AJO Blog

Primary tabs

How Will Executive Coaching Make Me a Better Leader?


April 24th, 2019

- Updated on

October 8, 2019 - 10:23am
If you are a leader and any of the following situations apply, this post was written with you in mind. However, we think the post will also be of interest to HR Leaders considering executive coaching for your organizations:
  • You have been identified as a high-potential in your organization and you want to prepare for a leadership role
  • You are recently promoted from an individual contributor role to your first leadership role
  • You’ve been recently promoted to a new leadership position (within or outside your organization)
  • You are struggling in a new leadership role and you may (or may not) be sure why
  • Your career has stalled or plateaued, and you want to jump-start it 
Executive coaching meeting and conversation
The good news is that you are not alone. These are very common scenarios and there are proactive steps all leaders can take to become great, if not exceptional leaders. Individuals and their organizations are keenly aware of the need to prepare for leadership roles. The bad news is that leadership failure rates remain unacceptably high, exacerbated by the demands on today’s leaders. There’s no doubt that our VUCA world is increasingly unforgiving when it comes to leadership performance.  
“... the demand for evolving leadership skills has become more critical in today’s chaotic business environments. Companies need their top leaders to perform differently and at faster speeds.” Conference Board Global Executive Coaching Survey 2018
So, how can you avoid the pitfalls and become a better leader? In this post, we will:
  • Review what’s preventing leaders from achieving their leadership potential
  • Explore the research on soft skills to establish the importance of these skills on leadership performance
  • Examine how executive coaching can support the development of these skills 
  • Share what leaders who’ve experienced executive coaching say about the experience and how it has made them better leaders
  • Share ideas and recommended resources for leaders and organizations  

Career mistakes that leaders makeThe Biggest Mistakes Leaders Make

The common mistakes that we see in our work with leaders include:
  • Inability or unwillingness to transition from an individual contributor to managing others 
  • Failure to build a high-performing, motivated team  
  • Unclear or ambiguous expectations regarding the role
  • Lack of internal political savvy, including failure to develop relationships with stakeholders 
  • Applying old approaches and solutions to situations that demand new and fresh thinking
  • Under-developed or a lack of critical soft skills such as social and emotional intelligence, relationship building, communication, and conflict resolution

The Biggest Mistakes Organizations Make

  • Lack of a process to assimilate executives into the organization 
  • Focus on hard or technical skills when hiring or promoting leaders
  • Difficulty identifying and assessing soft skills accurately
  • Lack of leader preparation for leadership roles
  • Failure to understand and address cultures that negatively impact leader behavior

The Importance of Soft Skills

Three recent studies highlight the importance of soft skills - the focus of executive coaching:

The Research on Leadership Skills

  • Psychologist Daniel Goleman, known for introducing the concept of "Emotional Intelligence" (EI) in 1995 with his best-seller Emotional Intelligence. In his research, he found that of all skills (cognitive, technical, and emotional intelligence), EI separated star performers from average performers.
“When I analyzed all this data, I found dramatic results. To be sure, intellect was a driver of outstanding performance. Cognitive skills such as big-picture thinking and long-term vision were particularly important. But when I calculated the ratio of technical skills, IQ, and emotional intelligence as ingredients of excellent performance, emotional intelligence proved to be twice as important as the others for jobs at all levels.” Daniel Goleman
  • In his 1996 study of a global food and beverage company, David McClelland, another renowned researcher in human and organizational behavior, found that senior managers who possessed emotional intelligence capabilities outperformed their yearly earnings goals by 20%.
  • For the past decade, Google has been studying what it takes to be a great leader in its organization. Starting in 2008, “Project Oxygen” researchers, as part of “Google’s Innovation Lab’ analyzed 10,000 data points (performance reviews, surveys, interviews) to identify the behaviors most prevalent among their top managers. Seven of eight characteristics identified were soft skills, including being a good coach; empowering the team without micro-managing, communicating and listening well; sharing information, having empathy.

    Google reported a statistically significant improvement in 75 percent of its underperforming managers after implementing its leadership development program. Google’s list has evolved over time and was updated in 2018. The list of “10 Oxygen behaviors of Google's best managers” includes two updated behaviors and two new behaviors (collaboration and strong decision-making).

How Can I Develop Great Leadership Skills?

Leaders and high-potentials can develop these skills through corporate universities, internal leadership development programs, executive education programs at business schools, and formal education such as MBA courses.
In their HBR article entitled, The Future of Leadership Development Moldoveanu and Narayandas highlight three gaps with traditional executive education that they argue must be bridged. These three gaps and how executive coaching addresses, are as follows: 
GAP Problem Executive Coaching As A Solution
1: Individuals may benefit more than their sponsors
"Organizations invest in executive development for their own long-term good, but individuals participate in order to enhance their skills and advance their careers, and they don’t necessarily remain with the employers who’ve paid for their training."
  • In AJO's experience, investing in leaders has strengthened retention and commitment to the organization as well as to the personal development and career management goals of the leader. 
  • Gets results that yield immediate results for the organization and the individual.

2: Lack of Soft Skills Development "... the skills that executive development programs build and those that firms require—particularly the interpersonal skills essential to thriving in today’s flat, networked, increasingly collaborative organizations. Traditional providers bring deep expertise in teaching cognitive skills and measuring their development, but they are far less experienced in teaching people how to communicate and work with one another effectively."
  • Leverages feedback from structured interviews and 360° feedback 
  • Provides highly personalized and targeted development, based on specific goals and needs identified up front
  • Provides the opportunity to work one-on-one with a Coach in a confidential, objective setting designed to strengthen soft skills

3: Difficulty Transferring Learning to Role
"... few executives seem to take what they learn in the classroom and apply it to their jobs—and the farther removed the locus of learning is from the locus of application, the larger this gap becomes.
  • Is ongoing, allowing leaders to try out new approaches over a period of time, including those outside their comfort zone
  • Focuses on identified skill gaps that limit success

In one AJO leadership development program spanning five cohorts, executive coaching has been consistently rated as the most valuable program component by high-potential program participants. Other program components include 360° feedbacks, self-assessments, skill-building workshops, peer coaching, leadership mentoring, and think tanks/group projects. 

What Are the Goals of Executive Coaching? 

The goals or main areas of focus in executive coaching engagements reported by the latest Conference Board study are shown below. These results are very consistent with AJO"s findings on top coaching goals and the emphasis on soft skill development. 
Conference Board Chart - Importance of Emotional Intelligence

The Benefits of Executive Coaching - Leaders Share Their Feedback

Don’t just take our word for it. We invite you to check out the feedback and comments of leaders with whom we have worked at AJO.
At the end of a coaching engagement, we ask all stakeholders to provide feedback on the experience. What follows is aggregated results from the last 100 AJO coaching engagements. These are overall ratings on a 5-point scale:
The coaching was a valuable use of my time
Coaching has enhanced my self-awareness
I achieved the goals outlined in my coaching plan
I have become a more effective leader than I was prior to coaching
Others would say they have noticed a positive change in my approach/skills
We grouped the comments received from our Leader surveys into the topic categories shown in the Conference Board chart above. Here are some insights into how executive coaching helped these leaders become better leaders, in their own words.

Leading Teams and People

  • I have become a much more effective leader of leaders: I have learned how to support and empower my team rather than do things myself and I see that my team is responding to me in much more positive way
  • My team increased the productivity of his/her individual work and better engagement with the team and myself
  • Overall office teamwork/camaraderie has improved immensely
  • The team is more engaged and feeling like they have a stake in the decision-making.  I've been able to step back and enable them to step up.
  • Improved mentoring/coaching with my team 
  • I have become a more effective leader and have been able to develop a motivated and engaged team in a high stress/chaotic environment

Executive Presence/Influencing Skills

  • I know that my coaching has helped improve my influence and effectiveness during a critical time
  • Improved communication when engaging with my direct reports as well as senior managers

Emotional Intelligence

  • I have become much more aware of my own emotions and feelings and as a result, can better relate to emotions/feelings of my team and colleagues.  I have learned to control my emotions better, which makes my business discussions much more effective
  • Ability to pause, reflect and listen. Better understand what my emotional intelligence tools are and how to use them
  • Improved self-awareness, greater ability to relinquish control, ability to get greater self-fulfillment via the enhanced performance of my team
  • The experience was very much a confidence-builder
  • Some intangible benefits included self-awareness and confidence in myself
  • The opportunity for deeper introspection and an expanded self-awareness when facing challenges  
  • I've learned not to "sweat the small stuff", to be direct and ask specific questions and have developed my emotional intelligence skills

Relationship Management

  • My relationships with other executives within the organization have improved immensely as a result of my improved listening and collaborative efforts
  • The building of positive coalitions
  • What stands out personally for me is stakeholder identification and management

Delegation Skills

  • Appropriate delegation allowing me to be more strategic with a better opportunity for my own growth 
  • Improved individual and group productivity

Strategic Thinking/Visions

  • Appropriate delegation allowing me to be more strategic with a better opportunity for my own growth
  • I continue to challenge myself to expand my comfort zone and take risks in the areas that are not my natural strengths
  • Helped me focus on developing a new strategy for the company which has been taken up and now used as part of the business plan throughout the company

Communication/Presentation Skills

  • I have become a more confident speaker and presenter in a variety of forums. This has enabled me to represent our firm as an effective leader
  • Improved presentations to my superior(s)
executive coaching goals

What Are the Different Types of Leadership Coaching?

In its 14th Annual Executive Coaching Survey Report (2019), Sherpa Coaching draws the distinction between ‘Executive Coaching’ and ‘Business Coaching”. 
  • The emphasis in business coaching is strategy and tactics, hard skills such as finance, operations, etc. and overall performance 
  • Executive coaching focuses on business behavior, soft skills development, and overall personal development. 
Nine distinct types of executive coaching are outlined in the Conference Board’s Global Executive Coaching Survey 2018:
  1. Development-focused Coaching. Broadening individual capabilities beyond the current role for potential future roles
  2. 360-degree & Assessment Tools. Providing feedback for individuals to better understand their own behaviors and the perceptions of those around them
  3. Performance-focused Coaching. Changing an individual’s behaviors or building new skills to improve performance in current role.  
  4. Transition Coaching. Accelerating an individual’s transition into a new internal role (i.e., changing geography, lines of business, function)
  5. Career Coaching. Transitioning leaders to a new career laterally or horizontally that provides personal or professional growth
  6. Onboarding coaching. Accelerating individual’s onboarding from the outside into a new organization (i.e., from a different industry, firm size, nonprofit to profit, etc.)
  7. Team Coaching. Coaching focused on improving productivity, communication, and level of functioning of an intact team, and not just a few individuals
  8. Group Coaching. Coaching focused on improving the capabilities or skills of a peer group, and not an intact team
  9. Diversity and Inclusion Coaching. Advancing and supporting individuals from under-represented and other at-risk groups
The Conference Board points out that the last two are the least common forms of coaching. 

What Can Individuals Do to Become Better Leaders?

There are some practical steps you can take to become a better leader. 
  • Listen first to others before offering your own thoughts and opinions. When you listen carefully, you build rapport and show others that their opinions are important to you. 
  • Watch this explainer video on emotional intelligence to understand the five components of emotional intelligence and how to improve each one.
  • Ask colleagues for feedback and reflect on the input given. E.g., Ask your direct reports for suggestions on how to better support them individually and collectively as a team; solicit feedback on a presentation you’ve given or a meeting you led or in which you participated. 
  • Strengthen your communication skills by studying the leaders you admire. TedTalks are great places to observe and gain inspiration. 
  • Take online courses through Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, or MindTools. 
  • Get a Coach! Check out our resources on What to Expect from Executive Coaching, which includes information on choosing a coach, and getting the most out of coaching.
  • Become a Coach (See “The Coaching Habit” recommended reading).  

What Can Organizations Do?

  • Interview leaders to find out the soft skills your organization needs to succeed. To see what skills your top performers share consider LinkedIn Skills Insights which can also give you information on where your employees excel or fall short.
  • Identify and develop your leaders early. Ensure there are processes in place to promote from within. 
  • Ensure that soft skills criteria are baked into selection requirements for external hiring and promotions, with resources to help assess these skills.
  • Create or strengthen your coaching and mentoring programs.
  • Leverage "Personal Learning Clouds" to ensure that learning is personalized, social, contextualized, and tracked.

Recommended Reading & References

For Leaders

For Organizations

Pam Grosicki HeadshotPam Grosicki is AJO's VP, Marketing and Communications. After her first career in Human Resources in diverse U.K. organizations, Pam brought her passions for adult learning and development, personal branding, social media, and technology to her second career as an HR marketer in the U.S. She lives in Asheville, NC with her husband and their current canine companion, Gus who they rescued from a local animal shelter.