Why coaching makes better leaders
Susy Roberts, international executive coach and founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts, highlights why coaching makes better leaders.
There are few, if any, perfect all-rounders. Successful leaders share a series of traits – agility, resilience, positivity, the ability to influence. But the most important quality of a leader is recognizing your own limits and being willing to accept help.
When we close ourselves off to external influences, we are limiting the realms of our knowledge to our own life experiences. Even the most travelled, read and learned among us can’t say with any honesty that we’ve reached the pinnacle of wisdom. Leaders, just like their teams, need to undergo continuous personal and professional development in order to remain at the peak of mental agility. To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, education increases our ability to employ our own intelligence.
Leadership coaching allows us to reflect on our contributions to a business and its people. It allows us to celebrate our successes, examine areas which may need improvement and link personal growth objectives to improved business outcomes. Coaching doesn’t just make better leaders; it helps businesses to grow.
A coaching culture improves performance
It’s a fact that leading by positive example gets the best results, and this is particularly relevant when it comes to coaching. The culture of an business should always filter down from the very top, and a leader who encourages a coaching culture will find themselves with a workforce that’s keen to learn.
A business can’t grow if its people are constantly pushed towards a rigid set of requirements. Traditional performance objectives that are measured year in year out may have no relevance to business goals that are updated every three months. What may be a perfectly reasonable target one day could be impossible the next, thanks to anything from external markets to internal software faults. Leaders need coaching to recognize that there are myriad factors that affect how an individual performs and what they can achieve, and then apply that to their ongoing performance.
Coaching helps leaders to connect people to the current objectives of the business and gives them the emotional intelligence to be able to adapt to individual circumstances. What are the goals of the business today? What are the goals of the individual? What issues are they facing in that moment? How can those issues be overcome? How can overcoming those issues be measured and rewarded?
Learning is not a one-off, standalone exercise. It’s a continuous practice of doing, reflecting, improving, incorporating new ideas and techniques, and adapting to the changing environment. Coaching helps leaders to hone in on the issues that need attention, and guide their teams towards a resolution that will ultimately benefit the business.
Admitting you’re wrong turns negatives into positives
A leader who bullishly insists on implementing their own ideas despite negative performance or unpopular reactions can stifle growth or even bring about the end of a business. You can’t please all the people all the time and unpopular decisions for the good of the company are part and parcel of leadership. But knowing where to draw the line and admit something isn’t working requires a level of insight that not everyone possesses.
Entrepreneur James Routledge was close to burn-out when he admitted that he had been consumed by his tech start-up and put himself under impossible pressure to succeed. He wound up his business and battled mental and physical health problems before acknowledging he had made a mistake. James now runs Sanctus, which he describes as ‘like personal trainers for mental health’, with a focus on business and the workplace.
Coaching can help leaders to identify potential problem areas and fix them before they get out of control. An impartial observer who can help a leader to reflect, admit when things aren’t working and identify potential solutions can help keep a business and its leaders healthy and growing – not imploding under pressure.
Leaders are made, not born
In 2006, The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance analyzed 16 major domains of expertise, including business. Researchers looked at various aspects of expertise including general and practical intelligence, differences in brain activity, self-regulated learning, deliberate practice, knowledge management and creativity. They showed -“consistently and overwhelmingly” according to one of the book’s authors in this Harvard Business Review article written at the time of the books’ original release - that experts are always made, not born.
Warren Bennis was an authoritative voice on leadership coaching, and his book ‘On Becoming a Leader’ is widely considered essential reading for anyone in leadership. He agreed that leaders are made not born, saying: “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born - that there is a genetic factor to leadership. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.” He also noted that: “It is the capacity to develop and improve their skills that distinguishes leaders from followers.”
It may be difficult to become a concert pianist if you’re not musically inclined, but the traits of a leader can be learned with regular, ongoing professional coaching. Leadership coaching isn’t a vanity exercise, or a once-yearly team away day. It’s an essential element of a healthy, functioning business that has the ability to thrive, grow and adapt to change.
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Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.