The 4 Types of Coaches Every Leader Needs

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” This quote from legendary college basketball coach John Wooden is one of the best ways I’ve found to describe the importance of coaching in the workplace.

The reason is that we’ve entered a new era of business in which the rapid pace of change requires people at all levels of the organization to constantly learn new skills, change their perspectives, and push themselves to higher levels of performance. That’s where coaching comes in: Coaching is about providing timely feedback to help someone strengthen their skills, knowledge, or behavior to better accomplish a short-term goal.

The word “short-term” is an important aspect to remember. Coaching is all about helping someone perform better right now. While coaching might happen repeatedly over the life of a project, it could also occur in the space of just one conversation.

While coaching has long been a critical part of how leaders interact with their direct reports, many organizations are seeing significant advantages from making coaching a part of their culture. Among other benefits, these organizations are more likely to have a strong leadership bench, experience lower leader turnover, and have more satisfied and engaged leaders.

While the benefits of a coaching culture are significant, it can be very challenging to build. One of the big issues is that many people have a misconception that coaching can only happen in one direction, with people at higher levels of the organization coaching people who have lower-level titles. But a coaching culture depends on breaking down those barriers, and enabling everyone in the organization to become a coach.

One of the key ways to overcome this barrier is for leaders to become comfortable not only with giving coaching, but receiving it. As leaders become more comfortable about asking for and receiving coaching from varied sources, coaching begins to become more ingrained in the organization’s culture. Specifically, leaders should seek out four different types of coaching, each of which plays a distinct role:

Leader coaches provide guidance

When a leader is getting coaching from a boss or another higher-level leader, the coach should ideally be serving as a guide for the leader. The coach should be focused on providing both proactive and reactive coaching that will help the leader succeed.

Proactive coaching is focused on helping set the leader up for success. It might take the form of offering insights or resources to help the leader complete a project similar to one that the higher-level leader has tackled in the past. On the flip side, reactive coaching is about helping the leader solve problems, such as helping remove barriers standing in the way of success or changing tactics to better approach the issue.

One trap for leaders as coaches, however, is that they may find themselves managing more often than coaching. While coaching is about helping guide people to solve problems, managing is telling people what to do. Managing involves setting goals, giving direction, communicating expectations, and making decisions. When coaching from a boss or other higher-level leader starts to become more like managing, leaders often get frustrated, and may feel micromanaged. While managing is a necessary part of leadership, it should occur much less frequently than coaching.

Peer coaches offer candid partnership

While bosses and higher-level leaders serve as important and valuable coaches, many people struggle to let their guard down among those who have higher-level titles in the organization. Even in high-trust relationships with their leaders, direct reports may feel that they still must present their best sides to ensure they don’t risk sharing issues that may affect their performance reviews, raises, career prospects, or job status.

Peer coaches can help to fill this gap. Peer coaching pairs together same-level leaders for mutual benefit. Without the burden of a title or rank dynamics, peers can provide candid feedback that’s focused on achieving the best possible outcome

Peer coaching can also help break down silos and improve collaboration across the organization. In addition, it can help people to feel more accountability for their work, knowing how much their peers are counting on them.

Direct reports can coach on their areas of expertise

While many leaders can see the benefits of coaching from their boss or peers, they often struggle with getting coaching from those who report to them. In the Global Leadership Forecast 2018, we learned that leaders are getting very little coaching from their direct reports—and that’s fine with them! Many leaders may be concerned that getting coaching from their direct reports may make them appear weak or lacking in knowledge.

However, direct reports often have specialized knowledge that can be extremely valuable to their leaders. As leaders are promoted, they lose touch with the day-to-day issues and experience, especially as rapidly changing technologies transform the workplace. Thus, direct reports often have much deeper knowledge of their subject matter, on-the-job pain points, and ideas for solutions than their leaders.

Coaching from direct reports is one of the most critical aspects of building a coaching culture. When team members get to share their expertise and input with their manager, they are much more likely to feel like a valued and trusted member of the team, which improves their engagement and commitment to their jobs.

External coaches provide objectivity

While developing a strong coaching culture within your organization is ideal, leaders say they desire coaching from external coaches more than nearly any other kind of development. External coaches can play a deeply valuable role in providing outside perspective and expertise to leaders. With an external coach, leaders can feel free to voice concerns without fear of damaging relationships with their colleagues and can gain perspective about how leaders in other organizations may have dealt with similar situations. They can also be objective to the situation without concern for organizational politics.

Unfortunately, leaders are rarely getting these opportunities for external coaching. Many organizations reserve external coaching only for leaders at the executive level, which can leave mid-level and frontline leaders struggling to gain outside perspective. The good news is that advances in technology are making it easier for these leaders to access coaching, such as by easily scheduling virtual sessions.

When leaders seek coaching from a wider variety of people, they not only maximize their own performance, but engage others in their success. As people begin to feel more comfortable giving and receiving coaching, it will begin to become a way of (work) life, transforming your organization not only into a coaching culture, but a high-performance culture.


Written by Ryan Heinl

Ryan Heinl is director of Product Management and leader of the Impact Lab at DDI, where he brings innovative leadership solutions to life. He is an entrepreneur, writer, chef, Crossfitter, mindfulness junkie and occasional yogi who travels the world in search of the perfect moment (and secretly hopes he won’t find it).


How Microsoft Uses a Growth Mindset to Develop Leaders

Research shows that managers see far more leadership potential in their employees when their companies adopt a growth mindset — the belief that talent should be developed in everyone, not viewed as a fixed, innate gift that some have and others don’t. But what are those organizations doing to nurture their talent?

To explore this question, let’s look at Microsoft, which is deliberately creating a growth-mindset culture and, in that context, rethinking its approach to development. As a result, previously unidentified — yet skilled — leaders are rising to levels they might not have in a traditional development model.

The CEO is generally the bellwether of a company’s culture, and under Satya Nadella’s leadership, Microsoft is emphasizing learning and creativity. Nadella believes this is how leaders are made, and that idea is reflected in several programs, which we’ll describe here.

The hackathons. Microsoft’s annual hackathon offers employees the chance to step outside their day jobs and develop leadership skills like collaborating across disciplines and advocating for ideas. An employee has an idea with business or societal merit — a hack — and then others who share that interest apply to join the team to develop the business plan, create the prototype, and pitch it company-wide. Winning teams are funded to build their projects.

Sometimes team members move into leadership roles, even if they weren’t already on that path. For instance, employees from the hack team that created Learning Tools for OneNote (which helps people improve their reading and writing skills) are now overseeing the product’s market expansion.

High-risk projects. We also see new kinds of leaders stepping up when risk-taking is explicitly rewarded. Take Microsoft’s HoloLens project, which essentially defined holographic computing. It began as a “moonshot” goal with significant risk of failure. Team members had to welcome that risk and the chance to learn as they joined a cause “to put technology on a more human path.” The gamble paid off, and Microsoft responded with recognition and rewards for learning quickly through faster trial and error. And in the process, people who had a clear sense of purpose and an appetite for risk emerged as incredible leaders. In fact, many of the leaders who joined the team progressed more quickly than average to senior-level roles. Microsoft is now working on the next step: ensuring that smart risks are encouraged and rewarded whether they succeed or not, as long as they yield insights that propel the business forward.

A redefined talent program. In the traditional approach to talent development, a company identifies a pool of future leaders, typically by zeroing in on and measuring key traits. Here’s the idea behind it: If you can find people who have these inherent characteristics, you can guide them into leadership roles. But what happens when you assume that everyone has potential, and that talent is neither predetermined nor static? Now what?

Microsoft didn’t cast aside its efforts to identify and nurture “high potentials,” but it is supplementing them with a program called Talent Talks. Each year, the CEO and his senior leadership team meet with the heads of each arm of the organization (from engineering to sales to corporate functions) to review their employees, discuss moving people up and across teams, and brainstorm methods of augmenting skills and building experiences. Though the discussions require almost a full week of the CEO’s time, they lead to a much broader view of up-and-coming talent and provide a more effective way of detecting and fostering new leaders. This approach allows Microsoft to reap some of the benefits of early talent identification and development while creating opportunities for everyone to grow.

By giving many more people chances to become leaders, these programs are unleashing greater potential across the company, and may well be instrumental in attracting new people. While Microsoft is still in the early phases of adopting a growth mindset throughout the organization, this cultural component can’t be overstated. The company is already seeing the benefits in the form of more-innovative ideas and products — and employees are developing leadership skills in unexpected places, at every level.


Carol Dweck is the Lewis & Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Kathleen Hogan is the Chief People Officer at Microsoft.