How coaches can help leaders go for gold just like elite athletes

The highlight of many memorable Olympic moments for me was seeing Australian swimming coach Dean Boxall’s excitement after 20-year-old Ariane Titmus beat US star Katie Ledecky in the final of the women’s 400m freestyle. As her coach, he was just as elated as her when she achieved her dream of winning gold. His bold style has helped take Titmus from a personal best time 16 seconds behind Ledecky’s in the 400m freestyle, to world-beater. “It’s for him as much as it is for me. He puts 100 percent into being a swimming coach,” Titmus said after winning gold.

Titmus and elite athletes like her use a coach’s perspective to help improve their performance. But in business, we often view coaching for leaders as a remedy for behavioural problems when it could be a path to lifting results. Leaders are like elite athletes and are looking for an edge to perform at their best. We should not ignore behavioural improvements, such as improving stakeholder communication or developing big picture thinking. But focusing only on behavioural issues is putting the cart before the horse.

Ron Ashkenas in the HBR article, Executive Coaches, Your Job Is to Deliver Business Results, questions this approach to measuring the ROI of leadership coaching which requires what he calls a double leap of faith: first, that coaching will change behaviour, and then that those changed behaviours will lead to results.

He says, “In my 35 years of coaching, however I’ve found that there is an alternative approach to coaching that is more results-oriented. This is to turn the standard process on its head: Instead of focusing first on behaviors and hoping that they lead to results, start by trying to achieve some specific results, and see what behaviors are needed to get them.”

Focusing on results is more akin to the approach used by sporting coaches with Olympians striving for gold.

Participants in my executive coaching program focus on a ‘BIG Game,’ a specific and measurable stretch result to be achieved over the next three to six months. Let’s say an executive sets a stretch objective to deliver a business strategy and resourcing plan to the leadership team. To achieve their goal, the leader needs a breakthrough in their ability to manage their stakeholders.

Putting results first is more effective for changing behaviours and it is more fulfilling, particularly if you achieve a result that seemed elusive at the outset.

And when they win their BIG Game, I am as excited as Dean Boxall!

🙋‍♀️What is a stretch result that you could set for yourself in the next three to six months?🙋‍♂️

Best Regards, Brian