Coaching: Making Leadership Development Stick

Traditional leadership development can be very effective on its own. However, coaching can take the skills, behaviours and mindsets that form the curriculum in a classroom or group learning experience and turn them into personal, customised solutions that help leaders learn more, more quickly, and retain that knowledge longer.

Jennifer Fickeler, Ph.D., PCC, SVP, Global Master Coach, LHH
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making leadership stick

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Think of coaching as “the glue” in the leadership development (LD) process. 

All organisations are looking for ways to boost the quality and impact of their leaders. We all want leaders who can drive results in a way that produces happy, healthy and engaged employees. 

To achieve those goals, a good many of those organisations will indoctrinate leaders in the skills, behaviours and mindsets necessary to thrive, motivate and engage the people they lead through some sort of leadership development. Much of it will be in class (if virtual) and involve lectures and reading.

However, how can you ensure that an investment in leadership development makes lasting changes to leadership culture? In other words, how can you make sure leadership development “sticks” once the learning and development sessions are over? 

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How does coaching make learning stickier?

One-on-one coaching is an essential component of an effective leadership development initiative. Traditional leadership development can be very effective on its own. However, coaching can take the skills, behaviours and mindsets that form the curriculum in a classroom or group learning experience and turn them into personal, customised solutions that help leaders learn more, more quickly, and retain that knowledge longer.

All that means coaching could very well be the missing ingredient in a global leadership development industry that many believe is not delivering the results it has been promising.

By some estimates, leadership development is a $3.5-billion global industry that has continued to grow steadily regardless of the state of the global economy. Even in difficult times, successful organisations understand that you have to continue investing in your leaders if you have any hope of staying afloat.

However, there remains a huge gap between the promise of leadership development and what is actually being delivered. In general, researchers believe there are fundamental flaws in the design of LD programs and how they are applied once the training is over.

One of the biggest complaints is that corporate culture is not aligned with the LD curriculum. So, even though leaders may be learning new skills and mindsets, they cannot apply them because their organisation is continuing to operate in a different context with a different set of principles.

Retention is also a problem. Many studies of various types of learning programs believe that adults retain very little of what they learn in classroom lectures when they are delivered as a one-time event. However, retention goes up dramatically if people learn by doing, or are given a chance to practice what they learned. Unfortunately, not all LD programs offer opportunities to model or practice the skills they are trying to learn.

Not surprisingly, organisations are unhappy with the results of traditional leadership development when it is delivered on its own. Although the specific numbers vary depending on the source of the study, in general CEOs and other senior leaders are concerned their current approach to LD is not helping them develop world-class leaders or leadership bench strength. 

How does coaching help with this dilemma?

When partnered with traditional LD programs, coaching can give leaders an immediate opportunity to practice and apply what they’ve learned in a classroom or through reading. That means greater retention of best practices in leadership, at a greater velocity. More learning, more quickly.

Think of it this way. Coaching allows leaders unlimited access to someone with the same skills and expertise as the training facilitator. The advantage is that the access is individualised and focused. It is an opportunity to take the learning from lectures and books and make it actionable.

When you’re building a LD program, consider the benefits of a model that combines traditional learning and coaching:

  • If group LD allows leaders to gather and discuss, in general, the challenges of leadership, then coaching allows those leaders to confront specific challenges and find specific solutions.

  • If group LD helps leaders learn skills like strategic networking, stakeholder management and strategic thinking, then coaching teaches leaders how to apply those new skills in specific, real-world situations.

  • If group LD helps you gain insight into the expectations you are facing as a developing leader, then coaching helps you contextualise these expectations and turn them into clear and specific career goals.

  • If group LD briefly touches on some of the most common mistakes and shortcomings that many leaders face, then coaching can help you admit which of those shortcomings are holding you back and come up with a plan to overcome them.

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It’s important to note that this is not an either-or-scenario. On its own, traditional LD can still have tremendous value. But the addition of coaching ensures that the training is fully aligned with culture, that leaders retain more of what they are learning, and that it all happens much faster.

To build the leaders you need now and in the future, LD and coaching need to go hand in hand.

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