MIT Sloan Executive Education innovation@work Blog

Coaching leaders to solve complex problems, build relationships, and spark creativity

Contributed by Kristin Viera Zecca, Director, Executive Programs

Executive Coaching at MIT

Have you noticed how executive coaching seems to be everywhere suddenly? Professionals in different stages of their careers are working with coaches in and outside of their organizations. Some—like me and some of my colleagues—are going through formal coaching training to expand their capabilities. Why is it happening now and why is it important?

At MIT Sloan Executive Education, we have the advantage of hearing from and seeing thousands of executives who come to our programs every year. And what we’re seeing is that the business landscape is changing drastically. Organizations are becoming less hierarchical, and people are expected to lead from where they are—not only from the C-suite or other positions of formal authority.

The leadership capabilities required in these new, flatter corporate structures are also new. The traditional command-and-control style is being replaced by collaborative, supportive, and empowering work culture. Technologies like robotics and artificial intelligence play an increasingly important role in how organizations function. Human-machine collaboration is already happening and will become even more prevalent in many fields. Adjusting to this “new normal” can be challenging for professionals who are used to more traditional ways of doing business. This is where coaching comes in.

Is coaching right for you?
The short answer is a resounding “yes!” The long answer is more nuanced: oftentimes, experienced professionals see the value of executive coaching, but only for younger, high-potential employees, not necessarily for themselves. “I know what I’m doing. I don’t need any pointers,” the thinking goes. “Things are just fine the way they are.” That is, until they are not. Suddenly the organizational and/or business environment undergoes a massive shock, or a gradual shift gains momentum. Senior executives tend to find themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place, feeling pressure from all sides: employees, their own managers, customers, boards, shareholders, investors, etc.

Leadership coaching offers a way out of that painful predicament. How? By giving people an opportunity to learn new approaches that will make them better leaders, better colleagues, and even better people. Coaching is about communication, active listening, asking empowering questions, and ultimately shifting the focus to the person or team being coached. It’s about inspiring creativity, new ways of thinking, and removing blocks. It’s a way to bring other perspectives into the room. Using coaching is a way to address complex challenges that typically need to be solved over a period of time, like shifting organizational culture.

In practical terms, when you engage with a leadership coach, you get the benefit of structured, scheduled—and often employer-sponsored—undivided attention from a trained professional. That person is dedicated to your success just as much as you are, but is also able to be more objective. Unlike a mentor who shares their experience as it applies to your situation, a coach is focused squarely on you. When you work with a coach, the benefits can ripple through your team and your entire organization.

Coaching is a key skill for leaders
“If managers actually incorporated coach-like skills, they would no longer be managers, they would be leaders,” says Ed Higgins, PCC, a professional leadership coach in the Washington, D.C. area. “Then you have a workforce that’s healthier, from the mental, emotional, and physical perspective. And that equates to a substantial rate of return on coaching—higher innovation, higher creativity, higher employee engagement, contributing directly to whatever your return on investment is, your bottom line.” Higgins speaks from experience! Before launching his coaching practice, Higgins had a successful civil service career, which included fourteen years as a senior national-security executive.

The International Coach Federation defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” My colleagues and I define our coaching approach as engaging thoughtfully with others, using coaching techniques to inspire creative thinking, lead more effectively, and build stronger relationships all around you.

Members of a coaching culture:

  • Stay curious
  • Suspend judgment
  • Ask powerful questions
  • Listen actively
  • Have one conversation at a time
  • Respect and support one another
  • Encourage new ideas and build on them
  • Are action-oriented
  • Check in periodically on the goal and progress

The behaviors on this list look deceptively simple. Yet, if we take a good and honest look at our communication styles and work processes, we will quickly find ourselves lacking. That’s why coaching is a practice, something you do every day if you are serious about results. Think of it as playing the violin, speaking another language, or doing yoga. The more you do it, the better you become.

Coaching gives your brain a boost
“Neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to change in response to experience, is great news for people who want to become their best selves,” says Dr. Tara Swart, Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan and also a neuroscientist, leadership coach, medical doctor, and author. “Multiple scientific studies demonstrate that, in fact, people can develop new skills and behaviors later in life, that ‘being set in your ways’ is not a matter of biology.” It’s a matter of priorities, really. We are all too busy, harried by life’s constant demands on our time, to prioritize our own development.

The coaching process offers a way to carve out that much needed “me” time and use it constructively, as a guided experience that allows us to enact neuroplasticity and help change our mental pathways. Swart discusses the benefits of neuroplasticity and the mind-body connection in her new book The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain. She also shares her thinking and research in two highly popular MIT Sloan Executive Education programs: Neuroscience for Leadership and Applied Neuroscience: Unleashing Brain Power for You and Your People.

I may be biased, but who wouldn’t take advantage of a professional development opportunity that not only makes you a better manager, but can also improve your quality of life? So, next time your friends or colleagues mention working with a leadership coach, I suggest that you ask empowering questions and listen actively to their answers—it may just change your life!

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