A New Model for Leadership Coaching

May 24, 2021

The “Inside Out” coaching approach focuses on the individual’s psyche and advocates changing the leader’s mindset first; behavior naturally and quickly follows.

The difference between leaders and managers is powerfully articulated by the great business theorists, Dr. Peter Drucker and Dr. Warren Bennis: “Leadership is doing the right things; management is doing things right.” In other words, leadership is strategic, and management is tactical. This dichotomy suggests that two contrastive theories of coaching are necessary to address these two populations. This article presents our firm’s approach to this challenge.

“Change” is the objective of behavioral coaching. The philosophy of focusing on change is ideal for managers whose job tasks are defined and tactical. The standard coaching approach helps the manager identify or agree upon the behavior that needs “changing.” An action plan is created, implemented, and monitored. Improvement is measured by checking in with a variety of stakeholders. This methodology touts being evidence and metrically based, reductionistic, and observable.

An example is a manager who has an HR complaint filed against him. He is perceived of as a bully and doesn’t demonstrate enough respect for colleagues and subordinates. In this example, the coach’s assignment is to help the person improve a specific behavior. Behavioral objectives could include: not calling people out in front of others, not rolling your eyes when listening to a subordinate, or not attacking someone on a personal level when commenting on or criticizing their work.

This behavioral coaching methodology is effective but limited. The process looks outside the person’s psyche at specific behaviors that need to change. It doesn’t address leveraging individual strengths or talents, only remediating specific and observable behavior. It’s an “Outside In” approach.

In contrast, senior and executive leadership roles are more fluid and abstract. We argue that coaching and development for these professionals is significantly different and should be centered on, as Drucker and Bennis observed, the right things leaders do. When leaders do a “right thing” of real significance, we call it adding strategic value.

What do we mean by adding strategic value? When you add strategic value, outcomes are uniquely improved and go well beyond expectations. Results are tangibly different solely because you provide a distinctive energy and expertise. You possess a unique strength, a special magic that makes you irreplaceable. When leadership coaching focuses on tapping into how and where you add strategic value, and how you can influence outcomes bigger than yourself, the psyche’s energy shifts in a profoundly positive way. Behavioral issues recede. It’s an “Inside Out” approach.

5 Fundamental Pathways

Consistent with longitudinal research in personality psychology, our firm contends there are five fundamental pathways for leaders and senior executives to add strategic value.

  1. Visualizing the Future: Using creative, experimental, perceptive, expansionary, and open-minded thought processes

  2. Enlarging Ecosystems: Networking, platform presenting, selling, introducing people, and demonstrating strong extroversion

  3. Powerful Partnering: Holding deep authentic discussions to lower defense barriers, getting people to trust and agree on outcomes that lead to new collaborative insights

  4. Increasing Organizational Efficiency: Conscientiously attending to detail in order to design and implement leading-edge processes and efficiencies

  5. Superior Decision-Making: Employing fact-driven, rational thinking; using mature emotional stability to eliminate unconscious bias to drive outcomes

Example #1

Let’s take an example where an executive’s challenge was also an aggressive temper, similar to our example of a management bully. We approached this assignment from a strength-based rather than a behavioral change-based perspective.

This executive’s strongest most unique strength is being a “connector.” This ability is a second-order facet of his natural extroversion (#2 from the list). Having an abundance of this quality in his personality structure means he excels at networking, linking people up, keeping people in touch, and creating community. This person is at his best when engaged in these behaviors. Our coaching game plan was addressing the bullying issue not by focusing exclusively on the specific behavior (the deficit in emotion regulation) but by helping this client understand how to expand his role through pursuing activities that leveraged his “connector” personality strength.

Our “connector” client was a senior leader in a Fortune 500 firm, one of the most admired companies in the world. Coaching centered on getting him to use the unique form of his connecting ability to solve his firm’s biggest challenge: improving diversity. He became a subject matter expert on how diversity drives increased profitability. Through coaching, he grasped that his connective ability could be used not just to address his behavior and thus enhance his own career, but also to provide his company with an exciting competitive advantage.

This leader branded himself as a resource who builds powerful interdisciplinary teams and networks. He oversaw the hiring of minorities and LGBTQ personnel and connected them with each other. He recently was promoted to lead the diversity effort corporate-wide. His strengths now were being used not just to increase his own success but also to forward the company’s vision.

Behavioral issues are the outer manifestation of inner ego-based fear. A bully inwardly fears they aren’t respected, so their ego seeks to dominate. It’s humbling to connect your strengths to a goal bigger than yourself. That’s when priorities shift; the ego diminishes.

Our executive’s behavioral issue of interpersonal aggressiveness receded. People noticed he’s happier, more patient, and engaging. This is a win-win by focusing coaching inside out—not on change but on strength-based growth.

Example #2

Let’s take another example. A chief financial officer’s behavioral challenge was her disagreeable, controlling nature and lack of interest in partnering with other business unit leaders. She had an unusually high level of the personality trait of conscientiousness, a necessary job requirement (#4 from the list). Her unique strength was her strong ability to improve processes to reduce error. She was organized, meticulous, and provided excellent financial data. She knew the numbers and effectively communicated. Aside from the partnership issue, her overall performance was solid. Yet you could plug any number of professionals into that CFO role and the work product would be identical. Our CFO was executing adequately against job requirements, but she wasn’t adding real strategic value.

Our inside out model coached her to expand her internal network, starting with the head of sales. She did just that and even went on some prospective client meetings to understand how finance could help drive business development. Through these actions, she discovered structural inefficiencies and redundancies. She concluded that if certain requirements were wrung out of the sales cycle, salespeople would have more time for intimacy with present and future clients. She met with the CEO and the sales leaders to advocate tweaking the company’s current business model. Once implemented, the company began to build increasing market position and profitability.

Our coaching helped expand the CFO’s thinking to realize how she could add real strategic value to her firm. She began to understand the benefits of partnering. Her behavioral issue receded. She grew by focusing her energy on accomplishing something bigger than herself and her own ego need for control.

Example #3

In a final example of the inside out approach, we worked with a leader who needed to improve his listening skills. He constantly interrupted and didn’t let people freely express opinions. When we delved deeper, we understood that the client had a high ego need for recognition. He constantly needed to validate himself. He fulfilled this need through dominating interpersonal encounters to demonstrate intellectual superiority.

We helped him understand his behavior and challenged him to deepen his focus on his real strength of open-mindedness. He excels at seeing the future vision and is brilliant at helping people visualize what life would be like using his ideas and solutions. He matured his unique strength and began using his visualization prowess to ask great questions, so people would think differently because of reflecting on their own answer.

When I asked him what he had learned from our coaching, he replied, “The power of giving away my strength. I can help people think bigger if I listen first.” His poor listening skills dramatically improved, but not by focusing on changing this specific behavior. Instead, we coached him to see how he could use his strengths more strategically to drive the firm’s revenue growth and help his people grow.

In these three examples, leaders grew personally and professionally by shifting their energy toward how they uniquely add strategic value to solve a big organizational problem. In each case, behavioral issues diminished as a result of real psychodynamic growth—overcoming their ego.

Change the Leader’s Mindset First

We contend that behavioral coaching—an “Outside In” approach—works well for tactical managers where coaching looks to change specific behavior. Conversely, the abstract and strategic role of leaders requires a strength-based—“Inside Out” approach—where the focus is on the individual’s psyche. This approach advocates changing the leader’s mindset first; behavior naturally and quickly follows. When leaders grow through understanding and heavily leaning into using their strengths to add strategic value, they accomplish lofty, big-picture goals. They don’t just improve themselves—they improve their organization, their people, and their life experience.

By Dr. George Watts, Chairman, and Laurie Blazek