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Unlock Potential & Maximize Success
Leadership coaching offers a sounding board, fresh perspective to enhance existing skills
By Tracy Barbour

ffective leadership is paramount to the success of every business. The leadership work can be challenging, but coaching can create a safe space where leaders can think, explore who they are, and refine their professional endeavors. Today, an increasing number of executives and managers in Alaska are capitalizing on leadership coaching to enhance their expertise and create positive outcomes for their organization.

Leadership coaches serve a distinct role for executives, managers, and other leaders. They facilitate a process to help clients define their goals, generate insights, and initiate action and new ways of behaving, says Diane Decker, who specializes in executive coaching, career coaching, and leadership development. “Coaching differs from consulting or advising in that it is about helping a client identify solutions that work for them, rather than me simply telling them what to do,” Decker says.

To Erin Sedor, founder of Black Fox Strategy, the primary role of a leadership coach is to support the client and enhance the skill and talent that already exists by providing a sounding board, fresh perspective, and—above all—an open and honest platform of communication. Sedor’s niche consulting practice works with clients of all industries, sectors, and sizes. “With leadership coaching and development in particular, the goal isn’t to simply provide an answer,” Sedor says. “It’s to help facilitate the discussion and thought process that allows a leader to expand their ability to find their own answers.”

When working with clients, leadership coaches typically follow an agreed-upon contract to help individuals achieve their developmental goals and career objective, according to Theo Hunt, principal of Theo M. Hunt Consulting. The contract covers specific goals and objectives as well as the roles and responsibilities agreed upon by all parties. The responsibilities outlined for the coach could include a host of duties, including reinforcing and supporting the success of the leader; providing open and honest feedback on how the leader is “showing up”; challenging the leader’s thought processes and perceptions; providing appropriate methods and learning materials; and keeping all conversations confidential.

Key Coaching Qualifications
Leadership coaches apply their unique insights, experiences, and expertise during the coaching process. Most coaches are certified by an independent coaching organization like the International Coach Federation (ICF) or the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM). “This ensures they understand the context of coaching, have an opportunity to gain specific skills and abilities widely used in coaching, and uphold a code of practice for ethical behavior as a coach,” Hunt says. “Often, coaches will then track the hours they coach with clients to provide a specific measure of their experience coaching.”

In addition to certification, coaches are or were often in leadership positions themselves. However, Hunt says, having specific experience with the industry, role, organization, or problem being faced by the client is not necessary and can actually get in the way of coaching the leader. “This is because facing similar situations and challenges could put the focus on the problem or challenge, rather than on the leader growing their own ability to resolve the problem or challenge,” she explains.

When to Hire a Coach
So how do you know when to engage a leadership coach? General coaching already happens formally and informally in most organizations, according to Kevin Dee, president of KMD Services & Consulting. “The coworker who showed you how to perform a procedure or a skill and the experienced employee coaching a new employee what to do, those processes exist formally and informally,” he says.

Leadership coaching in organizations arises as a need when they realize that supporting good leadership creates measurable business success, says Dee, who provides executive and employee coaching for businesses ranging from Fortune 100 companies to small start-ups. “When organizations truly recognize that investing in their people in order to create sustainable success for their organization, better leaders, and successive leadership, then they jump at the opportunity that leadership development and coaching bring.”

“When organizations truly recognize that investing in their people in order to create sustainable success for their organization, better leaders, and successive leadership, then they jump at the opportunity that leadership development and coaching bring.”
Kevin Dee, President, KMD Services & Consulting
However, the need for coaching may not always be obvious. Sometimes people may know that something is amiss, but they may not realize they need a coach, according to The Foraker Group President and CEO Laurie Wolf. But coaching can be particularly relevant at certain times in a leader’s professional life. Two prime examples are when an organization has a leader that is either new or longstanding. “If I were the board and had just gone through a leadership transition, the first thing I would be asking as a board is how do I set this new leader up for success,” says Wolf, who caters to nonprofit organizations. “Or if you’ve been in your organization a long time and you have a sense of loneliness or feel you need support, coaching is a really lovely gift.”

From Sedor’s perspective, leadership coaching is generally driven by necessity. Strong, resilient organizations are run by strong, resilient people. And investing in people—at every level—is the key to sustaining long-term growth. “When a leader is ready to grow their leadership skills and is willing to work one-on-one is when the time is right to engage a coach,” she says. “The primary thing to remember here is that the type of coach is highly dependent on what the leader needs, as well as the fit and style of the coach engaged. It is a highly personalized endeavor.”

Typical Coaching Clients
Leadership coaching is tailored to clients, which come in all types and sizes. “Nearly every query to our office asks about whom we typically work with, but for us the answer is not driven by industry, sector, or size,” Sedor says. “At Black Fox Strategy, our particular ‘sweet spot’ is working with clients that are in the midst of or are bracing for significant transition or change. This could be start-up, rapid growth, contraction or divesture operations, or even response and recovery to a catastrophic event such as COVID-19.”

She continues: “It is in these times that leaders find themselves in unfamiliar territory that requires competencies far beyond what the day-to-day business demands. Experts abound, so I think the question is rather: What type of leadership coaches do clients need to work with?”

KMD Services & Consulting works with a diverse set of coaching clients with specific needs. Their goals may range from achieving time management skills to work-life balance skills to conflict management. It’s easy to coach someone who recognizes the value and wants to up their game, Dee says. But often his firm receives referrals for struggling individuals who are put on a performance improvement plan as well. “Once a client realizes we are there in support of them personally and professionally, it is very rewarding to see them take ownership of their choices going forward,” he says.

In addition, leadership coaches are focused on supporting those with a role that involves leading groups to accomplish specific goals and missions. New leaders may require additional support to succeed. “Often someone will be identified through their accomplishments that may have never led a group before,” Dee says. “It’s not uncommon for someone with technical skills to be promoted to a leadership position. The skills needed to succeed are different from the technical ones that got you there.”

“Without humility, we fail to see opportunities emerging all around us. Without curiosity, we don’t even bother to look.”
Erin Sedor, Founder, Black Fox Strategy
At The Foraker Group, the goal is to increase leadership and management skills of professionals and volunteers working in Alaska’s nonprofit and tribal organizations. As such, it primarily helps officers of nonprofit boards of directors, volunteers who serve as committee chairs, and other executive-level leaders.

The company’s coaching services are also beneficial for new managers or supervisors who may be less likely to seek additional support. Coaching can provide the kind of assistance that many of these leaders crave and need. “It creates more of a safe space for them to come together,” Wolf says.

Recently, Foraker launched its new Lead Up! program geared for middle managers. The program is designed for people who are in nonprofit management roles or who want to lead in an organization but are not yet executive directors. “It’s less about title and more about the desire to explore oneself,” she says.

How Leadership Coaching Works
The leadership coaching process is generally guided by the client’s articulated needs. “We hear from people about what they need, and we create opportunities,” Wolf says. “Then people have to take that initial step when they engage.”

Wolf says it’s important for clients to ask for what they want. Then, it’s her job to listen and explore those areas with them. “Coaching isn’t about me telling you what I think; it’s creating a safe enough space for you to tell me what you think,” she says.

Wolf enters each coaching relationship with the conviction that people are able, and it’s her job to help them learn—even from mistakes. “Mistakes are information,” says Wolf, who has her own coach. “I’m always about what did we learn… what did I learn. Our job is to make a different mistake.”

KMD Services & Consulting uses a formal approach with most clients, whether they are organizations or individuals. It conducts an intake to identify what clients want to accomplish and the benefits that would result to the organization and the person. “We often use formal and informal assessments to facilitate creating goals that are achievable,” Dee says. “Each coaching plan is very individualized and, depending on the goals that are agreed to, a schedule of coaching is developed.”

Dee relates the process to that of a sports coach. He explains: “You assess what that athlete’s needs are, develop a plan to achieve those needs and goals, develop formal and informal measures of progress, and then coach for achievement of those goals.”

The company also offers “whole organization” leadership programs that involve formal curriculum and can last from one to three years.

“People respond to leaders who admit they aren’t perfect and don’t know everything. They appreciate leaders who show a genuine desire to hear and learn from others.”
Diane Decker, HR & Leadership Coach/Consultant
Regardless of the exact program, coaching ideally occurs in-person. But it also works virtually, which can be especially convenient for clients in different geographical locations and time zones.

At Black Fox Strategy, Sedor meets with clients on a schedule and frequency that suits their needs. The meetings can happen by phone, video, or face-to-face, whether they involve the initial identification of goals or ongoing progress monitoring. “Because our practice is focused on strategy coaching, most of the work happens as part of the business cycle, and so tracking is a bit more straightforward,” says Sedor. “Notwithstanding, all professional development involves personal commitment and thus requires self-accountability. Having a clear understanding of agreements and roles keeps the relationship productive and progress steady.”

Methods and Results
While there are proven and patented methods that coaches leverage when working with clients, there is no universal method. Each coach will bring the techniques and tools that they have the most experience, success, and comfort with, Hunt says. Additionally, coaches typically do their own research and critical analysis on the methods they employ and/or create methods that work well for them. “Coaches with a high degree of responsibility to their clients will bring evidence-based approaches and stay on top of the current [and growing] research within the coaching industry,” she says.

Decker agrees that there are many diverse types of coaching programs and tools. Personally, Decker draws from a variety of sources, trainings, and experiences beyond her initial coaching training. “Two of the most impactful things shaping my own coaching are the brain-based coaching skills I learned via the NeuroLeadership Institute and the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy,” she says.

Clients can expect varied results from leadership coaching, and those results can manifest in different ways. For instance, Decker points to the times when clients tell her about an insight they have gained or new behavior they have tried, even when it felt scary or uncomfortable. “Many tell me they have great appreciation for a space to think out loud—where they feel safe to be vulnerable, to grow without feeling judged,” she says. “I remind them that although they are thanking me, it was them that did the work, and for that they should be proud.”

Hunt says the outcome will vary depending on coaching engagement, purpose, and focus. Some of the positive results her clients have garnered include increased comfort and confidence dealing with conflict and critical conversations; improved time management and productivity; success delegating tasks and empowering their team—even when working remotely; improved trust, collaboration, and teamwork within their leadership team; increased certainty and ability controlling what is theirs to control; and success improving complex processes by learning and applying process improvement tools.

More Insights and Advice
Alaska’s leadership coaching experts naturally have an abundance of advice for anyone looking to increase their leadership skills. For example, Hunt says recruiting a coach is a prudent investment in a leader’s professional growth and development. It’s also an admirable step for individuals to take. “With as much complexity and uncertainty that is in our current environment, additional support does not indicate ‘you can’t handle it’ or ‘you are broken’; it just gives you more tools and resources in supporting your team and those that rely on you,” she says.

Decker encourages leaders keep growth in mind, nurture self-compassion, and be vulnerable. “People respond to leaders who admit they aren’t perfect and don’t know everything,” she says. “They appreciate leaders who show a genuine desire to hear and learn from others.”

Sedor urges people to find opportunities to examine their humility and curiosity, which are essential to leadership. She says: “Without humility, we fail to see opportunities emerging all around us. Without curiosity, we don’t even bother to look.”

Dee says more organizations are instituting coaching programs to support individual and group achievements as an essential component to their overall success. “Successful individuals create successful companies,” he says.

And rather than offering advice, Wolf extends a broad call to action: Increase racial diversity in nonprofit leadership. Closing the racial leadership gap can help nonprofit organizations better support their missions and communities. “You can lead better with a more diverse leadership,” she says. “We want to create a space where we thrive, not just survive.”