Leadership Coaching Focused on Strengths

Not long ago I spoke with a mid-level executive who had been asked to participate in a 360 feedback process.  As a result of that exercise he found, to no one’s surprise, that he had several vivid strengths along with several noticeable weaknesses.  The coach he was working with spent time discussing those strengths; the executive’s direct manager, also made aware of the results, began to speak to him instead about how to shore up his weaknesses.

As business and executive coaches, we are commonly engaged to work with leaders who have the potential to grow into the next level of leadership. And often the leader’s manager positions the coaching engagement as a means to help the leader get there. The rub is when it starts to become evident that there is an undercurrent where the organization really wants to bring in a coach to “fix” a leader or, in the case of my client’s experience, to focus on the weaknesses that his manager observed. His manager came from a place of “solving a problem” versus enhancing a strength.

We know, however, that there is true power in emphasizing strengths, building from those strengths, and using “appreciative” tools and techniques. By focusing on strengths and providing our clients with the means to recognize them, practice them and deepen them, our clients develop an even greater appreciation for the strengths in themselves and, ultimately, in others.

So how do we bridge that gap?  How do we work not only with our clients, but with the other relevant stakeholders, at least some of whom expect us to “solve problems?”

In my own coaching, I have had occasional meetings with organizations who were shopping for a potential coach, yet it soon became evident that the manager’s objective was to fix a leader’s weaknesses, to get them to stop doing the things that the manager sees as deficient behaviors.

My recommendation, in those cases, is to offer a dyad coaching approach — coach the leader to demonstrate and build upon his or her strengths and, concurrently, coach the manager around recognizing, observing and optimizing the leader’s strengths — both with an intention of goodwill and of deepening their working relationship. The conversations practiced and the subsequent outcomes are a win for both — recognizing and building skill and practice around strengths.

What are your thoughts about shifting a request to work on weaknesses to an intention towards strengths?

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