So often, we rush through the day, running from one meeting to the next, not taking time to pause. The danger is that we end up feeling drained and frustrated. Under such stress, we are likely less able to coach and respond positively to others.

How? Today I will pause every so often during the day to recharge myself and put emphasis on positively interacting with others at work.

Tip 6: Use goals effectively and flexibly

What? Goal setting is vital in purposeful, positive change. Useful goals are specific; otherwise, measuring if we are achieving them is difficult. SMART goals are specific, measurable, attractive (achievable), realistic, and time-framed. We need to be flexible in how we use goals, from time to time, reviewing and revising them. Being too fixated on the result or rigid in our SMART goals restricts our ability to adapt to new situations or changing demands.

How? Ask yourself: Do I need to pause today to take a fresh look at my goals?

Tip 7: Use self-coaching at work

What? To coach others, we must be good at coaching ourselves. We reflect, take stock, and set goals to do so. There is always room for improvement, even for the biggest and best of us.

How? Ask yourself: What personal changes do I need to make this week? What would make a difference to how I work with others?

Embedding begins with design: use an evidence-based approach.

The design of the workshop program should be evidence-based. This means employing principles of adult learning, including the use of spaced learning; avoiding cognitive overload by breaking the content into small, easy-to-remember chunks; fostering cooperative learning; making the material personal by encouraging the participants to express the ideas and concepts in their own words; using techniques designed to help participants remember key concepts.

Most importantly, encourage learning transfer through skills practice in the workplace. For example, arrange for participants to do a set number of documented coaching sessions in the weeks immediately following the workshop and then attend peer-coaching groups, which subsequently meet regularly to coach each other on workplace-related issues. Participants then practice coaching skills in a supportive environment, receive feedback, solve workplace problems, and actively develop a workplace culture supportive of coaching. In addition, follow-up group supervision sessions with an experienced coaching supervisor serve participants to discuss coaching-related issues and their skills development.

Make it theoretically grounded and extremely practical. 

A large-scale coaching program must be designed to engage a diverse range of people. Some people are theoretically inclined, and some are practically oriented. Theory and practice must be linked, and participants must see positive results immediately, engaging learners fully in the experiential learning cycle.

A well-researched, validated, evidence-based approach to coaching is solution-focused cognitive-behavioral (SF-CB) coaching with a solid theoretical framework that is easy to understand and apply, jargon-free, and extremely effective.

The SF-CB coaching framework posits that goal attainment is best facilitated by understanding the reciprocal relationships between one’s thoughts, feelings, behavior, and the environment and purposefully changing or structuring these to best support goal attainment. The coaching is oriented to personal strengths development and goal attainment instead of problem diagnosis or analysis.

To make the approach pragmatically relevant, the facilitator-instructor can present the SF-CB framework by first talking about how thoughts, feelings, and behavior relate and how environmental context can facilitate or hinder goal attainment. Using models visually illustrates the key points. Personal examples further illustrate these reciprocal relations, such as when procrastinating, how unhelpful thinking patterns and anxiety are related, and how those instigate avoidance behaviors, in turn resulting in procrastination. Participants then use a genuine, current personal problem to map out the cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and environmental factors involved and use the SF-CB framework to map out the factors needed to create a solution. This learning cycle gives a theoretical understanding, practical examples, and personal experience of using the SF-CB framework to construct workable solutions, embodying key adult learning principles.

Program content

In-house workplace coaching differs from professional coaching, ranging from the formal structured session to the informal, on-the-run session.

Formal, scheduled sessions with explicit goals have a clear beginning and end, with most of the conversation in “coaching mode.” In contrast, informal coaching occurs during everyday workplace conversations, where coaching techniques are used more implicitly for a few minutes at a time.

Coaching sessions, and even whole engagements, tend to fall into one of three categories; skills, performance, or developmental coaching. But, of course, these typologies are not discrete, and a coaching intervention might include more than one element.

Skills coaching focuses on developing a specific skill set, often focusing on specific behaviors with highly detailed discussion. The coach may model the required skill, and coaching sessions usually encompass rehearsal and feedback. Performance coaching is about improving performance over a specific period, be it a few weeks or a year, focusing on how the client sets goals, overcomes obstacles and setbacks, and helps the client evaluate and monitor their performance as they work toward their goals. Finally, developmental coaching takes a broader strategic approach, often dealing with personal and professional development issues, enhancing emotional competencies, or working more effectively with team members.

It is important to match the coaching approach to the issue addressed to keep the coaching conversation on track. In addition, workplace issues entail diverse challenges, so it makes sense to train participants in all these approaches to coaching.

Ensure internal program branding. 

The argument is simple: the resulting program, as a whole and its parts, should align with the organization’s values and culture while providing the flexibility needed for effective organizational change. This requires a clear statement of specific needs and values and a design that fully integrates with the brand and its language and communications.

Implementing the program should reinforce key brand messages and the organization’s espoused values, reflected in desired attitudes and behaviors. For example, the program might explicitly include a number of the organization’s core values (preferably relevant to coaching) and make frequent references to such organizational language, enhancing the embedding into daily operations.

Use respected internal figures as champions.

Positive role models influence and shape behavior and self-efficacy. Full support of senior leadership should be announced with clear and consistent messaging about the importance of the program. The business case and its argument inform further strategic communications emphasizing the positive impact coaching has on wellbeing, engagement, organizational culture, personal and professional development, and benefits on goal-attainment and financial impacts.

Use attraction rather than coercion.

Development cannot be mandated. Positive attractors in facilitating intentional change have advantages over negative ones. In the early stages, have participants self-select into the program who can be genuinely invested. Develop enthusiastic and influential early adopters during roll-out and have them carry a positive message to the broader workforce. Accept participants in the early stages of the roll-out who demonstrate key personal and interpersonal features such as empathy, trust, insight, and openness to change. If the program truly meets the organization’s needs, as it rolls out, it would not take long for other people to want to participate. However, the attraction strategy needs to be augmented by senior figures repeatedly and consistently reminding others of the benefits of participating.

Monitor, evaluate, and embed: the Personal Case Study approach.  

Monitoring and evaluating with actionable feedback is vital for any change.

In the Personal Case Study approach, participants, at the beginning of the workshop, write about a personal coaching or leadership problem or issue they face at work and then rate how close they are to solving that problem and their confidence level in dealing with the issue. They generate personally meaningful metrics to evaluate their learning and provide useful benchmarks for measuring change.

During the workshop, participants relate the content to their case study, noting insights and possible steps to solutions as they emerge. At the end of the workshop, participants re-rate themselves concerning goal progression and confidence increase.

Linking learning explicitly to a personally defined coaching or leadership problem makes the training relevant to each individual. In addition, it provides clear links to the workplace, helping further embed the learning.

Make it personal. 

Participants personalize the coaching tools, techniques, and strategies to enhance retention and facilitate learning transfer. Participants express the concepts and principles in their own words and develop personal phrases and language that feels authentic and genuine, giving a greater sense of personal ownership and internalizing effective coaching principles.

Provide follow-up coach-the-coach sessions.

Group supervision sessions provide reflective learning activities such as discussing real-life leadership and coaching issues, role plays, and group coaching. As a result, participants deepen their understanding of leadership and coaching principles and transform insights and actions into habits.

A strengths-based, structured approach builds self-efficacy and facilitates peer coaching. Sessions start with participants highlighting some coaching “success” before identifying common group issues and then engaging in problem-solving group peer-coaching.

Mobilize a competent HR team.

The HR team is the “in-house” experts. They marshal support for the program from key stakeholders, keeping senior managers engaged and enthused and managing the program’s roll-out logistics. For large-scale programs, a nominated full-time “Head of Coaching” with requisite authority is essential who understands the business and can navigate the organizational system, attending to key stakeholder issues.