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Leader as Coach, Mentor, Sponsor: Creating a Talent Engine for Growth

Developing the next generation talent for key roles within an organization is essential for its
sustained profitable performance. An organization grows or dies in direct relationship to
the quality, quantity, and engagement of people who occupy its most pivotal jobs now and
in the future. Unfortunately, effective talent development is one of most neglected and
poorly managed aspects of contemporary organizational life. Most organizations offer
internal and external education and development programs, but these are rarely sufficient
to provide ready now successors for key jobs in a rapidly growing organization. This
paper is based on my observations and experience as Chief Learning Officer regarding
three aspects of developing internal candidates for critical roles: planning, coaching, and
culture. I will focus primarily on the second element, creating coaching capability of leaders
to develop the talent within the organization.
Developmental Planning Processes and Practices
A CEO is, in many ways, also the companys chief talent officer. While it is increasingly common for
organizations to have people who hold formal talent management positions, CEOs can never divorce
themselves from this most serious responsibility. In the best situations the talent management team and the
senior leaders of the various business units cooperate to conduct well structured, regularly occurring, talent
and succession reviews of their talent for the CEO. These reviews allow the CEO to keep a pulse on the
highest potential talent, identify current and impending talent gaps, and ensure that the business units are
proactively working to cultivate next generation talent as a critical priority. It is increasingly common for a
portion of every senior business leaders bonus to be contingent upon having a viable ready now successor
in place, a slate of potential successors for all of the existing and emerging key roles in the business unit, and
viable development plans that include education and developmental experiences for each of the high potential

Cultivating 5 Skills in Leaders as Coaches

When I have asked highly successful leaders what they credit for their effectiveness, they almost always refer
to their experiences - both the good experiences and especially the difficult ones. When I continue to probe,
they also describe others who helped them learn from their experiences. Terms for this person vary and
include the following: mentor, coach, advocate, sponsor, and counselor. In many ways coaching is the key
leadership skill.
Over more than two decades I have helped hundreds of leaders to cultivate some combination of the five
talent development skills listed below. While not every leader uses all 5 of these skills, all have their place in
a well-constructed talent development process.
Providing Feedback - offering accurate, timely, constructive insight regarding what the performer is doing
that works or does not, why it is so, and what might work better.

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Offering Thinking Partnership helping a performer use better cognitive frameworks and methods to think
more clearly and with higher quality to raise their game when solving problems, making decisions, and getting
important things done.
Giving Expert Advice providing options and alternatives based on expertise, experience and tested
evidence. Helping performers to expand perspective and see a range of alternatives they had not
considered. Opening their mind to options and possibilities they had not seen before.
Demonstrating Role Model Behavior showing performers an example of behavior and competence that is
specifically applicable to the developmental steps they need and want to take now - giving them a "model in
action" of archetypal excellence they can use to take that step.
Sponsorship and Advocacy - Helping performers gain exposure, receive recognition, be noticed, and build
their network of key relationships. Facilitating access to opportunities and experiences from which they can
grow and advance. Advocating for them in discussions regarding new opportunities for increased
responsibility and scope.
I have rarely seen anyone employ all five of these skills for another person. I did observe an enlightened
chairman do much of this for one of his children who wanted to grow to lead the business. It was so private
and sensitive that even as the head of leadership development and succession planning for this global firm, I
only brushed the edges of their relationship. It is interesting and important to note that this chairman had
seen this done before. His father had done it for him when he was a young man.
To merely ask leaders to do these things without helping them cultivate the skills can be highly counterproductive. Effective development processes provide training in these skills in a way that complements the
organizations developmental planning, succession, and talent practices. Such training can provide a huge
talent advantage to a company that desires to grow in a sustainable way.

Coaching Comes of Age

At one time coaching was seen in a very negative light. It was used as a process reserved for people who
were in trouble or who were being counseled out of an organization. Over the past ten years this picture has
changed entirely. Coaching has become a performance lever for the highest performers who are headed to
the top. It is now common for many very senior executives to have personal coaches.
As investments in coaching increase, a couple of important question arise. Is there empirical evidence that
coaching works? Secondly, could coaching be made scalable rather than an expensive perk for the few? The
answer to the first question is yes and no. In some cases it is possible to get actual measures of change in
the business as a consequence of the coaching interventions. This is always the best, but is difficult due to
the multitude of variables that can influence business outcomes. Even though proving a change in the
business as a result of coaching is difficult, it is almost always possible to gain pre and post intervention
feedback from a 360 perspective of those who surround the performer. Including feedback as a part of the
training model is a powerful way to personalize and ground the training. Finally, in many cases it is best to
take a case-based approach to defining and measuring coaching success.
A case-based approach is one in which the learner identifies their personal need for coaching before they
engage in learning to coach others. This process of being coached by peers while learning to coach others is
a version of double loop learning. Adding structured feedback from others before attending the session
makes it even more powerful. Some coaching issues are purely related to the business Our share with
product x is in decline and we have to stop it. Some are purely personal and behavioral - People say I am
arrogant, selfish and cold. Some of the issues are purely developmental I have little experience with on-


line retailing and it is becoming a critical element of our business model. Measurement of coaching success
becomes a viable possibility when the desired change is clearly defined and a baseline measurement of
current performance is made at the onset. This provides a practical basis for creating coaching capability.
The answer to question two regarding the scalability of coaching in a cost effective way is clearly yes. Case
based training allows peers to learn coaching skills while working on real issues. The aim of this training is for
the participant to master the skills for coaching their direct reports, their peers and even their bosses while
making progress on their own issues during and after training sessions.

Cultivating a Coaching Culture

It is one thing to coach another person, it is quite another to develop a culture of coaching a so called
learning organization.
If you put a good person in a bad culture, the culture wins every time. W. Edwards Deming, the famous
quality guru noted, when it comes to performance and what shapes it - the system or culture is far more
powerful than the individual. As the adage goes, culture has strategy for lunch. It follows that giving lectures
or providing individual training is a low percentage strategy if the system and culture do not really support or
display the value of the thing being trained. Our mirror neurons lead all of us to learn and be shaped by
imitation of those around us. This is the power of an environment to shape individual behavior. We do not
live in isolation from those around us; rather we are, as David Brooks argues, social animals.
There are clear reasons why we see the following statement to consistently be one of the lowest scores on
organizational surveys and culture assessments I am receiving effective coaching from my boss.

Leaders are not selected with coaching skill as one of the key criteria
We do not evaluate their coaching effectiveness as a part of their review
We do not compensate or reward them for coaching effectiveness
The people at the top of the organization do not coach their direct reports
There is no training or development in coaching skills

Given this common profile, it is little wonder that coaching skills are rare in most organizations. This profile is
starting to change. By creating a system that melds the three elements of planning, coaching, and culture in
which a CEO is actively involved, an organization can create a talent engine for growth.

Fred Harburg
Executive Director of the Kellogg Executive Leadership Institute
Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University