Building Good Leaders: The Role of Coaching

Employees will walk over hot coals, figuratively speaking, for a boss they admire and respect. Such leaders can be hard to find, however. If you aren’t already over-supplied with them, you can play a role in turning that around. But your own ideas about what makes a good boss might be at odds with your employees’ — and their opinions matter.

Robert Goodsell is a seasoned coach on the faculty of leadership consultant WJM Associates who has spent many years studying the matter. He has asked employees to describe the generic characteristics of the “best boss” they have ever had. Their answers fell into four themes.

Good leaders:

  • Treat their subordinates as “valued colleagues.” That involves showing respect, trusting subordinates, taking a genuine interest in their opinions and showing a willingness to take risks on their behalf.
  • Create an environment that fosters learning and professional growth.  Employees experience that when bosses showed patience even though workers made mistakes, viewed mistakes as chances to learn, took time to answer questions and encouraged subordinates to take advantage of training opportunities.
  • Set an example. Employees respect bosses who have knowledge, skills, experience and passion that both show their dedication to success and reveal their qualifications for their leadership role.
  • Provide structure and guidance. Most workers appreciate concrete goals and expectations, and a vision that inspires them to excel.

Some additional characteristics of good leaders as told to Goodsell don’t fit into any particular category. Good leaders exhibit high personal integrity, set high expectations, show consistency, empathy, flexibility and maintain an optimistic outlook.

What Does it Add Up to?

Goodsell’s take-aways from his polling include the observation that good leaders are comfortable in their own skin. According to Goodsell, good leaders “have realistically faced their limitations and have found that the gifts and talents that they have are quite sufficient to build a very satisfying life.”

Transforming Employees

Good leaders, he believes, are focused on “lifting up and encouraging others in the service of a worthwhile endeavor.” By creating the right environment, leaders transform employees from simply doing what they do to obey orders and protect their paycheck, to people who want to do their best and are largely motivated from within.

Unfortunately, such leaders can be hard — but not impossible — to find. That means you need to be sure to know what to look for when hiring managers (or future managers), Goodsell says. “By sensitizing those who do the selection to the value of these characteristics, we can gather evidence from candidates of the extent they have developed these instincts,” he suggests.

How to do it? One suggestion from Goodsell: Don’t limit your questions to the applicant’s own triumphs. Also ask managerial job candidates to talk about the success of their subordinates. If the candidate responds with a blank stare, perhaps you need to move on to the next one. Of course, if the candidate comes from within your own organization, be sure to get input from his or her current direct-reports.

Speeding up Maturation

Chances are, you have managers in place who aren’t bad enough to demote or terminate, but don’t resemble the “good boss” that Goodsell describes. Can they evolve? Yes, he says. While the key attributes of good leaders involve personal maturity (“experience is the best teacher because you get the test before you get the lesson,” Goodsell observes), maturation can be speeded up with coaching. It’s accomplished by encouraging the manager to experiment and then draw lessons from the new management approaches that are tried.

Goodsell once worked with a senior manager who was regarded by his superiors as “self-absorbed, deferential to superiors and a pompous micromanager of subordinates.” Through assessment, coaching and on-job assignments, the manager tried new ways of interacting with others. As you might predict, the story had a happy ending.

The upshot was a dramatic improvement in the manager’s interpersonal skills, better coaching of his subordinates and “taking a more engaged role with superiors,” Goodsell recalls. Teamwork and cooperation within his department grew, and the department became viewed more as a partner to other units of the company. “Even his personal life and friendships changed,” says Goodsell.

His bottom line: Transforming someone is harder than hiring smart by knowing what to look for in a good boss when you recruit. But when dealing with an existing situation, “it certainly is possible for a poor leader to become a good leader with the help of a coach.”