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ATD Blog

Coaching Strategies for Leaders

Monday, June 10, 2024

If you’ve found yourself challenged to define the line between coaching and managing, you’re not alone. Many leaders blur the lines between the two without realizing it. This can affect not just the development of your team, but how effective you are as a leader. The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” The ICF definition of coaching is often a far cry from its applications in business context where consulting, training, directive performance interventions, and micromanagement are labeled as “coaching.”

When facilitating the training program “Coaching Strategies for Leaders” in organizations, I introduce the definition and foundational elements of coaching so leaders can recognize the difference between coaching and other methodologies. After grounding leaders in these foundations, I do a brief coaching demo so leaders can see the competencies in the context of a coaching session. I then introduce a series of drills for skill-building. These drills can be awkward in isolation but reinforce a player’s ability to play a better game when integrated. These are the drills:

1. In the first drill, the coach can only ask open-ended questions.
2. In the second drill, they can only ask open-ended questions or offer reflections.
3. In the third drill, which is focused on active listening, the coach does not speak.

Debriefs are integrated throughout the drills and roles change so that all get a chance to participate as both the client and the coach. These drills can be difficult for leaders when they are in the role of coach, as they are usually promoted for their subject matter expertise and ability to solve problems. Initially, those in the role of the coach put pressure on themselves to coach perfectly despite having just been introduced to the concepts and are often challenged by how difficult it is to keep to their allotted speaking responsibility as coach. However, the insights of those in the client role and their switch into the coach role illuminate the essential differences between what coaching is and their previous definitions as well as the value of coaching.

Whether you are new to coaching or looking for a refresher, here are five tips for integrating coaching in a leadership role:


1. No stealth coaching. Coaching is a partnership that requires consent. Coaching without consent goes against the foundation of the ICF Core Competencies and ethics. While it is recommended that you practice and integrate your coaching skills (which at times will be awkward as you are attempting to use and integrate tools that may be better for the job but that you are not as familiar with), be transparent that you are developing your coaching skills and asking new questions so people aren’t suspicious about why the person who normally tells them what to do is all of a sudden acting differently.

2. Clarify your role. Taking on and integrating the role of a coach aligned with the ICF definition of coaching is likely different from the role you normally play. In alignment with the transparency of not coaching in stealth and letting people know you are developing your coaching skills, make a distinction about the difference between a coaching role (questions, reflections, partnership) and a consulting, training, or management role (answers, recommendations, performance expectations). Integrate questions like “What would be helpful from me?” “Would you like me to ask you a question or make a recommendation?” “How would you like me to show up for you right now?” These engage the person you are interacting with in the partnership of coaching, encouraging them to reflect and take ownership regarding what will be most helpful, instead of just expecting an answer.


3. Don’t lead the witness. “Have you thought about…” and “What if you tried…” are not coaching, they are recommendations and advice reworded as questions that would fail coaching exams. Coaching is not about you and your desired outcomes, answers, and expectations, it is about your client. If you are not in a business or organizational context where you can hold the space for ambiguity, discovery, and follow your client’s timeline and thought process, then you are not able to coach in alignment with the ICF’s definition. Also, be mindful of your body language, expressions, and affirmations, as you may be leading without intending to.

4. Create and hold the space. Development takes time, and growth can be messy and painful. As a coach it is your role to hold space for and honor your client in what may feel like ambiguity with no answers in sight. However, if the questions are easy to answer and have only one solution, it is unlikely that this is a coaching topic or session will be transformational. Be mindful of how much of your ego or job satisfaction is tied up in a quick and comprehensive solution for your direct report, client, or stakeholder. Sometimes the essential work happens between sessions; planting seeds and expecting sprouts in the same day is not realistic. The same goes for you as a leader integrating your coaching skills. If your people are used to you providing answers, you’ll see resistance at first when you start to lean on development. Will you give in, or continue to grow and develop your skills?

5. Know when coaching isn’t the appropriate intervention. If you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. While the active listening, open questions, reflection, creating space, encouraging ownership, and partnering with your direct reports, clients and stakeholders have a myriad of applications, the responsibilities of your role still stand; and there will be times when there are correct answers, performance needs to be managed, and crisis needs to be mitigated in a specific way.

Leadership is constantly evolving and changing. The ability to effectively coach is becoming a fundamental necessity to navigate modern business. Leaders who embrace ambiguity and continually refine coaching techniques will be the ones who thrive alongside their teams and organizations. As you integrate, or reintegrate these strategies into your leadership toolkit, remember that the cycle of a coach is also filled with learning and relearning. The best leaders and coaches lead by example, walking their own growth path, so they can continuously raise the bar to support others. That is where true potential, creativity, and growth happens.

About the Author

Diana Ideaus has her master’s in executive coaching and organizational behavior and is one of only 1300 coaches globally to have attained the level of Master Certified Coach with the International Coaching Federation. Diana leverages her coaching, consulting, management, and leadership development supporting leaders and entrepreneurs in fast growth for-profit companies in tech, finance, and healthcare.

Diana’s areas of specialty include mergers and acquisitions, organizational culture development, growth and scalability, change management, innovation and technology implementations, succession planning, diversity and inclusion, leadership development, high potentials, and coaching strategies for Leaders.

Diana founded Hawthorne Union with the belief that there was a better way to do business and that if we take care of our people that they will take care of the profits. In addition to her work with leaders and companies, Diana teaches professionals how to coach at the university level and in courses approved by the International Coaching Federation. Her book Listen: Mentor Coaching for Coaches and other resources for coaches and leaders are available at

1 Comment
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Great article, Diana - coaching can be all of those things. As business executive and executive coach, I have felt all of those things you share. It's not easy and it's not fast. I know I should coach but sometimes I miss the opportunity.
Appreciate the read. Thanks.
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