‘Telling’ and ‘mentoring’ styles of leadership have proven to be less effective than ‘coaching’ in aligning the individual’s goals with those of the organisation

The challenges in the public sector require great leadership. Yet the people related aspects of that challenge continue to prove difficult for many NHS leaders.

The days of directive, “telling” styles of leadership have been proven to fail by numerous researchers. In the health service this approach is likely to continue to diminish as hierarchical structures are progressively upset and challenged.

Increasingly power has to be earned, through moral authority rather than authority traditionally gained through position.

Knowing workers

In addition, the workforce is better educated and has instant access to information on the internet, so greater numbers of NHS employees are likely to challenge not only instructions from their manager, but the assumptions that underpin public policy or procedure itself.

The ability to manage talent in a growing knowledge based workforce and retain key people as an advantage, is a real concern for leaders in an increasingly competitive NHS environment. 

As hierarchical authority diminishes, the ability of leaders to truly influence and persuade people to follow ideas for change becomes the optimal skillset required for success.

‘In the NHS, leaders are very often managing teams of committed professional experts’

This is as true for private businesses as it is for services in the public sector. Financial reward can change people’s behaviour in the short term, but it has little impact on their engagement and commitment overall.

In the NHS, leaders are very often managing teams of committed professional experts, who are far from dysfunctional in their work. So the traditional “mentor” approach to supporting personal and professional development, through a senior subject matter expert, might be helpful for some but it does not cover all bases for the most able individuals.

They will need or want the opportunity of incremental performance enhancement, through better insight, feedback and honest self-reflection.

Mentoring is great for advice and information, as are courses and study days but it does not pinpoint the pros and cons of individual behaviour. Nor does it allow people to give time, attention and proper thought to their interests and concerns.

Coach class

Coaching, as a leadership development tool and even a leadership style, can provide that one to one time for honest self-reflection centred on the individual.

Managers who use coaching as an approach to managing people assume that the employee is resourceful and wants to develop.

The needs of the organisation and the individual are consciously linked and used to develop personal goals from the outset. This is because self-identified and self-developed objectives work better than goals imposed by others. 

‘Coaching as a leadership style also encourages people to explore and develop new skills’

Each subsequent conversation relates back to the mutually agreed goal(s) and focuses on the steps the individual is taking to progress towards achievement.

The discussion centres on the reality of the situation they face, explores the options available and then ends with a real focus on what will be done by when. This basic structure for coaching conversations is derived from the “GROW” model below.

GROW model for coaching conversations

  • G: Set goals for the individual and the conversation that are mutually agreed.
  • R: Get the individual to explore the reality of the situation or issues they face.
  • O: Help the individual to describe and explore the options they have available to them.
  • W: Ask the individual what they will do, by when.

In essence, the GROW model enables a leader to meet the fundamental human needs of team members, by giving them a sense of autonomy, relatedness and competence.

Good coaching conversations ensure the individual feels in control, as permission is given for them to identify and explore the issues they face at work.

They also provide an opportunity to relate to others and to develop a genuine emotional connection to the organisations’ people and purpose. This is achieved through discussion about the situation, and the pros and cons of each of the options they have.

‘Those who adopt a coaching style of leadership stand a better chance of engaging their teams’

Coaching as a leadership style also encourages people to explore and develop new skills, growing their all round competence and self-awareness levels. 

In a world where the directive style of leadership is increasingly failing, those who adopt a coaching style of leadership will stand a better chance of engaging and influencing their teams.

By doing so, ultimately, they are more likely to achieve the type of changes and the increased performance standards demanded of many areas in the public sector, like the NHS.

Darren Leech is a director at NHS Elect