Leadership development and executive coaching: An optimal pairing


You’ve probably heard that you’re more likely to achieve a goal if you make a concrete plan and commit to another person. Did you know you can supercharge your accomplishment by adding one simple step?

Studies have shown a dramatic increase in goal achievement when the partnership includes a specific accountability appointment — up to a staggering attainment rate of 95 percent. According to a study by the Association for Talent Development, working closely with an accountability partner who has been in your shoes to guide you is a best-in-class approach to sustaining achievement in almost any discipline.

Consider those stats in the context of a leadership development program — a more than $370 billion global market. While such programs may offer follow-up learning opportunities, they tend to make the most impact during a brief, intensive burst of learning. Most leaders return to the job equipped with action steps and the best intentions of making changes, but those plans are frequently eclipsed by the more pressing needs of demanding roles at work and home. Given the resources organizations are devoting to leadership development, not to mention the future stakes of the leadership pipeline, these programs must work.

As learning trends toward more customized, point-of-need experiences, it has become clear that short-term interventions are not delivering the long-term results companies desire. A relationship with an executive coach marries personalized support with access to the right tools for the job. Using coaching to continue learning a leadership development initiative is quickly becoming the strategy of choice for giving leaders the support they need to make meaningful and lasting change. The coaching relationship builds on the lessons of the formal intervention by addressing the individual’s unique needs within the context of their life.

In this article, we will offer concrete evidence, real-world stories and practical advice regarding how coaching can support a broader leadership initiative. 

First, pair leadership development with coaching reinforces the leadership development training.

Research indicates people forget about 70 percent of new information within 24 hours. In the 1880s, Herman Ebbinghaus developed the Forgetting Curve, demonstrating how people quickly forget new information. His theory espouses that we start to lose the memory of learned knowledge over time, in a matter of days, unless the new knowledge is consciously reviewed over a period of time. Over 100 years later, we still suffer from this forgetting curve and must account for it in our development initiatives. 

Ebbinghaus' forgetting curve and review cycle. 

Ebbinghaus also discovered a phenomenon called overlearning. The theory behind this is that if you practice more than what is typically required for memorization, the new information is stored better and helps to reduce the Forgetting Curve significantly.

Coaching coupled with leadership development can help the learner store this new information and reduce the forgetting curve. Consider two participants in the same session:

Kym – Kym attended a leadership development session on how to delegate and give feedback to challenging employees. Kym learns several delegation and feedback tools in this session. Kym is thankful to have these tools to utilize with a highly talented employee who often misses deadlines. She is eager to use this tool because this employee has lost the respect and trust of their coworkers, and she values his expertise. About a month post-training, the employee misses a critical deadline and puts the team under stress. Kym is focused on getting the project ready on time and has forgotten the tool learned during the training. 

Kyle – Kyle attends the same leadership development session. Two weeks later, Kyle had a coaching session. In the coaching session, Kyle and his coach discuss this critical project and that its due date is approaching. Kyle is concerned his talented employee isn’t going to make the deadline. The coach works with Kyle to create clear expectations and prepare how to communicate with the employee before the missed deadline. With this extra follow-up by the coach, the organization increased the retention rate and application of the new leadership skills with Kyle and the other participants in his cohort.  

Second, work only with executive coaches willing to invest the time to be a key partner in the leadership development initiative

For the coaches to help an executive to understand and apply the leadership development concepts, they need to be well-versed in the organization’s culture and the content covered in the development initiative. For example, imagine a company is rolling out a new competency model, change initiative or framework. The coach needs to be willing to dive into this content to reinforce the concepts taught and help leaders cultivate trust and have robust conversations with their team members.

The coach must understand the platform, resources and conversation tools to pull into their coaching conversations. For example, suppose the company uses the Center for Creative Leadership’s SBI (Situation, Behavior, Impact) method to explore intent versus impact. In that case, the coach must reinforce this tool and not introduce a different feedback framework. If an organization implements the Daniel Goleman model of Emotional Intelligence, the coach should not introduce Salovey and Mayer’s Emotional Intelligence theory. The organization creates alignment and a common language by aligning the coach with the curriculum. The coach helps the leader use the tool in practice, not just theory.  

So, how do you orient your coaches to your curriculum?  

Whether you have one or several coaches, you want them to know, understand and reinforce your leadership development content. Your external coaches need to understand the training objectives and the tools the organization wants its leaders to embrace and utilize.

First, provide the coaches with the tools, frameworks and job aids you provide, so they can pull this information out and reinforce the content. Second, provide them with your training materials so they can review how the material is covered. It’s helpful for the coaches to review your case studies, assignments and discussion topics, so they understand what you’ve covered. Last, if you partner with a coach for an extended time, consider having them participate in your session. Time invested in partnering with your external coaches will ensure alignment with your leadership development initiatives.  

Third, the executive coach needs to understand the organization’s culture and the coaching context.  

Every organization has its own personality and style. Your external coaches must know your organization’s values, mission and culture. 

When you partner with your coaches, you must also ensure they understand your organization’s strategy, political climate, social norms and cultural expectations to help a leader test new behaviors on-the-job. If a coach doesn’t understand the culture or context, they may guide their client in the wrong direction. For example, some organizations reward agility and fast-moving performance. Others reward a focus on consistency and adherence to operating standards. A coach with this context can provide tailored coaching to the individual and align with the organization. 


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