In many companies, the general career trajectory is to get hired on, perform well as an individual contributor, and earn a promotion into a managerial position.
Executives and team leads often assume that if people excel as individual contributors, they’ll be excellent leaders, too.
Unfortunately, research shows that this isn’t the best way to choose leadership talent.
According to Gallup, only one in 10 people have the qualities to be great managers. These qualities include motivating others, reviewing performance, making unbiased decisions, fostering accountability, and building relationships.
Another 2 in 10 people have some of those qualities and can become successful managers, but it takes the right coaching and development to get them there.
Why good individual contributors don’t always make good leaders
As the research from Gallup shows, not everyone can be coached into becoming an effective leader. Some personalities resist coaching.
Here’s an example. Since I work in engineering, let’s consider an engineer who has shown up as ‘arrogant’ at times. If this person is resistant to feedback and already believes they’ve got what it takes to be better than the current team lead, there’s a chance they aren’t open to coaching.
Even if they do have the functional competence to excel in some aspects of a leadership role, not every person has the necessary soft skills that coaching can enhance.
Every team member’s performance is a combination of competency and character. To add some context to how they are distinct:
Competency refers to the acquired functional skills that enable someone to do their job well. These can be assessed through functional interviews and can be improved through learning resources, mentoring, and practice.
Character is a set of skills (often referred to as soft skills) and traits that make someone's competency useful. Competency tells you that someone can do well in their job, character tells you that someone will do well in their job. The character is harder to assess and to coach. To assess for character in a recruitment process, we use behavioral interviews. And a specific set of skills and traits can only be improved through coaching.
For engineering teams, this may mean writing clean code or effectively testing products. Soft skills refer to general personal skills useful in various aspects of your work life, such as teamwork, cognitive ability, and written and verbal communication.
Leadership roles often require more soft skills than functional competencies. But sometimes individual contributors get promoted based on their strong functional competence while their soft skills are lacking.
Think of the ideal competence for leadership as T-shaped.
On the left, you see a strong, singular focus on the hard skill, ‘mechanical engineering.’ On the right, you see the addition of soft skills, vital to leaders in nearly any industry. Our example team member is like the image on the left—more depth where engineering skills are concerned, but lacks the leadership-essential soft skills, which are crucial to the role. For example, individual contributors can get by with more limited communication skills since they only need to communicate with their team leads and teammates, not stakeholders or executives.
Because people miscalculate which skill sets are transferable (from being an engineer to being a leader), they may wrongly conclude that new leaders do not need coaching.
Benefits of leadership coaching
Leadership coaching is an intrinsic part of working at Hotjar.
In engineering, everyone who’s hired into or promoted into a leadership position is assigned at least one coach. We offer both a leadership and a communication coach, and team members are assigned either one or both, depending on their needs and goals.
Our coaches have experience on an engineering team, so they understand the common problems the team member may encounter, how the team is organized, and the way the team is run. However, these coaches are not current department managers or supervisors.
Some companies enlist managers and supervisors into coaching roles, but I discourage it because they won’t have an unbiased position. The coach should ideally be someone with whom the employee can speak freely about their challenges.
If the new leader and coach aren’t a good fit, we encourage them to find an external coach at our expense.
I have a leadership coach, and of all the benefits I’ve experienced by having one, two in particular stand out to me: increased self-awareness and leadership support.
One saying that resonates with me is: good coaches show you how great they are. Better coaches show you how great you are.
As opposed to mentoring, coaching doesn’t provide new information or give you new skills for a leadership role.
Instead, coaching programs are tailored to your needs and help you refine your existing skills or give you the tools to learn new ones, to develop into a better leader.
Coaches do this by using insightful questions to help you uncover how to utilize your strengths in leadership. They help you train your instincts and problem solve using your own previous experiences.
In a coaching session, I told my coach how I thought the team was feeling regarding an upcoming change, and my coach responded with, “How do you know that to be true?” It was a poignant reminder to avoid making assumptions as a leader.
Coaches train you to ask yourself these types of questions whenever you’re at a crossroads. I’ve found this level of insight transformational as a leader.
As Ben Horowitz emphasizes in his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, “There’s no recipe for really complicated, dynamic situations.”
There’s no rule book for being a leader—no ‘if this, then that’ credos like those common in engineering. Many situations leaders face are happening for the first time or under unique circumstances.
With a coach on your team, challenging leadership situations are less lonely since you don’t have to feel pressured to think through everything on your own. You have the support you need to be the thoughtful leader your team can rely on.
With coaching as an example, I have further learned the value of building relationships and using cross-functional collaboration to achieve company-wide success. I’ve been reminded that when one team succeeds, we all win.
It’s like being a member of a cycling team—the riders support each other to achieve positive results. When all the domestiques ride ahead, they cut the wind and make it easier for the team leader, and the entire team, to win.
Help your company succeed with leadership coaching
I believe that every leader needs to act as a coach at least once in their career. The experience teaches leaders to empower their team instead of trying to swoop in and micromanage every time there’s a problem.
The mindset changes from coaching are gradual, so it’s easy to underestimate coaching’s value. But providing leadership coaching can transform both your business and your bottom line.
Leadership coaching can give your company an edge. It can boost productivity, produce more empathetic leaders, and build team trust in leadership. Start investing in it.
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