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Leadership Development: 4 Common Coaching Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Jessica Johnson /

Coaching has become an overused and misused term to describe all types of interactions between a leader of people and her/his subordinates. In reality, coaching is a true partnership between a leader and their team member. The coach manages the process—one that can be thought provoking and creative for both parties—and the subordinate is accountable for actions and results. Being able to help someone recognize their own strengths and weaknesses and how they can improve requires that the coach be the facilitator, not the owner, of change.

I regularly witness naturally born coaches and others who have worked to develop these skills. Unfortunately, I have not found an abundance of naturally born coaches in the majority of the world’s organizations—regardless of company size, industry, or region. It is essential for leaders to consider a few common mistakes coaches make in order to avoid them, and create a more valuable experience for all involved.

I. Relying on Your Expertise

Many leaders have attained their career success due to the subject matter expertise they exhibited in a former role. A subject matter expert (“SME”) who holds too tightly to their knowledge and experience is usually a poor coach because they believe they already possess all the answers and only need to transmit this knowledge to their subordinates. They have already figured out the quickest way from A to G, and believe “Why not just learn from the Master?” Leaders who act this way regularly, may establish patterns among their team members, causing subordinates to return to the boss for answers rather than thinking and creating solutions independently. When a coach is able to set aside their expertise during a coaching conversation, they truly transform from being just a manager and into a successful performance enhancer.

II. Listening at Level 1

In a recent article, Three Stages of Effective Listening, I explained the definition of Level 1 Listening, which is when we hear another person talking, but we are most interested in recalling a similar experience or solution that relates to their issue. Consequentially, our minds become preoccupied and we miss a lot of what is being said. As a coach, our focus should be on not only hearing the words our team member is sharing, but, more importantly, helping them to feel understood. To accomplish this, we need to be present, eliminate internal and external distractions, and actively listen to their situation. Even if the situation seems like one that we have been through in the past, we certainly have not experienced it ‘in their shoes.’ Leaders and coaches must seek to understand others’ motives, feelings, and values in order to fully support them in finding their own solution.

III. Leading the Witness

This common pitfall relates to the first two coaching mistakes. If a team member is relaying an issue or situation, but we immediately assume we already know how to solve their problem, we have the tendency to ask leading questions. We guide our team member down a path and the only logical solution will be the one we came up with. Rather than leading or directive questioning, the coach should ask questions in ways that help others discover solutions for themselves. In my experience, helping a team member to evaluate the situation and using questions starting with “what” and “how”, are most valuable for developing their problem solving skills and improving the overall coaching experience.

IV. The Annual Review Download

I find it unfortunate that many leaders reserve coaching for pre-planned times like the annual or bi-annual review. This conversation can become a download of all performance areas that need coaching, or a half-hearted pat on the back. The most powerful coaching often occurs in the moment. When coaching is performed effectively, these conversations should happen as the need arises, which may be in the hallway after a meeting, sitting in the airport on the way to visit a client, or over lunch. The more frequently leaders engage with their team in these informal conversations, the more comfortable and less punitive the discussions become. In the end, the coaching is more impactful and valuable to both the leader and the team member.

If you have not had the opportunity to work with a good coach, it may be difficult to grasp how invaluable coaching is to performance development, feedback, and career management. Typically, good coaches are those leaders in your organization that everyone wants to work for and with—those who make the people around them smarter. Try to observe how they coach, empower, and interact with their team members and work to acquire some tips from them.

Having worked with senior leaders in all types of organizations, I have seen coaching capabilities improve with effort and targeted training. I am confident that any leader can develop and improve coaching skills.