Martin Baker: Coaching is a benefit not a punishment

Good leaders don’t tell you what to do, they help you find the answers yourself

Ten years ago in my role as the UK partner for Harvard Business School, I approached a well-known football club to work with their staff on leadership development using our training materials.

Unfortunately they didn’t go ahead.

I was told by their head of HR that they couldn’t get the budget signed off because the problem with any training at the football club was that, if it didn’t happen on the pitch, no one high-up was interested. Only their players were worth investing in, it seemed. 

I have never forgotten this because it struck me as the perfect analogy. The more footballers train with their coach, the better they become on the pitch. Yet the leaders at the football club couldn’t see that the same applied to their office staff. 

Why was a coach accepted as hugely beneficial for the people on the field, but not in the workplace? Because on the pitch there is no stigma attached to having a coach. In the workplace it’s a different story.

In most private sector companies, it’s usually only senior leaders who have access to external coaches and there is a secrecy surrounding coaching. I would bet money that neither their peers nor those that they manage would know that they are working with a coach. 

This is because it’s often seen as a sign of weakness that senior leaders need a coach – with a widespread perception from others that they are meant to know everything.

I myself have a coach and I have vowed to be completely honest with everyone in my organisation that I have one.

I also want to be public about the benefits of coaching, which is about getting the best out of people so that they fulfil their potential. Coaching helps to nurture innovation within organisations and improves performance. 

Within the third sector, coaching is not only becoming more acceptable but also more widespread. Both Scope, the disability equality charity, and Diabetes UK have coaching programmes. In fact, at Scope, coaching is seen as an everyday approach. 

A coach doesn’t need to know anything about a particular subject, as their role is to help you find the answers through asking questions.

Their skill is in helping you find the answer – because coaching is all about conversations. These conversations can happen everywhere, at any time. This is why Scope called its in-house coaching programme Coaching in a Coffee Cup, to reflect the fact that you can have a coaching conversation in the same amount of time that it takes to make a cup of tea or coffee. 

At Diabetes UK, the aim is that coaching is just seen as part of the way that things are done at the organisation. Coaching is encouraged as a core skill for every manager and leader. 

So, how does coaching help managers and leaders?

A good manager is someone who will coach their people, not simply manage them. A good leader doesn’t tell you what to do, they help you find the answers yourself, by asking the right questions – inspiring you to reach your full potential. 

The best leaders make the best coaches. The best coaches make the best leaders.That’s why it’s time for more charities to embrace coaching as the way forward. 

Martin Baker is the founder and chief executive of the Charity Learning Consortium. Download The Little Book of In-house Coaching for free

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