How we coach professionals to become leaders

We have coached hundreds of professionals, including lawyers, financiers and engineers, often to help them to make the transition to managerial and leadership roles. Our coaching is underpinned by a deep understanding of the dynamics of adult development so we know that making this transition is not simply about acquiring new skills and knowledge; it requires leaders to grow into a new way of looking at themselves, their role and the world around them.

The ART of Performance is the framework that guides our coaching, and it comprises Act, Relate and Think; the three inter-related factors shape a leader’s effectiveness. We have identified a number of patterns in the way professionals act, relate and think that we address through coaching to help them transition to leadership. In addition, we have noticed key indicators that suggest a readiness to step up.

Here are some of the most important:


A key component of coaching is helping our clients to uncover, test and challenge limiting ways of thinking. The following unspoken assumptions can hold back many professionals:

“I can only speak about topics I know well”

This inhibits their capacity to speak up in management meetings and comment on broader business issues. Through coaching they can develop the confidence to contribute outside of a speciality area. We always encourage a client to consider the big picture – what it takes to run a business, the broader economic considerations, and to take a longer-term view.

“I’ve worked hard to become good at my job and it defines my self-worth”

This leads to a natural pride but can also mean that performance in a professional role overly defines identity and self-esteem. It can also lead to subtly or not so subtly disparaging others who don’t share the same field of expertise. Coaching helps the client to understand and appreciate the contributions made by different business functions, and can broaden and deepen a sense of identity beyond the professional role.

“There’s always one right answer and it’s NOT ok to not know it”

This leads to a deep discomfort with uncertainty or going outside the rules. Coaching can support the client to think more creatively, to live with ambiguity and to learn how to seek pragmatic, rather than theoretically perfect, solutions.

Indicator of readiness to step up

A broad intellectual interest and curiosity about how a business works – not just in the technical detail. For example, a lawyer who takes an interest in her department’s client base and fee levels, an engineer who is curious about how customers will benefit from the product being designed, or a doctor who wants to know how a whole hospital works.


Professionals can limit their leadership effectiveness by relating in any of these ways:

1. Being highly resistant to feedback from anyone who isn’t an expert in the same field as they are.

Coaching helps them to really appreciate that other people’s working styles and contributions vary from their own. This opens up the possibility of giving and receiving feedback and exploring its impact on self and others.

2. “I don’t do organisational politics” because “All I need to do to get ahead is to do my job properly”.

As a result they don’t manage upwards effectively (often feeling frustrated at a lack of recognition) or build the wider networks necessary to get things done through indirect influence. Coaching helps them to learn how to influence ethically (i.e. for the good of the business not just personal advancement) and build stronger networks.

3. Taking a ‘hub and spoke’ approach, managing a team through a series of bilateral relationships.

They may do little to encourage communication and relationships between direct reports, either because they believe it is un-necessary or, at worst, fearing a loss of control. Coaching helps to develop more collaborative and consultative styles of leading and decision-making.

Indicator of readiness to step up

A high level of self-awareness combined with empathy and a curiosity about how and why other people think and behave differently. This is often combined with the ability to influence others and get things done without conflict, even in the absence of formal authority.


Motivated professionals will take great pride in doing an excellent job and will work very hard. Paradoxically, this work ethic can get in the way of progress to leadership roles when it brings with it three behaviour patterns:

1. Reluctance to delegate and a tendency to micromanage

This behaviour will often result in professionals working very long hours and taking on a huge personal workload. Because everything is important and everything has to be done perfectly (i.e. to their own standards!), this behaviour creates personal stress and organisational strain. Decisions are often held up by bottlenecks, papers are re-written, and subordinates feel frustrated.

Coaching helps clients learn to delegate and to recognise that there are other ways of achieving tasks than their own. This also leads to learning how to coach, rather than only direct, their team.

2. Sticking rigidly within the rules

Clearly many professional roles are governed by compliance, health and safety and other legislative restrictions. The problem is that a rule-bound mind-set can pervade too far, stifling creativity, productive challenge and appropriate flexibility. This is the difference between “doing things right and doing the right things.”

Coaching encourages safe experiments that test new behaviours and innovative working processes.

3. Focusing attention on outputs not outcomes

Driven by pride in technical competence, it’s easy for professionals to invest too much time and attention on the detail of the outputs they are producing without regard for how effective these will be for customers or end-users. One engineer we worked with pointed to the fact that road-works he had just designed (an output) complied with all European regulations – and was unable to appreciate that a pedestrian crossing was located impractically for its users (the outcome).

Coaching encourages an appreciation of the many customer and stakeholders with whom the leader needs to communicate and understand.

Indicator of readiness to step up

Confidence and a willingness to delegate tasks and projects that develop their subordinates’ skills. This usually means the person manages their personal energy well and is not constantly over-stretched.

Organisational factors that can inhibit people from stepping up

  • Reward mechanisms and goals that reinforce narrow technical expertise at the expense of business-wide leadership contributions.
  • Lack of good leadership role models. This is often the case when there are many professionals in management roles who have not stepped up to leadership yet themselves.
  • Poor talent identification and support for people making transitions, so that people have bad experiences or fail in managerial roles. This sends powerful and unhelpful messages into the business.


Few businesses get all these factors right all the time, so professionals can find themselves promoted into leadership roles before truly being ready to step up. Executive coaching has an important role to play within a talent management strategy, and when deployed at the right time can support professionals to successfully step up to leadership.

For more on our approach to coaching,

To assess your own leadership, take 5 minutes to complete the ART of Performance online diagnostic here