Top 7 qualities of leadership development coaches
CEOs spend years building their leadership toolkit. When retirement or change-of-career time approaches, the idea of helping others expand their leadership abilities often appeals.
But do all good leaders make effective leadership development coaches? How can you tell if you have what it takes to coach like a champ?
We asked for insights from leadership development coaches of various experience levels, from relative newcomers to decade-plus veterans. Here’s what they had to say.
An expanding mission of love
Shaun Bradley has been coaching in an official capacity since 2015, and he’s boiled it down to three essentials: “Listen. Love. Believe.” He explains that his job is to listen to clients, offer them loving support, and believe in them.
Kevin Williams echoes that perspective. Often, he invokes a phrase used by one of his coaching role models, “You need to fall in love with your members’ dreams.”
A former Vistage member who became a Chair in 2020, Williams says that those dreams frequently reach beyond business. “Especially after COVID-19, we don’t live in a siloed world anymore,” he says. “A lot of people have taken a step back and asked, ‘What am I doing? Why am I doing it?’”
In response, Williams is continually reassessing what kind of leadership he’s helping to develop. “It’s leadership in all aspects of their lives,” he says.
That’s a pretty tall order, so it’s no surprise that coaches are drawing on a wide range of talents in their service to clients, among them:
Across the board, integrity is the cornerstone of coaching. Becky Tolnay, who launched a coaching practice last year, always starts with trust. “People need to believe you,” she says. “You need to do what you say you’re going to do.”
Allan Fried, who has been coaching for more than 17 years, agrees. “You’ve got to walk the walk,” he says. “You can’t talk to clients about accepting feedback, being truthful, treating people with respect and not behave that way, too.”
“Sometimes clients aren’t even telling their spouses the things they’re telling you,” adds Williams. “They won’t share unless they trust you. That’s foundational.”
If integrity is the bedrock on which coaching is built, empathy and emotional intelligence supply much of the structure. “If you don’t have strong emotional intelligence, you cannot be an effective coach. It’s impossible,” says Bradley.
Empathy ranks high on the list for Williams as well. Only by inhabiting the client’s perspective can a coach deliver the value clients expect.
“You need to meet people where they are and help them,” he says. “You have to understand what they really want to get out of the relationship, whether they’re looking for better accountability, isolation relief, getting certain business results.”
3. Servant leadership
Visit Chuck Alvey’s social media profile, and you’ll see he brands himself a “servant leader.” That’s how important this trait is to him. A 10-year coaching veteran, Alvey believes a leadership development coach cannot focus on “what’s in it for me.” They must care most about what’s in it for others.
Williams is equally dedicated but also interrogates the servant leadership concept. “Does servant leadership mean subservient?” he asks. “No, it doesn’t mean you nod and tell them they’re doing a great job all the time. It means you challenge them when they need to be challenged.”
Often, Williams says he tests that notion by raising delicate topics some clients might prefer to avoid. “But I’m going to ask because I care about them.”
Speaking of questions, Williams highlights the value of asking over telling. “The insights that result in the most meaningful breakthroughs come because you asked great questions, not because you gave them the answer.”
Tolnay draws on her inquisitiveness specifically to help clients dig deeper. “Curiosity is so important because if you’re not asking questions, you’re just going to get the surface on everything.”
As fulfilling as all of these coaches find their work, they are open about the challenges inherent in effecting change. Meaningful transformation takes time, which is why Williams emphasizes that coaches need patience.
“Leadership development sometimes feels like you’re watching the grass grow,” he says, explaining that it can take years for clients to make progress in critical areas.
This is why Tolnay, too, recommends patience. “People won’t always come right to whatever the challenge or issue is,” she says. “You sometimes have to work through many levels of conversation to get to it.”
6. Lifelong learning
Although these coaches benefit from firsthand leadership experience when establishing their credibility, they all resist the inclination to rest on those laurels.
Williams works hard to stay up-to-date with the current issues affecting businesses so he can “coach people now.”
“You won’t have a sustained practice without lifelong learning,” Williams says. “You can blossom, but you will fizzle unless you’re evolving and growing.”
Fried knows he can’t remain static, either, because his clients won’t. “I need to be learning and sharpening my skills, or they’ll surpass me.”
7. A sense of gratitude and wonder
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of these conversations is the deep humility even top-performing leadership development coaches convey. For someone like Bradley, “It’s an honor to be a leader of leaders” and he strives every day to live up to the responsibility.
How can other retired and retiring executives know if they’re ready to coach? Our panel suggests interviewing with a coaching organization, trying on the coaching role on an ad hoc basis, taking online personality assessments, and talking to friends, family, and colleagues who know your background, temperament, and natural abilities.
Alvey offers one more recommendation, turn your curiosity on yourself. One of the most powerful lines of inquiry, in his opinion, is to monitor your reaction to the people you encounter. “In your head, do you judge or do you wonder?”
Great leadership development coaches are full of wonder about people’s stories, personal journeys, and the futures emerging for them on the horizon. If wonder describes your dominant attitude, you may have found your next career in coaching.