Six ways for a leader to be a coach

We all want to learn, but very few amongst us want to be taught; this is more true for the Millennials than any other generation.


Gone are the days when employees would do their jobs, only to earn their salaries. The new generations of employees expect their managers to guide them to achieve their true potential by providing the right kind of developmental opportunities. Today’s employees are eager to build their competencies, capabilities and capacities to stay on the growth curve.

Nowadays, coaching one’s employees, understanding their aspirations and helping them realise their potential are recognised as the mark of a successful leader.

ICF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential.

From my experience, both as a corporate leader and a professional coach, let me share with you the six key ways that can help one start one’s journey as a coach.

1. Building a high Emotional Quotient (EQ)

High EQ is the foundation on which coaching relationships flourish. To be a coach, we need to empathise with people, understand the underlying issues, allow them to share and be sensitive to possible opposing outlooks. Higher EQ equips us to help our people overcome barriers and all of us to work together as a team.

If one looks around, one will realise that all successful leaders have higher than average levels of EQ. Having a high EQ means that we are self-aware and understand our own emotions and viewpoints while being open to the views of others. We are willing to provide space to others and build on each other’s view, in a way that the collective perspective is better than just our own opinion.

2. Asking open-ended questions

An essential quality that professional coaches have and leaders can learn from is the ability to ask open-ended questions. Unlike close-ended or leading questions, open-ended questions help one dig deeper into the individual’s thought process. As we move, from the simple yes/no question towards the ‘how, what, why’ questions, we motivate more reflective, powerful and empowered thinking. For instance, rather than asking whether ‘you like or dislike a job or task’, ask what it is that you like or dislike about it and why. This way, the responses will be much more valuable to both, the one who questions and the one who answers. However, as a leader, one can elicit useful responses only when one creates psychologically safe environments in which employees feel comfortable to speak their mind.

3. Focusing on strengths (of others!)

Each member of a team is unique. It is a leader’s job to find out what each member’s strengths are, besides what they need to work on. Having a genuine understanding of the strengths of team members will allow the leader to plan, resource and execute projects better. It is also vital that when we interact with people, we focus more on their strengths. Research has confirmed that people who get an opportunity to use their strengths are more engaged; hence, focusing on strengths means better engagement, which in turn, leads to better on-the-job performance and commitment to the team’s goals.

4. Co-creating development plans

Coaching a team is about understanding the aspirations and desires of team members and weaving these into their development plans. Rather than merely creating a development plan on our own, we need to include the respective members in the conversation. By having one-to-one dialogues about what employees’ aspirations are, what kind of work would excite them, what and how they like to learn, and where they want their career to head, we show that we value them as individuals (and not just as employees).

By listening to members and co-creating the development plans with them, we show that we value people as individuals (and not just as employees) and we are prepared to help them reach their goals. Co-creating the development plans results in more ownership from our team members of their development plan.

5. Empowering our people

Once we know what our employees’ strengths are and where they want to go, they need to put these skills into practice. Begin by giving each of them the responsibility for tasks, which can help them put their development plans into action. Provide stretch assignments, let them take the responsibility of a new project or push them to take the lead on a presentation or a client engagement. The best way to learn is by doing, and the more we let them do, the more we demonstrate our trust and confidence in their abilities. As our team members work on these co-created development plans, they further develop not only their observable strengths but also discover their hidden talents.

At the same time, we must make sure that our people know that we are not expecting them to improve instantly overnight. Checking-in with them regularly will show that we are available for advice and support, without invading their autonomy.

6. Providing feedforward, more than feedback

Our team members need to hear from us, and what we say to them becomes more valuable if we can say it in a way that it doesn’t sound like a criticism. If they do not know what they can improve on, it doesn’t allow them to change or build upon what’s going well. Coach-leaders believe more in feedforward than in feedback. The difference being that feedback is still a bit of critique; instead, in feedforward, one helps team members understand in specific terms what they should do differently.

It is always more productive to help people learn to be ‘right’ than prove they were ‘wrong’. Feedback is often seen as an attempt to ‘prove the other person wrong’. Feedforward, on the other hand, is more favourably received because it focuses on solutions and possible ways of doing things better before they have happened. Providing useful, specific and timely feedforward is essential to becoming a great coach.

In conclusion, a vital aspect of a modern leader’s job is to get comfortable with coaching people by building genuine, unique relationships with their team members. Listen to them to find out what they want and where they want to head and help them get there.

It is not easy staying on top of one’s coaching responsibilities as a leader, but with some effort and a little bit of practice, we all can get there. We only need to start!

“There is no heavier burden for a leader to carry than the unrealised potential of their teams.”

Developing coaching skills is a journey of learning and practice – ask any ICF credentialed coach!

According to the Building Strong Coaching Cultures for the Future, a 2019 study from the International Coaching Federation and the Human Capital Institute (HCI), developing coaching skills for leaders is an ongoing process in organisations with strong coaching cultures. Since 2014, managers and leaders using coaching skills continue to be the most deployed coaching modality for organisations that have participated in the 6 ICF/HCI research on the topic, with 82 per cent versus 60 per cent for external coach practitioners and 57 per cent for internal coach practitioners. When asked how these offerings may be differentiated in the future, 83 per cent of respondents said they plan to increase even more the use of managers/leaders using coaching skills within the next five years.

If you need support on your organisation’s and leader’s coaching journey, do contact any of our 6 ICF chapters in India and they will be happy to help and guide you.

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is the world’s largest organisation leading the global advancement of the coaching profession and fostering coaching’s role as an integral part of a thriving society. Founded in 1995, its 35,000-plus members located in more than 140 countries and territories work toward common goals of enhancing awareness of coaching and upholding the integrity of the profession through lifelong learning and upholding the highest ethical standards. Through the work of its six unique family organizations, ICF empowers professional coaches, coaching clients, organizations, communities and the world through coaching. Visit for more information.

In India, ICF is represented by six vibrant chapters, all led by volunteers — ICF Bengaluru, ICF Chennai, ICF Delhi, ICF Mumbai, ICF Pune and ICF Hyderabad.

The writer Sandeep Jain is an ICF ACC credentialed coach, affiliated with the ICF Delhi chapter. After spending 25+ years in various finance and business leadership roles across the Asia-Pacific, Sandeep is now based in India and works as a strategy consultant and leadership coach, while also mentoring startups. A chartered accountant and a certified internal auditor by qualification, he has pursued various executive management education programmes. He is also a Marshall Goldsmith certified coach, a Peter Hawkins certified systemic and team coach, an NLP practitioner and a certified Hogan assessor. His company, called Value-Unlocked, partners with organisations and people to help them own change and create a better version of themselves.


Comment on the Article

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

4 × four =