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Catch the Tidal Wave: Coaching the Coach

tidalwave (2)Actor Victor Webster is quoted as saying, “If you throw a pebble in the water on one side of the ocean, you can create a tidal wave on the other side.” The same could be said for the actions of a leader. The question for many mid to senior-level leaders is not whether their choices make an impact, but how big a difference can they make. With greater span of control, they move further and further from the operations of the business (and often the direct contact with the customer). Ironically, from a position of more power they must rely not on themselves to effect change, but on the managers who report to them. There is a deep and powerful leadership development opportunity to develop leaders who “coach the coach.”

But what is the best way to develop leaders who can coach leaders? Most leaders learn coaching by example—they have had a great leader whose skills they mirror. Very rarely do leaders get direct feedback on how well they are coaching.

At IE, we have found that a simulation can be a highly effective way to develop these skills. Most role-plays focus narrowly on coaching in response to a specific behavior or situation. However, by putting participants into trios, we took this practice to the next level. We alternated asking the participants to be the field performer, the mid-level manager and the senior leader. They brought their experiences to the conversations. After observing the mid-level manager coach the field performer, the senior leader was asked to coach…the coaching. Senior leaders were able to immediately experience the shift in their mindset when they are coaching the coach. They:

  • Observe for different dynamics
  • Give feedback on the coaching not the issue
  • Track progress through different metrics

This learning experience design enabled development at two levels—both the manager and the senior leader. Following the role-plays, we projected the impact of the coaching on business performance. Participants reported that this type of live practice was beneficial and reinforced the opportunity they have to create an impact. See Coaching for Business Results to understand how we translated the coaching practice into results for one retail organization.

There is a powerful ripple effect to coaching the coach—it’s an effect worth investing in. Those tiny ripples in the organization can become a tidal wave.


Karen Maxwell Powell is an affiliate at Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich, immersive business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen and strategy execution.