Management Consultant Mike Eldon

Why coaching is the best style of leadership

In the last few weeks I have paid several visits to Western Kenya, and in different ways they all revolved around the topic of leadership. I spent time with members of the County Delivery Units in the lake region; with a group of DTB bankers based in western Kenya; with staff of the Kisumu branches of Davis & Shirtliff and of Occidental Insurance; and with the faculty of KCA University’s Kisumu campus, and in each case I was helping them handle the non-technical challenges they face in their work.

Whether they were technocrats or bankers, whether they were offering pumps or insurance policies, or as academics, they were all leaders, responsible for influencing how those around them performed. The county officials drove service delivery on behalf of their governors; the bankers and the others in their branches had to see their office colleagues work smoothly together and serve their customers well; and the faculty members’ lives were dedicated to developing their students to do well in the workplace.

At the core of each engagement, in one as a consultant for the World Bank, with one as a faculty member of the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications, and with others as a director of the respective organisations, I had the participants explore ways of aligning the energy of those around them to pursue common goals so that desired outcomes were achieved. That, after all, is what leadership is about.

In each case we spent time examining how to communicate in ways that influence their colleagues and customers positively, including by developing their emotional intelligence and their negotiating skills. They learned how to overcome undue resistance to change; build consensus to apply common approaches; and reduce the wasting of time and energy that comes from indulging in profitless conflict.

The word that captures the essence of the style I apply is “coaching”. And the “coaching mindset” that underpins it involves developing trust and hence strong relationships, through for instance asking more than telling, and encouraging rather than criticising.

The mission those with whom I interacted were challenged to adopt was to become champions of such a “coaching culture”. So that not only do they apply the coaching mindset in the way they operate but to nurture it in others too. For it is through the spread of the coaching style of leadership that an organisation can be uplifted.

We have had enough of the Big Man, know-it-all approach to leading. It may deliver results in the short run, and it may well be necessary in times of crisis. But generally speaking it is more likely to inhibit through the fear on which it relies, suppressing creativity and innovation, and making it much harder to orchestrate succession.

By contrast, a coaching culture promotes candid and respectful conversations among staff that foster reflection, self-awareness and empowerment.

It integrates coaching approaches into the everyday mindsets and interactions across functions and between all levels. Where a coaching culture is present, feedback is valued as a form of ongoing development, conversations are engaging, solutions are collaborative, and mistakes are viewed as opportunities to learn.

The whole concept of coaching is still in its infancy in Kenya, and not least in the public sector. Indeed I have yet to come across any government entity where a budget exists for funding coaching programmes. And what a shame that is, as so many leaders – in government at least as much as elsewhere – could benefit greatly from working with a coach to transform their effectiveness.

So I issue this plea to all our leaders and to those responsible for leadership development: please consider introducing coaching as a normal part of learning and growth. Think deeply about developing a coaching mindset as a central characteristic of leadership, and this within a broader coaching culture.

Before concluding this column I wish to pay tribute to Nick Muriuki, whom I first got to know fifty years ago when he worked with my father in London with Shell, and who passed away a few days ago. He was a true role model for great leadership, filled with humility and humour and always willing to share his great wisdom.