coaching business in office with employees

What Is a Coaching Leadership Style?

A coaching leadership style is an approach in which a leader fosters team members’ growth and potential through coaching discussions. They are less concerned with being the best leader and more focused on helping team members develop their skills and capabilities and perform their best work.

According to Gallup, people don’t want bosses—they want coaches. A coaching style of leadership elevates the workplace experience and can set apart great leaders from merely adequate ones.

How Does a Coaching Leadership Style Differ from a Traditional Leadership Style?

To understand what a coaching leadership style is, it’s essential to know how it differs from traditional leadership approaches. In a traditional style, leaders generally take a “command and control” approach. This top-down method creates a workplace environment where people are less engaged compared to an environment created by a coaching style.

These distinctions can be observed from three perspectives:

  1. Guidance and decision-making: While traditional leaders may be inclined to make decisions unilaterally for the team, a coaching leader works collaboratively with team members to strategize and formulate solutions.
  2. Development: Traditional leaders are often focused on task completion and meeting goals. Coaching leaders prioritize individual development by mentoring and offering feedback to team members as well as creating opportunities to build their skills.
  3. Communication: Traditional leaders lean on a more directive style of communication as they give instructions and expect compliance. On the other hand, coaching oriented leaders create a two-way dialogue and genuinely consider the perspective of team members when making decisions or assigning tasks and responsibilities.

When Should You Use a Coaching Leadership Style?

A coaching leadership style is particularly effective under the following circumstances:

  • Individuals on the team you’re leading are not as motivated or engaged as they could be.
  • Teams are too comfortable with the way things are, to the point where innovation is lacking.
  • There is a disconnect between organizational and personal objectives.
  • There is a lack of trust between leadership and team members.

Almost all organizations—especially those willing to make long-term investments in their team members—can benefit from coaching leadership and create more value for all stakeholders.

What Are Examples of a Coaching Leadership Style?

Individuals who illustrate a coaching leadership style include:

  • Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO: When Nadella became Microsoft’s CEO, he felt the company was struggling under stagnation. To revitalize the company, Nadella drove empathy, innovation, and growth mindsets. This helped bring Microsoft out of stagnation and created a more collaborative and inclusive culture.
  • Ed Catmull, Pixar Animation Studios co-founder and president: Catmull would frequently hide his mistakes from the team, which resulted in a lack of trust. Over time, he learned there is power and impact in admitting your shortcomings. As Catmull began taking accountability for errors and seeking feedback from team members, workplace relationships and outcomes for the company improved. He demonstrated that everyone in the organization has opportunities for improvement that they could acknowledge and work to build on.
  • Mary Barra, General Motors CEO: Barra is known to take a coaching approach to leadership by investing time in getting to know her team members. Displaying empathy has helped Barra foster trust and elevate company performance.

What Are the Characteristics of a Coaching Leadership Style [with Actionable Steps]?

Here are the four key characteristics of the coaching leadership style with actionable tips on how to successfully cultivate these traits.

1. Growth Mindset

Coaching focuses on tapping into an individual’s strengths, shortcomings, and areas for development, thereby cultivating a growth mindset. A growth mindset involves taking on challenges and learning from setbacks and even failures, with a focus on improvement and skill development. Leaders with a coaching style have a growth mindset and help team members achieve the same through frequent one-on-one discussions and working together to identify growth opportunities.

Steps to Develop a Growth Mindset

  • Ask thought-provoking questions: Instead of simply telling someone what to do, pose questions that stimulate critical thinking and problem-solving. This will help staff members explore various points of view and ultimately identify solutions that will enable them to accomplish their goals. For example, you might ask a team member what their challenges are and how you can help them.
  • Create growth opportunities: Show you’re serious about helping team members grow by providing programs and resources to develop their skills. Ask staff members what they’d like to learn more about and where they need additional training or guidance.

2. Active Listening

Leaders who seek to create a more empowering environment are active listeners. They know that in order to truly understand their team members, they must listen first. Each individual possesses unique strengths, limitations, and aspirations, so listening is critical for developing an understanding of their point of view and for creating an impactful coaching plan.

Steps to Improve Active Listening

  • Practice nonverbal listening cues: Use nonverbal cues such as nodding and appropriate facial expressions. This will help to show that you are engaged and receptive to what the other person is saying.
  • Ask open-ended questions: You want the speaker to feel comfortable elaborating on their thoughts and feelings. Show interest in their perspective by asking them a question like “what do you think the options are with this new client.”
  • Empathize and validate: Acknowledge their emotions and validate their experience. Connect on a human level. For example, you might say, “Losing that sale must be quite frustrating after all the great work you put into it.”

3. Open Communication

Coaching leaders embrace two-way communication channels. They acknowledge that their title or position does not make them superior, and they lean on team members to gain new insights and feedback. When both parties have the opportunity to contribute, this creates an empowered workforce where people are driven to step outside their comfort zones and exceed expectations.

Steps to Build Open Communication

  • Create psychological safety: Open and candid communication does not happen unless both parties feel safe. Lead by example. Encourage open discussions, feedback, and empathy. Create a culture where calculated risk-taking and learning from failure is not only the norm but encouraged. Over time, the openness level among members of your team will improve.
  • Pause and think: Communication does not require constant dialogue. It entails taking the time to pause and think. Doing this before responding avoids knee-jerk reactions and helps maintain a healthy, open line of communication. Encourage your team members to pause and reflect.

4. Advocating for Autonomy

Coaching leaders leverage open communication to promote autonomy and creativity. When team members are given the opportunity to voice their thoughts and create solutions rather than having management make the decisions, they begin to feel more confident and have a sense of belonging. Ultimately, team members will feel more empowered to tackle challenges and take the initiative to overcome obstacles.

Steps to Drive Autonomy

  • Provide guidelines rather than instructions: Instructing can promote micromanagement. So, it’s best to take a step back and provide people a level of freedom to explore different approaches. You want your people to be empowered to make decisions based on their expertise and judgment, and to not become dependent on you all the time. Make sure that you’re still available to give guidance and feedback so that the team doesn’t feel lost or overwhelmed, but give your team the autonomy to perform to the best of their abilities and reach their potential.
  • Initiate regular feedback discussions: This enables you to continue to mentor team members and ensure the actions they take are aligned with their objectives, the team’s objectives, and those of the enterprise.

Develop an Empowered Workforce with the Right Leadership Tools

For more guidance on what a coaching leadership style is and how to achieve it, we encourage you to dive into CMOE’s Leadership Development Workshops and consulting services. Our goal is to equip new and seasoned leaders with the most relevant knowledge, skills, and tools to empower their workforce and grow the organization as a whole.