How L&D can help unlock uncommon leadership

Ruchira Chaudhary, TrueNorth Consulting’s founder, explains why it is time for organisations to embed and align coaching in their L&D strategy.
By: | March 8, 2022

Our increasingly competitive business landscape, characterised by rapid and disruptive changes, rising complexity and uncertainty, more than ever before warrants leaders that are nimble and agile. The digital and tech revolution and a shorter shelf life for knowledge is reshaping employee capability mix with a clear accent on skilling and upskilling for future needs.

A recent McKinsey research suggests that a very significant percentage of market capitalisation in public companies is based on intangible assets—skilled employees, exceptional leaders, and knowledge. It goes on to add that as organisations are increasingly pivoting to a digital, knowledge-based economy implying that more than ever a diverse and vibrant workforce will make the difference between good organisations, and stellar ones.

So how do we build these exceptional or Uncommon Leaders?

In my book, Coaching the Secret Code to Uncommon Leadership,  I define these leaders as those that achieve success by helping others grow, taking people along and helping them become a better version of themselves. I believe coaching is that key or that code that unlocks this Uncommon Leadership.

Let me unpack this thought further and illustrate why I believe coaching, a series of self-enabling and non-directive conversations, or simply put the act of asking not telling, can be that differentiator between a good leader, and a fantastic one.

Coaching, the secret sauce of leadership

Mahatma Gandhi once famously said, ‘A sign of good leaders is not how many followers you have, but how many leaders you create.’

Top executives intuitively understand that they cannot succeed without the right talent and skill sets. In surveys, they consistently rank leadership and talent management at the top of their agenda but express frustration with the return on their investments in this area. That is because companies rarely manage their talent as rigorously as they manage their balance sheet, in part because people development is hard to quantify.

To put sharp edges around what is often considered a soft area, BCG impressed on the significance of nurturing and developing internal talent, among other factors. While there are many aspects that a company can focus on as it tries to improve its internal leadership capabilities, numerous studies have shown how particularly effective individual coaching is in building these capabilities.

Although researchers cannot yet precisely measure coaching results on organisational performance—a ton of studies published in Consulting Psychology Journal suggest a positive trend.

Several high-profile leaders have also equivocally endorsed the part coaching has played in their personal success. These range from Indira Nooyi and Sheryl Sandberg to Eric Schmidt and Sunder Pichai. Some of the most prolific Silicon Valley leaders are telling us that coaching others is perhaps the most important job of a leader today. Leadership gurus and psychologists are proclaiming that you are not leadership material if you are not building others.

Coaching, and the future of work

Even prior to the pandemic that has upended our lives in so many different ways, investing in workplace learning and evaluating its outcomes was becoming a key priority for organisations.

LinkedIn’s fourth annual Workplace Learning Report 1 (WLR) found that more than 1 in 3 learning and development (L&D) professionals said they were prioritising the measurement of learning outcomes. This trend is set to continue and in fact gain further momentum given the new skill requirements in the post-pandemic world.

74% of business leaders believe that building new softer skills like communication, creative problem solving, and leadership is the most critical part of rebuilding organisations post-pandemic. However, there is no industry standard for measuring learning impact, making it difficult for organisations to quantify the value from their L&D investments.

Highlighting the importance of moving further along the coaching continuum, WLR wrote, “Integrating coaching into your L&D roadmap first, and then eventually into your overall talent strategy, offers an answer to this problem.”

Coaching: An integral element of L&D strategy

According to renowned author and researcher Nick van Dam, the defining attributes of the 21st-century economy and fourth industrial revolution are innovation, technology, globalisation, and a rapid pace of change. Therefore, an organisation’s capacity to enhance the capabilities of its workforce and create a culture of continuous learning are vital to remaining competitive. These trends make an effective L&D function more critical than ever.

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“There is growing acknowledgement that the true impact of L&D does not lie in one-off upskilling sessions – but in a holistic paradigm that ensures alignment with the large people priorities derived from a firm’s overarching business priorities.” – Ruchira Chaudhary, Founder, TrueNorth Consulting.

As we look into the future, there is growing acknowledgement that the true impact of L&D does not lie in one-off upskilling sessions – but in a holistic paradigm that ensures alignment with the large people priorities derived from a firm’s overarching business priorities.

Based on my research while writing my book, coaching some of the best and brightest across the globe and teaching this topic at several business schools, here is what I have gleaned:

Enabling the 70:20:10 learning framework

Some of the most progressive L&D functions embrace the framework known as “70:20:10,” in which 70 percent of learning takes place on the job, 20 percent through interaction and collaboration, and 10 percent through formal-learning interventions such as classroom training and digital curricula.

These percentages are general guidelines and vary by industry and organisation. L&D functions have traditionally focused on the formal-learning component. It is time to rethink this model. While formal training, the most popular form of talent development is considered an ‘event’, coaching is a process, which is valuable to ensure that the new knowledge imparted, actually becomes learned behaviour. Coaching provides not only a context for feedback, but also a process to support changed behaviour.

The L&D leaders of the future should focus on crafting and executing a suite of informal learning initiatives like external coaching, in-house mentoring, leadership shadowing, digital learning, and so on – initiatives that support informal learning in addition to the formal training.

Embrace the leader as coach approach

Today there is a fundamental shift in how organisations are transforming themselves in the digital era. The change in business today is often not linear, and requires quick shifts into entirely new models, domains, and ways of working. Coaching supports people in these quick shifts needed to meet these changing business demands. More and more companies are investing in training their leaders as coaches—a skill that many savvy organisations recognise needs to develop in good managers (and even individual contributors) at all levels. 

Organisations are increasingly faced with the challenge of building leaders with new capabilities in very short spans of time. And they are looking for real business impact—a successful transformation, speed to market, or just top and bottom-line results. The best leader-coaches are able to do exactly this—not just help their own teams to develop individually but do it in the context of the business and specific outcomes.  Imparting coaching skills across the board, and encouraging all managers, regardless of the size of their teams, to coach and enable others is the mantra for many new age organisations.

Instil a coaching culture

Many organisations start coaching training programmes with some fanfare, only to find that they did not meet the desired outcomes. To do so, organisations must deliberately weave a coaching mindset into the cultural fabric of the organisation, or they cannot hope to transform coaching into an organisational capacity. Such a capacity is possible when coaching comes naturally and instinctively to leaders at all levels, where coaching is the norm or, as they say, ‘the way things are done around here’.

Organisations like Netflix or Microsoft, promote a continuous culture of learning regardless of an employee’s role or level. Leaders at these organisations make people as much a priority as their overall financial goals and prioritise the creation of a learning and growth environment by fostering learning conditions.

Today, more than ever, we need leaders who can navigate these choppy waters, and steer the ship with a steady hand, with empathy and by taking everyone along. Today, more than ever, we need leader coaches who can inspire and motivate people given this change hybrid reality of fading interpersonal connections, along with our strong desire for workplace flexibility.

It is time to embed and align coaching in your L&D strategy, and make it come alive – help your people coach their way to Uncommon Leadership.

About the author: An alumna of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Ruchira Chaudhary straddles the corporate and academic worlds—-she is a leading executive coach, adjunct faculty at several top tier business schools and founder of TrueNorth Consulting, which focuses on organisational strategy solutions. Ruchira is also the author of Coaching the Secret Code to Uncommon Leadership, and you can reach her, and know more about her book here.

Be sure to catch Ruchira Chaudhary at HR Tech Festival Asia 2022, where she will be speaking on Thursday, May 12, from 10.30am-11am (SGT).