As organisations, as business and people decision-makers, we want our leaders to do magic like this:
Their teams are highly productive and are great to work with because they know their leader has their back, keeps them focused on the big picture and wants them to enjoy and build on their successes — their leaders do all this because they know that creativity and generous energy is what solves the seemingly impossible.
They spot the signs early of risks due to people losing focus and attachment to their work, and they make time for a thought-provoking conversation that empowers that individual to make stronger choices — they do this because they care deeply about each person and their own reward is seeing that person flourish while also growing their own careers.
The leaders we want are those who know what they stand for, are consistent in their behaviours, are working on limiting the effect of their fears, their imposter syndrome, their biases and their blind spots, and are highly motivated to build strong emotional connections through skilful coaching conversations.
None of this is magic but it is rare. They are leaders who coach.
I’ll explain why in a moment but stay with me while we run through the hard and uncomfortable reality about leadership programmes.
Throughout this article I’m defining leaders as any manager who has responsibility for delivering results from individuals, from a group of people or from a function (that relies on a team or teams), whether they are direct reports or indirect reports.
The leaders we have
Only 1 in 10 people managers is good at ‘managing’ and yet our line manager has the biggest bearing on whether we enjoy our work and stay in our team.
While a very small number of us are motivated regardless of the competency of our boss or their interest in us, for most of us the honeymoon period of starting in a new job is quickly replaced by a sense of futility, that the difference we hoped we’d have is just a dream. From there, it’s really easy to reach a place of apathy, of not caring about our work, our boss and our teammates — a whopping 85% of us feel ‘meh’ (at best) about our work. It’s no surprise that ‘creating a high-performance culture’ is so low on the interest index.
It really is the job of leaders to develop emotional connections with their people so that they can ‘manage’ them effectively. But if we haven’t invested in teaching people in society generally how to build relationships in healthy and nurturing ways or in teaching leaders how to ‘manage’ people, where do you begin to even show the power that caring can have in motivating people? We seem to know it in our private lives and in raising our children but at work we get all uncomfortable talking about it with our teammates.
Nearly two-thirds of leaders are NOT confident in the decisions they make to promote innovation AND, in my expert opinion, their own people feel it every day even if they can’t clearly articulate it.
From the many leaders who I have coached (and I am very committed to and inspired by my clients) and from my own experience of building and running businesses, it’s inevitable that we will lack the confidence to make some decisions at some point in our day or week. We are not experts at everything. But, if we’re not grounded in who we are, if we suffer from chronic imposter syndrome, if we don’t know our own values and don’t know how to self-advocate, if we struggle to translate strategy into action for our people, we will consistently lack confidence in our decisions — that goes for day-to-day stuff and never mind being innovative.
The result is personal stress as well as team stress. Our team members become misaligned causing fractures and cracks in team harmony, generosity to collaborate falls away and us vs them language and behaviours take hold, our peers and teams stop listening to us or seeking our counsel, and our influence fades or becomes limited. And then our own mental health takes a hit, we sleep poorly, other physical symptoms manifest themselves, our brain becomes foggy, and we trust ourselves even less to make good decisions.
I doubt I’m telling you anything you don’t already know. But humour me as I place three more pertinent statistics on the table.
From the giant multinational corporates trying to become more nimble to the feisty scale-ups trying to conquer the world, leadership continues to evade the best of organisations. For scale-ups, along with raising funding, leadership and talent retention make up the top 3 challenges they face.
Mirroring the scale-up world, 64% of C-suite leaders around the world say developing their future leaders is their number one priority, with attracting and keeping great talent coming second in their list of priorities. To put it into even more context, keeping their competition at bay comes third in their list of priorities after leadership and talent.
And globally we spend vast sums on leadership development — it’s $3.4 billion and climbing — but with underwhelmingly little to indicate they are worth the money (and time) that they cost. All leaders are left with to persuade them to invest in a leadership programme for their leaders is the prestigious institute that’s selling them the course and all the attached promise that rubbing shoulders and shelling out thousands of dollars with other status-driven leaders might bring. (Which in itself, once you understand what inspiring leadership is really all about, kind of doesn’t sit right.)
Is the good intention there? Yes, absolutely. Are the results there? Categorically, no.
Keep those stats in mind for a moment because there are two very interesting results that a Google search “how much do we spend on leadership development globally” surfaces:
- “Why leadership development programs fail?”, and
- “How much does leadership training cost?”
It’s these two secondary questions that I want to address next.
Why do leadership development programmes fail?
One of the biggest reasons leadership development programmes fail is the concepts taught in study time are too far away from the leader’s reality, both in terms of time between learning and applying and in terms of relevance and how easy they are to translate to the muddy waters of real work scenarios.
So even if you recall 10% or 25% of what you learned on the course (yep, that’s what adults typically retain), you’ll be lucky if your leaders actually apply even a third of that to your organisation. So, what’s that… not even 3% (7.5% at best) of benefit on best practice approaches? And how long does that practice last… just weeks… with just one new phrase or technique adopted?
On that alone, such a programme makes networking with well-connected people a very expensive social exercise for your organisation that may yield that leader a great next job in 2-5 years’ time. (Fantastic.) The immediate or even longer-term benefit to the team or your organisation? Negligible. Makes no business sense at all.
And when the content and concepts are difficult to apply, you’ve thrown out the biggest chance you had to encourage positive shifts in behaviour. Because, not only have you created a frustrated relationship with the content, but you’ve denied that leader an emotionally rich and immediately rewarding sense of possibility. We shift to doing things better only once we see that this new approach works — the most convincing and persuasive case for change has to come from within oneself. And the two primary beneficiaries? Me (the leader) and the people I lead.
We have to begin with the needs of the leader not just to deliver organisational results but me the leader who needs to overcome my fears, insecurities and imposter syndrome, who needs to be respected by my peers and my boss, who needs to feel like I am making a difference to my team, who needs to maintain a desirable reputation, who needs to feel valued and needed, who needs to maintain and increase my financial earnings, who needs to maintain my standing in my community, and so on.
The problem with a lot of leadership development programmes is that they don’t go deep enough in reaching the human in the leader nor do they sit long enough helping the leader understand their own wiring. Instead exploration stays at the superficial levels with over-used business jargon bobbing on the surface that in the distance looks like an unremarkable haze on the horizon.
How much does leadership training cost? (And why so expensive?)
A typical leadership development programme can be anywhere between £5,000 and £60,000+ per delegate and the quality or impact is highly debatable. Why so much? My theory is that the old-fashioned view is that once you reach a certain seniority, your employer deems you worthy of investing in, and some institutions have hefty overheads and need to charge massive rates, and that itself has become the norm — small price tags don’t sit comfortably with prestigious training outfits.
Even so, does quality training really need to be so expensive? In this day and age of content creation and online learning? Pricing them so high and being slow to move online (or to hybrids) not only creates this artificial bottleneck — it limits how many leaders can be trained and how many employers are willing to train their up and coming leaders. Learning and Development budgets often go unused or used on ‘nice but no impact’ training and events.
To my mind, basic levels of competency in leadership skills should be a minimum expectation of anyone who is responsible for motivating and growing other people. It’s a big responsibility. There’s plenty of hope-giving data that show us if we just double the number of motivated and committed people in our team — whether that’s going from 2 people to 4 people, or 20 to 40 people — we should not be surprised to observe a multi-fold increase in productivity or even a 150% higher earnings per share than our competition.
I’m realistic and I don’t believe any organisation can reach 100% efficiency and in fact with growth there is an unavoidable haemorrhaging of costs and time which, in most organisations, is amplified by that 9 in 10 leaders who flat-out do not have the skills they need to deliver on their remit. That figure alone should have us up in arms but the apathy (“Why bother.”) seems to have caught up with even the best of us pushing for healthy change and skills development.
What I do believe, however, is that it is possible as a leader to learn great conversation skills and models grounded in being intentional and strategic. Great conversations enrich our workday and that of our teams and people. They remind us what we’re great at and reveal for us how we can make that impact we once believed we could when we first joined our organisation. And it doesn’t need to cost £5,000+.
The leadership development programme we need
There are three criteria that I believe a leadership development programme needs to deliver on:
Leaders need to be able to apply what they learn while doing the course because this is how most of learn best — by doing, making mistakes, refining and experimenting again. So, residential days away or intense learning packed into a week is arguably the least effective — you’re practicing in ‘clean water’ and that’s not where all the knots are. Leadership isn’t theoretical, it’s highly practical every day. Also, models and frameworks for how we lead and how we grow our people need to be embedded into a leader’s day-to-day practice so it sticks and becomes a good habit that others can observe and copy. We need a minimum 30% impact, not 3%.
Good leadership skills are good leadership skills regardless of new or seasoned a leader is, so let’s not pretend that senior leaders need a special kind of leadership development programme. Sure, the discussions, applications, dilemmas and dichotomies may be different but the skills of leading, inspiring and influencing are the same. So how about one price? And how about a lower price because online delivery is the main way the training is delivered?
Adding a live component to an online course is an effective way to customise the learning experience and address the needs of different groups of leaders, for example, senior leaders or tech leaders or middle managers, etc. Live and remote keeps the costs down. It also creates a wonderful community of peers that motivates and supports each leader to excel at practicing their new leadership skills.
So, can you get a high impact, low cost leadership development programme that offers extras?
Yes, and here’s why.
Conversations and behaviours are intrinsically bound together
Conversations. Verbal and non-verbal communication, including body language and utterances, is our oldest communication technology — as old as animal-kind but we’re in danger of losing those skills. We’re becoming emotionally disconnected from people around us, especially as we shift towards remote working being the norm, and as a result we’re exhibiting ‘anti-relationship’ behaviours like defensiveness, aggression, exclusion, and division.
Conversations and behaviours are intrinsically bound together.
While some organisations have adapted and embraced remote working, there are many more that are struggling to make it work and are finding their entire existence is under threat. But let’s not make the mistake of assuming that the gathering of people in offices (the community) means they are healthier cultures than remote working. (The data on our engagement levels and mental health are telling us in no uncertain terms that we’re not happy workers.) In fact, if our culture was already unhealthy or toxic when everyone came to the office, it is for sure being amplified remotely because of our over-dependence on business chat apps.
Poor behaviour is easier to get away with and harder to manage because of the physical and emotional distance that online chat platforms were built for. This explains why unpleasant chat exchanges all the way through to incidents of public shaming are featuring more and more in my client sessions — which are all remote these days. And just so we’re on the same page, online chat exchanges are not conversations, they are transmissions, broadcasts and retorts — they are bits (and not always the best bits) of what constitutes a conversation but they are not the whole conversation.
And with more of us working remotely in our current climate, our organisation cultures are experiencing further stresses and strains.
We need leaders who can turn this ship around, who can model great conversations, who can inspire and influence because they’ve invested in building emotional connections with their people, who can bring our community together, who are willing to embed best practices into their leadership delivery, and who can enrich our culture so that the organisation can deliver on its mission and targets.
Inspiring conversations — in person or over the phone?
Some people ask, “Can you really have a great conversation over the phone or video call? As good as a conversation in person?” Yes, you definitely can and here’s why — the issue isn’t that being physically in front of our direct report or our boss gives us better information (because otherwise all the science, employee engagement numbers and leadership effectiveness data would give us different results). The issue is that we are already poor at conversations and remote working is highlighting that uncomfortable fact.
Yes, being physically in front of our direct report or our boss does give us richer data but that doesn’t mean we are good at noticing it (we only pick up somewhere between 10% and 20% of what someone is really saying), enquiring about it or interpreting it accurately. If anything, we’re more likely to be distracted and emotionally triggered by power dynamics and inequity played by people who do things like show up late to meetings or posture for effect.
What makes a difference to us as individuals is the emotional connection we have to the person we’re speaking with and how that person can inspire us to achieve more than we thought we could. All of that comes down to great conversation skills and as my Leaders Who Coach™ students are learning every week it’s all about being present, listening, questioning and observing — this is how we raise oxytocin levels, how we make people generous, motivated and committed.
Conversations are an amazing piece of kit when we can listen for what’s not being said, the silences, the sighs, the hesitations, the repetitions, the metaphors, the energy, the contradictions and confusions, values and needs, and the mental state of the person we’re talking to.
Conversations are an amazing piece of kit when we can ask questions that help the other person get clear on their approach, stress test their assumptions, ask them to explore different options and try them on for size, invite them to consider what a bigger or better action would give them, understand common interests, and find opportunities to align on priorities.
I could go on but with practice of these two skills alone, we could have better conversations with anyone and everyone, whether that’s in person, on the phone or on a video call. Imagine what that would do for your culture, your business, your bottom-line.
Leaders who use coaching skills in conversations are inspiring and influential
As an executive coach (and you’ll hear many great coaches say the same), applying my learned conversation skills in service of my clients is one of the most rewarding professional experiences I have had and continue to have. That’s from my side. My clients frequently say things like, “I never would have worked this out on my own” or “I’ve never felt so supported in my entire career” or “I feel relieved — I’ve been worrying about this for ages and now I can get my sleep back.” Their moments of growth give me goosebumps every time.
But I’ll be honest — my frustration sometimes when I’m working one-on-one with a leader in a troubled organisation is that I can’t do more, that I’m not having sessions with all their leaders, and that limits how much clarity and rigorous strategic thinking I’m able to bring to the entire leadership or management team. A few years ago I thought that becoming an in-house coach was the solution but that is fraught with other more rigid challenges like loss of impartiality, hierarchy dynamics and perceived conflicts of interest.
And then I dared to dream bigger.
What if 20% of leaders within an organisation had great conversation skills like listening and questioning?
Or what if all leaders in that organisation improved their conversation skills by just 20%?
How would the immediate impact of higher quality conversations ripple through your organisation?
Bear with me while I run you through some quick numbers. Let’s take an organisation of 400 people with 15% of employees in leadership positions with direct reports — I make that 60 leaders with an average of 7 direct reports. If I took just 15 (a quarter) of those leaders and taught them better conversations skills, they would have an impact on 105 people in the organisation plus the 15 leaders with great skills — that would lift up 30% of your people. A critical mass of your people would be motivated to go the extra mile, solve the seemingly impossible, collaborate generously, achieve their targets, and attract other great people to your organisation.
Imagine what impact that would have on your bottom-line and on the mental wellbeing of your people? On your reputation and your culture? On your hiring strength and talent retention? On your productivity and competitiveness?
This shift in my thinking was motivation enough for me to build Leaders Who Coach™.
Leaders Who Coach™ — high impact, low cost, easily customisable
Leaders Who Coach™ is a 12-skill online course for leaders that:
- Delivers immediate shifts in behaviours and raises the quality of day-to-day conversations
- Costs just £499 including VAT for weekly skill-on-skill learning over 3 months (on Basic Plan)
- Offers additional live group learning for cohorts of leaders in organisations to grow together (on the Enrichment Plan)
I teach leaders (at all levels) all the skills they need to have better conversations using the competencies of master coaches made relevant for leaders on the frontlines of business — leaders with deadlines, with delivery pressures, with targets and OKRs, with resource challenges, and with people on their teams at all stages of their careers and expertise.
The challenge I set myself was that everything I teach — whether through the 100 video lectures or the highly practical and relevant assignments — has to be easily applied to the very next conversation a leader has. The closer we are to the learning experience, the faster we grow. The impact of each new skill learned has to be immediate and the feedback so far (5 stars) confirms that I have met that challenge… plus some unexpected bonus surprises.
For leaders on the Enrichment Plan, tutors provide a safe confidential and peer supported space for deeper exploration of concepts, sharing of assignment results, real case study analysis, and live coaching conversation practice. These sessions are rich learning environments, leaders go deep in discovery, and growth is palpable.
Company cohorts on the Enrichment Plan experience something else that few other programmes can deliver — a unique bonding of peer leaders over shared experiences and shared frameworks which not only deepens their emotional connections to one another (great for cross-function collaboration) and develops a common language and approach, but also creates accountability to one another for building and protecting the culture they are leading.
Being online means Leaders Who Coach™ delivers high quality, high impact leadership development with all the convenience of studying when and where it works for your leaders at a fraction of the cost — so more of your leaders can move forward together.
Now that makes good business sense.
Graduates of my course are inspired in ways that their past 10-30 years in employment (and on leadership development programmes) has never been able to elicit. As one leader on the Enrichment Plan recently put it, “I could spend 52 hours learning to play the guitar and still be rubbish, while in just 3 months, this course has transformed how I lead and how I see myself.”
Putting Leaders Who Coach™ online helps me achieve my other big dream which is to make working way more enjoyable for as many leaders and their people as possible — more rewarding and enriching of our relationships with people we happen to spend the majority of our lives with. And there’s now no need to wait until we’ve secured that big title (and all the poor conversation skills that too often go with it).
The important thing is to start
Leaders in organisations recognising something needs to change can often feel overwhelmed about where to start. Time and again I hear committed and concerned business leaders who understand the direct connection between leadership and culture and profitability and competitiveness say things like, “It’s our founders who are the worst communicators” and “Our senior leadership team doesn’t recognise that they are part of the problem” or “It’s great to up-skill our middle managers but how can it work when the layer above them is still behaving badly?”
It’s important to recognise that even senior leaders have fears, insecurities and imposter syndrome. Leading is (needlessly) a lonely function. They too need to feel respected by their people, feel like they are making a difference, need to maintain a desirable reputation, need to feel valued and needed, need to maintain and increase financial earnings, need to maintain standing in the community, and so on. It’s just the walls of defence are a little higher (there’s a lot at stake personally and professionally) and so a different approach is needed to encourage them to lower the drawbridge.
And while that is happening and for the compelling figures I’ve shared, start with the people in your organisation who are already hungry to grow as leaders, who recognise they need better conversation skills to lead with confidence and who want to have a positive impact on the business. Like water taking the path of least resistance, begin with leaders who are ready and committed (before they leave). Help them become inspiring and influential. There’s something very attractive about leaders who inspire and influence in positive ways. In time, that magnetism will pique the interest and curiosity of other leaders.
Make better conversations in leadership an invitation (not a threat).