According to the U.S. Army Field Manual No. 6-22, “Leadership is the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction and motivation while operating to accomplish the mission and improve the organization.”

The last phrase of this definition, “improve the organization,” is a critical and somewhat unique aspect of the way the U.S. Army approaches leadership. Simply put, it is not enough just to influence followers to accomplish a mission; true leadership must include improving the organization – most often, one soldier at a time. This focus on individual development in pursuit of organizational improvement starts on day one of basic training and continues throughout a career.

Like the Army, many successful organizations differentiate themselves with this dual focus on mission accomplishment and individual development. An integral piece of that development is the coaching that leaders receive along the way.

When creating a development plan with their subordinates, leaders in the Army often begin with an assessment of strengths and areas for development. Then, the leader and subordinate together agree on a challenging or stretch assignment that will enable the individual to develop in the desired capacity. Providing the individual with the required support for undertaking this challenge, often in the form of resources and coaching, is an important part of the leader’s responsibility.

In a perfect world, leaders would individually coach all their direct reports. However, coaching takes time and practice, and subordinates are sometimes hesitant to openly share all the challenges they are experiencing. While some leaders are skilled at navigating these challenges, engaging the service of a professional coach, who can dedicate time to the person and who does not have a role in their performance evaluations, can address both concerns and benefit both the organization and the person being coached.

I recently worked with a high-potential Army officer who was troubled by feedback that he received as part of a 360 assessment. Through our coaching sessions, he was able to step back from the feedback and identify two key areas where he could use his strengths to remedy what some saw as a deficiency. Since I had no evaluation authority for this officer, and we were relatively unconstrained by time, he was comfortable addressing this negative feedback and was able to develop an aggressive action plan and put it into motion.

The ever-increasing pace of the workplace, coupled with the accelerated promotion and shorter tenure of many executives, has resulted in a generation of leaders who rise to significant levels in an organization but find themselves with no peer network when they arrive. In times gone by, the coaching role was often assumed by “elders” in the “tribe” or organization. These individuals, outside the chain of command yet with a history in the organization, provided different perspectives, helped acculturate new leaders and helped set goals for their further development. Without these coach-like elders, many executives feel isolated and unsupported as they navigate their new positions, transitions or challenges alone. A professional coach can help fill this void.

While they share some similar characteristics, coaching differs significantly from consulting, counseling and mentoring. In each of these cases, an authority figure brings his or her expertise to the table. Consultants and mentors are normally sought when a person is looking for specific career-related advice or training. Professional counseling is sought when a client seeks to better understand or resolve difficulties from the past in order to move forward. In contrast, a coach rarely has expertise in the specific business of the person being coached, does not delve into his or her past and rarely gives advice. Instead, the coach is skilled at working alongside the individual by asking questions that invite them to become more self-aware, focused and deliberate in their action plans to develop and move forward.

As part of a holistic developmental program, Army leaders coach individuals by walking them through a gap analysis to clarify their goals and develop a way ahead. This methodology is appropriate in any organization for assimilating new leaders and for assisting high-potential leaders in navigating their path ahead. In a typical Army coaching engagement, the coach asks the individual to gather and analyze information related to performance indicators, leader and team perceptions, and opportunities for growth. They also ask the individual to look hard at their current state and envision where they want to be in the future. Together, the coach and the individual explore the areas for growth (i.e., the gaps) and develop a plan to test out new behaviors that will move them closer to their goals.

Following up and gathering feedback is critical to this process. Sometimes, the new behavior is effective; other times, it might feel wrong or be poorly received. Together with the coach, the individual can explore why these results may have occurred and develop a new plan to achieve the desired growth. Through this iterative process, the person being coached develops not only new leadership skills but also a better understanding of themselves and the people around them.

Another ideal opportunity for coaching is immediately following an intensive leader development experience. The Army and many other organizations invest a good deal of time and resources in leadership training and development, yet when it’s conducted as part of a busy work schedule, many of the good ideas and the best of intentions are waylaid upon return to the office. Coaching at this juncture can help an individual develop a plan for implementing the lessons learned and for assessing the effectiveness of their change efforts. The coach can provide a sounding board to bounce ideas off of and serve as a “prodder” who will focus the individual on their continued growth and help them to explore the many different perspectives and opportunities in a situation. A coach can help the individual truly put the “action” into his or her action plan.

Yes, leadership is about accomplishing organizational missions, but it is also about improving the organization – one person at a time.

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