I am at a stage of life where I find myself wondering about things. (I call it “wondering” … others might go with “obsessing.”) Here’s an example: Who was the first person to coin the term “soft skills” and then, somehow, convince others that leadership training fit neatly under that umbrella?

I’m sure someone supplied some self-serving rationale distinguishing hard science from probability science, but philosophically, I side with Chris McLean (master trainer for The Center for Leadership Studies) who has said for years, “Leadership skills are really and truly the absolute hardest skills!”

Marshall Goldsmith and many other elite thought leaders in the theory of effective influence would wholeheartedly agree. In so doing, they would shine a bright light on the critical distinction between understanding the dynamics of leadership and delivering results as a leader. Marshall has spent decades working out the kinks on a coaching process he and colleagues Chris Coffee and Frank Wagner developed. In general terms, here’s how that process works:

The Players

The coachee is the person who is asked to demonstrate commitment to building a leadership skill. The term “demonstrate” is key; in overly simplistic terms, the coachee must value the prospect of becoming a better leader and recognize that migration takes time, effort and energy. Internal or external, the coach is the person who will guide the coachee as they implement what they have learned in leadership training and/or from feedback they have received.

The next-level manager (NLM), the coachee’s manager, must, among other things, sign off on the coaching process, the skill the coachee has identified for development, and the stakeholders who will play a critical role in helping the coachee achieve his or her targeted goals.

The stakeholders are the peers and direct reports of the coachee who will formally and informally guide the process. Stakeholders will be asked to provide specific feedback and “feedforward” to the coachee for the duration of skill development, and in the final analysis, they will be the people who assess the degree of the coachee’s improvement.

The Process

There are several mechanisms that organizations can leverage to identify a target, or developmental focus, for the coachee (e.g., data from company 360s, interviews with the coach, etc.). Spoiler alert! The behavior identified will be a shock to absolutely no one! It goes back to the fundamental disparity between leadership knowledge and leadership skill: Understanding it is one thing; doing it is altogether different.

Frequently identified targets for leaders at all levels include listening, empowering, collaborating, providing clear direction and matching the leadership approach to the needs of followers.

When the target leadership behavior has been established, the coach and the coachee have a meeting with the NLM to establish expectations. The express purpose of the meeting is to ensure alignment on:

  • The behavior: Is this the best use of the coachee’s time?
  • The stakeholders: Moving forward, what combination of peers and direct reports would be the best catalysts for skill development?
  • The contracted responsibilities of the coachee: These responsibilities include soliciting feedback and feedforward from each stakeholder on a preset and recurring basis and active participation in regularly scheduled skill development sessions with the coach, for the duration of the coaching engagement.

The coach and the coachee then schedule a brief meeting with the extended stakeholders to ensure everyone understands and buys into what he or she will be asked to provide the coachee and the coach moving forward – in other words, the structure and management of the coaching arrangement.

To the coachee, they will provide feedback and feedforward once per month on the behavior selected for development, and they need to be aware that their documented accounts for the targeted behavior will drive monthly discussions between the coach and the coachee.

  • Feedback: How, specifically, has the coachee improved or regressed in the last 30 days?
  • Feedforward (a term attributed to Marshall): What specific suggestions do you have for the coachee to improve in the next 30 days?

To the coach, stakeholders will provide specifics on how the coachee could improve on the behavior selected and two formal assessments of the coachee’s progress (or lack thereof) on the targeted behavior. The coach will synthesize stakeholder input through a daily check sheet of sorts (i.e., “Do more of this, and do less of this.”).

At both the midpoint and culmination of the coaching engagement, the coach distributes confidential assessments to the stakeholders. These assessments gauge the degree of documented improvement the coachee has demonstrated in the eyes of his or her stakeholders for the targeted leader behavior.

At this juncture, you might find yourself wondering a bit, as well…

How Long Does This Process Take?

The training part of it? Ballpark between two and five days with intermittent content refreshers. The behavior change part? A calendar year. You can certainly identify positive trends in six months (perhaps less), but for those trends to be locked in and sustainable, the recommended timeline is one year, with formal measurement at six months and at least one coaching session, driven by stakeholder input, every 30 days.

Is It Worth It?

There’s no way in the world a person who does leadership training can answer that question objectively. Perhaps it’s better to redirect the question and end by saying that there is nothing “soft” or easy about it. But, I wonder how much better your organization would be if key people in critical roles up and down your chain of command routinely demonstrated leadership competency?