Leadership Coaching
Introduction to Leadership Coaching

The Leader as a Coach

As a project leader, you’re guiding and directing a team towards the end goal for a project. You’re also trying to help them build their skills. What can help you do just that?

That’s right: leadership coaching.

If you’re reading this page, it’s probably because you are interested in what leadership coaching can do for you and your team. We have a range of expert interviews you can listen to through our free podcasts on the topics of leadership and coaching.

Let us help you learn more about this topic. You’ll take away tips and techniques to improve how you lead, and help you coach your own team to project and personal success.

Featured Podcast: Project Coaching Makes You a Better Project Leader

Listen now to this featured podcast on leadership coaching.

In this featured podcast you learn about the various project coaching techniques available to you in a project role. We'll see how coaching can make you a better project leader.

It is the people working on our projects who get things done, so we want to unlock their potential. When we coach, we really help people to help themselves in overcoming an issue or in reaching a certain goal.

The tips you'll pick up will help you get better at motivation and coaching skills, leadership and working with your colleagues -- all essential skills for project managers today.

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen
Please scroll down to see the full list of our Agile Methodology podcasts.

What is a Coach?

A coach is someone who helps an individual achieve their goals. The coach supports their colleague to come up with solutions to roadblocks that feel authentic for them. They provide guidance, support and motivation but they do not offer solutions of their own.

As Susanne Madsen says, "A coach is someone who does the opposite of command and control. They really listen and they help someone to find the answer for themselves. Coaching is a way of unleashing someone else's potential."

Coaching is a powerful way of developing your colleagues and project team members. And you can use a coaching leadership style to encourage your team to find solutions for themselves.

What is Leadership Coaching?

Leadership coaching can be defined as a process for helping leaders to achieve their goals in a tailored and structured way, with support from a coach.

Leadership coaching is a powerful way to uncover a path to success. It's personalized to the individual. The coach works alongside the leader as their champion and ally. The relationship is supportive.

The main characteristic of coaching leadership is that the coach doesn't provide the answers. There are no conversations that start, "Well, what I would do is..." Instead, the coach helps the leader reflect on different options for moving forward so the leader can identify the best route forward for themselves.

Leadership Coaching in Project Management

Leadership coaching in project management is a way to motivate and lead the team. A project coach will ask questions and listen, facilitating the process of searching for answers instead of telling people what to do. There hasn't been much research into using a coaching leadership style specifically in project management, but there are case studies about coaching in the project environment that show how effective it is.

Coaching is one of the six leadership styles. If you Google leadership styles, you’ll normally see it at the bottom of the list, as an overlooked leadership style, almost like an afterthought. But for us as project leaders, it should be at the top of the list! After all, it is the people working on our projects who get things done so we want to unlock their potential. Leadership coaching may just be the answer.

Coaching is non-directive. As a project manager, it might feel strange to work in a non-directive way, as you are used to providing direction to the team. It might also feel strange to receive coaching, as the interactions you have with the project sponsor and other senior leaders in the organization are often around decision making. In other words, you are receiving direction from them.

When Do You Use Leadership Coaching?

You can use a coaching leadership style as part of your daily interactions with the team. Here are some examples of when it is appropriate to do so.

  • When someone asks for direction on how to complete a task
  • When facilitating issue resolution or problem solving conversations
  • When you can sense the team as a whole, or an individual in the team, is worried or stressed
  • When you think someone is lacking in confidence with their project responsibilities.

For instance, if someone asks, “How do you want me to do this?” you could simply tell them what to do. However, if you take the position of a coaching leader, you would ask a question instead. Turn it around and say “What would you like to achieve?” or “What might happen if you do that?”

Leadership coaching can also be part of a structured development plan for project delivery professionals. As you grow in your career, you might have the option of working with a certified, professional coach as an opportunity made available to you by your management team.

There's a strong relationship between coaching and leadership. Leadership is something difficult to learn in a classroom setting. Working with a coach gives you the opportunity to build your leadership skills in a way that is tailored to your personal style and the organization's culture. Coaching and development go hand-in-hand. As a project leader you will coach and develop your team, and you'll also potentially be receiving coaching and development to excel in your role too.

Leadership Coaching Objectives

The main objectives of using a coaching leadership style are:

  • To develop and improve the performance of the team by helping people help themselves
  • To develop skills across the team
  • To empower individuals to take their own decisions and work independently
  • To make individuals feel supported
  • To provide feedback.

Sounds great, doesn't it? Let's consider how those objectives apply to your project environment.

  • Develop and improve the team's performance
    As a project manager, you are responsible for getting the project delivered, so you care deeply about the team's performance. An underperforming team means the project takes longer and may not deliver the required results. When you act as a project coach, you can pinpoint areas where the team needs more support and help them achieve their (and the project's) goals.
  • Develop skills across the team
    A common risk on projects is not having enough people to complete the work in a timely way. If you can develop skills across the team, people can take on more responsibility and share tasks between each other. Use your coaching abilities to support individuals in learning new skills and testing them out.
  • Empower individuals to act independently
    What's a more motivating workplace: one where you are told what to do every day, or one where your manager encourages you to make your own decisions? When you coach a colleague, you can help them consider options and come to their own conclusions about the best way forward. Empowering others to act independently also frees up your time to do something else!
  • Make individuals feel supported
    One of the benefits of coaching is that individuals feel supported. One study shows that 80% of people who receive coaching report an increase in self-confidence. Confident project team members are more likely to work independently, take the initiative and be motivated at work: all important factors for project success!
  • Provide feedback
    Coaching is also a way to provide feedback, and can be very useful for project leaders. In a project management role, you are likely to be a matrix team structure, without formal authority over members of the project team. Taking a more facilitative, conversational approach gives you the option to provide feedback constructively. A coaching leadership style will help individuals work out what to do with that feedback so they can improve performance (should they choose to).

A coach is someone who does not work in a command and control manner. Their role is to listen and help an individual find the answers from within themselves. They ask the right questions to help you move forward in whichever direction is most appropriate for them.

Coaching Leadership Styles

These are the 5 coaching styles most relevant to project leadership:
  • Democratic coaching
  • Autocratic coaching
  • Laissez-Faire coaching
  • Developmental coaching
  • Transactional coaching

A coaching leadership style is where you support and develop your team in a hands-on way. The leader takes an active interest in the team, helping them identify areas for personal and professional growth and then supporting them in achieving those developmental goals. There are different ways to go about this, so let's review those 5 different coaching styles in more detail.

  • Democratic coaching
    In democratic coaching, the person being coached has input to the whole process. They put forward their goals and objectives. Their views on how the coaching process should work are also taken into account. For example, they might set the frequency of the coaching meetings in conjunction with the coach. This is a practical and collaborative way to develop an individual's skills.
  • Autocratic coaching
    Autocratic coaching is often found in sports teams. It's where the coach decides on the goals and objectives for the person being coached. The coach also decides how those goals are going to be met. This is not a collaborative or facilitative way of approaching coaching, and would not be our preferred choice in most project situations. However, if a team member was very junior or new to the organization, this kind of directive leadership has a place.
  • Laissez-Faire coaching
    Laissez-faire can be translated as 'leave them to it' and it's a very hands-off coaching style as the name suggests. This approach works well where individuals being coached have motivation and drive, and need only minimal intervention from the coach. Leaders using this style believe that the person being coached has the ability to come up with the answers themselves.
  • Developmental coaching
    This type of coaching is specifically relevant when you are working with someone to improve their skills. You identify learning goals together and then the coach provides the support framework for the individual to reach those goals. This type of coaching can be part of a long-term plan to develop individuals into high-performing leaders for the future.
  • Transactional coaching
    Transactional coaching focuses on tasks and can be time-boxed, which makes it perfect for the deliverable-driven environment of projects. You work with someone to identify areas where they want to improve. Then come up with an action plan to help them achieve those goals.

Coach-style leadership is effective in a project management context because project leaders often don’t have full hierarchical authority over the individuals working in the team. You can use coaching styles of leadership without being someone’s line manager.

Here are some coaching leadership style examples:

  • The coaching leader works with the team to carry out a retrospective on the project, identifying how the team worked together and the strengths and weaknesses in the way the project was delivered. The leader talks to the team together, and then individually, to help each person identify something they’d like to develop further and a plan for doing so.
  • An employee receives feedback from their peers about what it is like to work with them. As a project manager using a coaching leadership style, you sit with the individual, asking probing questions and supporting them in coming up with a personal action plan for improving their skills in certain areas.
  • A project team member completes a task but the work is poor quality. Instead of telling them how to do it better, you listen to why they approached it that way, what they think of the outcome and ask questions to uncover why the work was not up to scratch. Then together you discuss alternative ways to approach the task, settling on an action plan to improve performance.

How Does Leadership Coaching Work?

You're probably asking: How can I make project coaching work for my team? Below are 5 steps to get started coaching an employee.
  • Identify the individual to be coached
  • Agree terms of engagement
  • Meet to discuss goals
  • Plan how to reach those goals
  • Check in and monitor progress
It's easy to list out 5 steps for coaching others, but what does that look like in practice? Here's a detailed guide to how to use a coaching leadership style.

Step 1

Identify the individual to be coached. They may come to you to ask for support or you may notice a performance issue that would benefit from coaching. Either way, you'll need their agreement before you can start your coaching partnership.

Step 2

Discuss and agree the 'terms of engagement'. How are you going to approach this coaching relationship? How often will you meet? How formal is it going to be? Talk about the practicalities of working together so you both know what to expect.

Step 3

Meet to discuss the individual's goals. What exactly are you helping this colleague achieve through your coaching discussions? It's OK if the goals change over time. You might start out helping them improve performance in one area only to find that once you start discussions, the issue actually lies somewhere else. As long as you both have a clear idea of the direction you're going, that's fine.

Step 4

Next you need an action plan to meet those goals. How are those goals going to be met? What steps need to be completed to fulfil the objectives? Remember, most styles of coaching let the person being coached take the lead. Unless they specifically ask you to come up with the answers, don't volunteer what you would do. Even if they do ask you for the answers, think about how you can get them to create their own roadmap for success instead of relying on you!

Step 5

Finally, plan to check in and monitor progress regularly. Provide support as required. Go back to the terms of engagement you agreed in Step 2 and schedule catch ups so you have them in the diary. Let them tell you about the progress they have made towards their goals. Be their cheerleader and keep the motivation up until they achieve what they set out to do.

If you put time and effort into how to do leadership coaching, you’ll find the results are positive. Leadership coaching supports organizational performance by empowering individuals and teams to act in a professional and independent way.

One of the principles of leadership is that leading is about people. As a project leader, you can choose when to use coaching leadership style to get the best benefit. During a project, there will be times when you have to use a directive leadership style. At other times, taking a facilitative approach will be more effective.

Leadership coaching works because it helps an individual get clear on their priorities, uncover bias, establish how to get things done and build self-awareness.

The Importance of Leadership Coaching

Leadership coaching is important because it helps project team members stay motivated and develop their skills proactively. A facilitative leadership style helps individuals identify their own areas for performance improvement and encourages the team to work on their own initiative.

Project managers love to be problem solvers because it makes us feel wanted and also keeps the project moving forward. However, solving the problem for someone else doesn’t help them think for themselves or learn from the experience.

Essentials of Leadership Coaching

We've covered a lot in this article, so let's review the essential characteristics of a good coach.
  • They are independent
  • They are great listeners
  • They understand coaching principles
  • They understand the skills required to coach someone.

Independence

Leadership coaches are independent. They try to create a situation where an individual can find the answers for themselves. It’s useful to think of leadership coaching as a technique that can be used to facilitate learning and reflection through questions. Coaches don’t provide answers and they don’t give advice about what to do or how to do it. Instead, the empower the individual to find the answers that are right for them.

Listening

Successful leadership coaches use listening effectively. What you hear is more important than your own internal dialogue, so practising listening is a good starting point for developing your own coaching skills.

Coaching Principles

Understanding coaching principles is really important. They underpin every conversation a leader has with people who are being coached. Coaching principles include self-awareness and taking responsibility for your own decisions, being accountable, asking questions, creating a safe space for conversation and letting the person being coached set the agenda.

Coaching Skills for Leaders

As a leader, you'll be in situations where you want to simply give the answer based on what you know to be the best way to tackle the problem. But stop yourself! We learn best when we come up with the answers ourselves, so a core coaching skill for leaders is to ask clarifying questions and help others come to their own conclusions. Then you can help them create a plan and challenge the things they think will hold them back from achieving that plan.

Whether you are looking to improve your skills so you can provide leadership coaching to your team, or whether you want to secure the services of a coach so you can improve your own leadership, the podcasts in our archives will help you take the first steps in learning more about this topic. Which one will you listen to first?

The discipline of leadership is complex. It's wide but it's also a lot of fun. It's also of a very high importance to a project manager because as a project manager, your technical skills take you far but they don’t take you far enough. When the project starts getting more and more complex, the leadership skills become more and more important.
Niraj Kumar, PMP

PM Podcast Episodes About Leadership Coaching

Below you'll find a few selected PM Podcast episodes that talk about the topic of leadership coaching.

Project Management Coaching: A How To Guide

In this podcast, you'll learn 10 opportunities you have to find moments to coach, mentor and support your project management colleagues and community. Project management coach Jeff Furman, PMP, shares his experience working with leaders in a variety of industries. Whether you are experienced in project management coaching and mentoring or just starting out, you'll find some great tips in this episode.
Jeff Furman, PMP
Jeff Furman, PMP

Supportive Leadership

As a leader, you should of course be supportive of your team, and coaching is one way to do that. But have you heard of supportive leadership as a concept? Joseph Flahiff is an expert on the topic. In this interview you’ll learn how to incorporate supportive leadership into your own project leadership almost right away. And of course we will also touch upon the main difference between supportive leadership and servant leadership. You’ll be just as surprised as I was.
Joseph Flahiff, PMP, PMI-ACP
Joseph Flahiff, PMP, PMI-ACP

How to Develop Your Leadership Skills

In this podcast interview, Andy Kaufmann discusses how project management differs from project leadership, if a project leader needs subject matter expertise, why he recommends that we develop capability in our teams and of course he gives us his tips on how to grow your leadership skills. Leadership coaching is a great way to improve your skills in this area.
Andy Kaufmann and Cornelius Fichtner
Andy Kaufmann and Cornelius Fichtner

Coaching, Mentoring, Training & Motivational Techniques

Every project that you have ever and will ever manage depends on people’s skills. In this episode with coaching expert Susanne Madsen, you'll learn tips and tricks for helping your team succeed. With motivation and coaching skills leadership, you can make a huge difference to how supported your team members feel when working on your project. And we know that better motivation tends to lead to higher engagement and therefore better outcomes. Learn more in this podcast!
Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen

Summary

Coaches take the time to look at the goals. They uncover the problem that needs to be solved, or the objective that needs to be achieved. When you can help someone understand what they are moving towards, it’s easier for them to see the next steps. Then the individual being coached can create an action plan to help them close the gap and achieve their goals.

We have some great interviews with expert coaches in a range of different fields, so dive in and you’ll soon learn more about the topic!

Project Management for Beginners and Experts

Going beyond Project Management Professional (PMP)®, PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)®, and Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)®

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