The Problem You May Not Know You Have: Your Experienced Leaders Could Be Ineffective Coaches

Jim Concelman

You may think your organization’s leaders have developed advanced coaching skills after spending many years managing others, helping their team members set and achieve goals. You also might assume that all seasoned leaders within your organization are highly effective coaches.

In many cases, you would be wrong.

A recent DDI analysis of thousands of assessments confirms that experience is a poor teacher when it comes to coaching. This analysis, which looked specifically at data from assessments of executives—individuals experienced in leadership—revealed the following, when it comes to behaviors required for effective coaching:

  • Only 10 percent of executives are highly effective in checking their understanding of a situation before moving on to addressing an issue.
  • Less than half are effective at encouraging involvement from others.
  • Only 11 percent are highly effective in demonstrating interpersonal
  • Also, only 11 percent are highly effective in conveying performance expectations and facilitating clear agreement.
  • Just 5 percent are highly effective in openly disclosing and sharing their thoughts and feelings with others.

The fundamental skills and concepts of coaching remain constant, even as leaders gain experience and change roles; however, the environment has changed. Even a leader with an exemplary foundation of coaching skills must adapt and further hone his or her approach as the workforce and workplace evolve. If leaders do not develop these skills, they will not get the best from their employees and drive innovation.

So what is the difference between a good coach and a mediocre one?

Good coaches use time.

Coaching now takes place via informal methods. Communication is immediate and 24-7. We interact with each other in short bursts, with direct reports who are in other cities or countries. The days of leading sit-down conversations across the conference table for a 30-minute coaching discussion are gone. That’s a luxury that no one seems to have time for anymore.

Today’s most effective leaders know how to coach “on the fly.” They lead formal discussions with non-traditional or asynchronous means. These leaders coach by phone, by e-mail and even by social media when appropriate.

The coaching messages may be delivered now in smaller bites, but they still have purpose and importance. The leader connects the discussions and guides the employee through the coaching process over a series of conversations. This is not easy to do. Most leaders do not develop this skill on their own.

What approach do ineffective leaders use? When average leaders realize they don’t have time to conduct a formal 30-minute session, they attempt to coach “informally.” They lead unstructured, inadequate discussions—or none at all. They also may wait until a negative event occurs and coach after the fact.

Good coaches ask insightful questions.

A key part of coaching involves asking high-gain, insightful questions. While effective coaches will balance “seeking and telling,” great coaches make the most of the seeking opportunity. They remember to ask clarifying questions—those that will help employees discover insight into themselves, the situation, and the other people involved.

These strategic questions lead to better solutions. They also foster higher levels of commitment to taking action in a coaching situation, whether it’s proactive coaching or reactive coaching. It works both ways.

Some leaders discover this method through trial and error. They find that, over time, when they ask these types of questions, the results are much better. However, savvy organizations do not leave this to chance as many smart business people will not learn this organically. In fact, our assessment data show that most leaders skip or do very poorly at clarifying. Active listening is a hallmark of the best leaders, but most need help to develop this critical skill.

Good coaches show appreciation.

Effective leaders find ways to genuinely and regularly show appreciation for their employees.

We at DDI have long advocated the use of “STAR” feedback to provide relevant behavioral feedback. Using this model, a leader describes the Situation/Task (ST) the individual or group handled, such as a problem, opportunity, special challenge, or routine task. The leader also notes the Action (A) the person or group took, including what they actually said or did, as well as validating the positive Result (R).

The STAR acronym also can be used as a shorthand reference to an especially effective model for showing appreciation:

  • The Situation over Time (ST): The leader has noticed the individual having an impact.
  • The relevant Attribute (A): What is it about the individual the leader knows he or she can count on?
  • The Result (R) or impact of the person’s attributes.

What makes this model impactful is how it is about more than just the individual’s behavior. It also recognizes who the person is, as much as what he or she does. But it can require a careful touch, which is why we view it as an advanced coaching skill—one that leaders can develop only after mastering basic interaction skills.

New vs. Senior Leaders: The Development Gap

Your most experienced leaders may be your worst coaches. They may continue to rely on methods that worked 10 years ago, when feedback was given in a very different, face-to-face way.

Unfortunately, most companies spend little time analyzing how well their experienced leaders coach. Instead, they focus on the new leaders and on developing their skills.

This is a damaging oversight. Whether it’s to drive innovation, retain talent, or help the workforce thrive in times of change, good coaching is critical. It’s an essential skill that needs ongoing development not only at the beginning, but over the course of a career.

Jim Concelman is DDI’s Vice President, Leadership Development.

To access research, find out more about what it takes for frontline leaders to be effective and learn more about DDI’s Interaction Management®: Exceptional Leaders (IM: ExLSM) series, visit



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