‘Coaching’ Your Way to Uncommon Leadership

Ruchira Chaudhary, Author, Executive Coach, Founder– TrueNorth Consulting

Culture indeed cascades from the leader! However, leaders today have to consistently reinvent themselves to stay relevant and impactful. Amidst an array of oft talked about skills, what is it that is gaining undisputed prominence? Listen to Ruchira Chaudhary, author, executive coach, and founder at TrueNorth Consulting, as she reveals how ‘coaching’ can transform you into an extraordinary leader, not just strengthening your firm’s cultural ethos, but also fostering a long-lasting legacy.


Rajshree Shukla: 0:03

Can you coach someone to be an innovator: one who can invent their own ladder by bypassing the conventional career trajectory? Can finding better routes be taught?

What is the difference between a leader and a leader coach?

Is coaching just the purview of the leader, or does it extend far beyond that?

Hi, I’m Rajshree Shukla representing ISB’s Management ReThink—an online management practice journal, published bi-monthly by the Centre for Learning and Management Practice. In today’s session, as we discuss the various nuances of ‘Coaching’ and its undeniable impact on individuals and firms alike, we at Management Rethink are excited to have Ms. Ruchira Chaudhary with us. Ruchira straddles the corporate and academic worlds—she is a leading executive coach, the founder of a boutique consulting firm focussed on organisational strategy solutions, and also adjunct faculty at several top-tier B-Schools. Her book titled “Coaching: The Secret Code to Uncommon Leadership” explores some of the key ingredients of impactful leadership.

Welcome, Ruchira! We are so excited to have you with us today!

Ruchira Chaudhary: 1:21

It's my pleasure. Thank you so much for inviting me, Rajshree!

Rajshree Shukla: 1:24

Great! Let's get into the questions. I'm sure our listeners are eagerly waiting for those.

Given that coaching is steadily taking centrestage with today's managers, how do you define the term specifically in this context of leader as coach, why do you think it's become a buzzword now more than ever?

Ruchira Chaudhary: 1:43

That's an excellent question actually. I think coaching, as you rightly said, whether you call it a buzzword or something that we've been talking about a lot more lately, came about also because of how the narrative around what defines good leadership has changed, right? In the erstwhile scenario, it was really just about building the financial capital, you know, making your numbers. And that's how we defined good leaders. I think, at the start of the 1990s, that narrative started changing. This was also around the time, you know, the balance scorecard came about where we said, it's not just about building the financial capital, but it's also about the processes, it's about your customer. And at the heart of all of that, it's your people, right, building those reservoirs of human capital. And coaching became centrestage because of the accent on people and taking people along in the journey. And coaching has never been more important than it is now. We are going through very turbulent times and these turbulent times demand that our leaders navigate these extraordinarily choppy waters with a steady hand at the helm, right?

These turbulent times mean that leaders not just have to motivate and inspire, but they also have to give a sense of belonging. The work-from-home phenomena has only complicated this because we have fading interpersonal connections, yet we desire that flexibility. So, leaders have to double down on taking others along in the journey, ensuring that we maintain those connections, we give people the freedom to decide when, what, how. And yet we inspire them and take them along. So it's about making concerted efforts to coach, enable, and find that sweet spot between providing them the flexibility, and the structure and direction.

Now coaching, the way I define it, and you know, I have used that in the context of my book also, is really the act of maximising your current performance. But more than that, your future potential, right? It's the potential. And you do that through a series of self-enabling and non-directive conversations. The accent is on enablement and non-directors. It's really about asking people, not telling them what to do—that defines the whole premise of the leader as coach.

Rajshree Shukla: 4:03

I think you’ve phrased that really well there. Work-from-home has really blurred boundaries and this active guidance and support is what is being sought from leaders everywhere.

Ruchira Chaudhary: 4:12


Rajshree Shukla: 4:14

You've often spoken about uncommon leaders and how you see coaching as an integral element to uncommon leadership. Could you define uncommon leadership to begin with and how coaching comes into play here?

Ruchira Chaudhary: 4:25

Uncommon leadership, or uncommon leaders, in my mind are those that achieve success by helping others grow, right? It's about taking people along and helping them become a better version of themselves. These leaders understand that it's not about building an empire or making those millions in revenue. It's also about the journey. It's about the teams that they build along the way. And when these leaders relentlessly focus on elevating others, as they elevate themselves and their organisations, they tend to go higher and the organisations soar even higher, right? And in my mind, coaching, the act of enablement, is that key or that code that unlocks this uncommon leadership. This act of maximising another's performance and potential, it's about taking people along, it's also about making them shine brighter, it's making them soar even higher. That's what uncommon leadership is.

Rajshree Shukla: 5:18

Very true. I think in today's times, it's not just transactional leadership anymore. It's a lot about building your teams and about, you know, taking others along with you. And, making sure that an individual's potential has risen to the fore. So I think you make a very interesting point there. As we speak about this transition, from being an average leader to an exceptional one, could you share a few anecdotes about those who led by example?

Ruchira Chaudhary: 5:44

Oh there are so many uncommon leaders. Let me talk about those that I have personally either experienced or, you know, been in touch with. In the course of the book that I wrote, I had the pleasure of interacting with Sheryl Sandberg. Now, to me, the reason I think of Sheryl as a truly uncommon leader, is because I think she's a fabulous role model. And that is, to me, a key trait of an uncommon leader. You want to role model the behaviours for your people. And she, with all the lean-in and all the interesting work that she does, her message is very clear. It's about building an equal world. It's about giving opportunities. It's about elevating other women; it's about empowering them. And if you really decode what she does in her own life, she's constantly meeting with people. In fact, when she joined Facebook, there's an interesting story of how she went to every single individual in the organisation. Just trying to have conversations with them, introducing herself, saying, ‘Hey, I'm Sheryl.’ A small gesture goes a really long way in forming connections, right? That's one example.

The other one, I'm a bit biased because it's Satya Nadella and we went to the same business school. When he inherited Microsoft, the organisation was in shambles. This was 2014. And yes, when he came on, he did many things right—cloud computing, artificial intelligence, social networking. And that’s made Microsoft today what we describe [today] as one of the most innovative, collaborative and customer-centric organisations. But if you look at his interviews, or if you hear his interviews, his conversations, he won't talk about that. He said he did all of that by recalibrating or resetting the organisation culture. In fact, what I found very endearing is that he talks about the C in the CEO, standing for culture. And how he did that? Like Sheryl, who really was a role model, in his case, it was all about listening. He knew the culture was inflexible and rigid, and that each employee was trying to prove to the other that he or she was the smartest person in the room. He just spent the first year along with his head of HR, Kathleen Hogan, listening to people, understanding the challenges, what's working well, what's not working so well. And if you read some of the case studies or the interviews, it didn't matter whether you were at the bottom end of the value chain, or whether you were a vice president, he gave you the same kind of attention. He was all ears. And then he distilled from all that he heard. They distilled and crystallised what they call a Management Excellence Framework. It's called ‘Coach everybody’—every leader, regardless of their role, and size of their teams would coach others. ‘Model’—you would be the role model, and you would ‘Care’ for your people, which is empathy. And that has really stayed with me.

Rajshree Shukla: 8:29

And I do agree that a lot of organisations that have an encouraging culture actually have people at the core of it. So people-centric organisations, leaders who care, and leaders who can be role models to their team members, I think those are the ones that really shine.

We often hear coaching and mentoring used interchangeably. Are they the same in your opinion?

Ruchira Chaudhary: 8:53

A lot of us do use coaching and mentoring interchangeably. Organisations do that. There is a rather big difference between how we mentor and coach, and not to say that one is more important than the other. I constantly encourage people to build a board of advisors, which has coaches and mentors. Let's try and unpack the difference. In my mind, the key is—a coach asks, a mentor tells, right? It's asking versus telling.

Think of a mentor as somebody who's been there, done it, typically older, has a lot of influence, someone you look up to for advice. The advice is prescriptive in nature; this person doesn't have to be part of your current work ecosystem, could be an ex-client, could be an ex-boss, could be a family friend, right? Someone you look up to, and you value their judgment and their advice. And these mentors guide your journey—it could be your career journey; it could be your life journey.

A coach, on the other hand, is not guiding you, or is not giving you advice from the balcony, as I said. A coach is with you on the dance floor. Rolling up his or her sleeves, giving you real-time feedback, typically in your work ecosystem, knows everything about you, what you're doing day in and day out. So, think of a mentor, as someone who's guiding your journey, but a coach is guiding your current practice, right? A coach will not tell you what to do but will ask you open-ended powerful questions, so you can find your own path and your own solutions.

Rajshree Shukla: 10:26

There's a very fine line, I believe, between both, and you've actually made it very clear for us. So I just wanted to understand, Ruchira, how do you think the benefits of coaching extend to the entire organisation going beyond individual employees? Does it have a direct impact on the business performance too?

Ruchira Chaudhary: 10:47

Top executives, leaders in organisations, they intuitively understand that they cannot succeed without the right talent and the right skill sets. And in survey after survey, they will consistently rank leadership, talent management, coaching, etc., as top of their agenda. But these same people also get very frustrated because they feel that they're not getting enough ROI (Return on Investment). Right? And that's because companies rarely manage their talent as rigorously as they manage their balance-sheet, right? And when they do, they think of people management, people development as something that they outsource to human resources, and which in turn leads to training.

Now remember, training is an event. Coaching is a process. And it's much harder to draw direct linkages. And all the researchers can't yet precisely measure coaching results on an organisation performance. A ton of studies published in the consulting psychology journal suggest a very positive trend, right? Google's project Oxygen, which is a multi-year research that they do, they started it in 2008. And they've done this year on year. They do this really interesting people analytics, and they've examined data from thousands of employee surveys and performance to find out which behavioural patterns characterise most effective managers. In 2008, coaching topped the list. A decade later, in 2018, they said, oh, let's now do this one more time to see how it's moved, how it's changed. By then the company had grown in size, complexity, demands on their managers had changed. And they added new behaviours to this list. Believe it or not, ‘my manager is a good coach’ continues to occupy the number one slot. And yes, we have engagement study results that keep telling us that, ‘my manager is the single most important individual that impacts my productivity and my engagement levels’.

We know all of that at an individual level. But we have to think about compounding this and taking it to an organisation level. So, BCG (one of the 'Big Three' management consultancies) does this global leadership and talent index. And when they surveyed about 1,500 CEOs and HR directors globally, they found a very interesting correlation between financial performance, and organisations that have invested in coaching and leadership. And they found that those companies that rated themselves strongest on leadership and talent management, increased their revenues 2.2 times faster, and profits 1.5 times faster, than what they call the ‘talent laggards’ or companies that rated themselves the weakest.

Now, these are numbers, and these are statistics. However, we also know that coaching benefits an organisation because of how we are fundamentally shifting and transforming in the digital era, right? The change in business today is not linear. It's not linear and it requires quick shifts into thinking into entirely new models, domains and ways of working. And coaching is what supports people in these quick shifts. It's about changing business demands; it's about investing in leaders as coaches. And it's a skill that many savvy organisations recognise. So, when you have to build leaders, and you have to build these capabilities in such short spans of time, and you want real business impact or a successful transformation, or you just want top and bottom-line results, you have to ensure that your leaders coach others and take them along. I guess that's the best I can do.

Rajshree Shukla: 14:15

It's amazing, Ruchira, you know, because in my mind, and I'm sure a lot of other people also, coaching, you know, comes across as something which is soft and intangible, but having all these statistics, and having to hear about them, it just puts things into perspective, and you feel like it actually does have an ROI that can be calculated in real terms. So I think it's amazing how you've put this across to us.

Ruchira Chaudhary: 14:40

Well Rajshree, before I embarked on the coaching journey, I thought of myself as a hard-nose strategy consultant. I found coaching very amorphous and fuzzy, and intangible. It's only when I embraced that world, I realised what coaching really meant, and how you can make a difference, right?

Rajshree Shukla: 14:58

Absolutely. Yeah, I'm sure you know, a lot of people are going to benefit out of this, because this is a skill, I think, which needs to be incorporated and imbibed by leaders of today without a doubt I would say, and just building on what we've discussed so far, Ruchira, I wanted to ask, how do you think leaders today could consciously build a culture of coaching within their organisation?

Ruchira Chaudhary: 15:24

Yeah, in fact in the previous question you asked me, there was a long-winded thing about why we need coaching and what coaching can do for you. But the fact of the matter is, organisations believe that when they provide training on coaching skills at all levels across the board, that they will automatically make their leaders good coaches, right, as if there's a magic wand—you give them a training and they will morph into good coaches.

But we all know the reality can be very different, right? So then how do you ensure that this individual skill becomes an organisational one? How do you build that organisational capacity?

For starters, it's great that you give people skills, and you permeate those skills not just at the senior levels, but down the line. But, at the heart of all of that, the individual has to believe that coaching is relevant, that he or she wants to get coached and will also coach others, right? I call this the coaching mindset, the belief or the conviction that every leader should get coached, and also coach. So they have to understand the rationale and what's in it for them as well.

But that's not enough.

We also want an organisational commitment to infusing this mindset into the organisation's DNA and weaving it into the cultural fabric. And in order to do that, you have to go beyond just the visible norms or the ways of working. You have to complete this individual coaching mindset and make it an organisational one.

Many moons ago, when I was doing my MBA, I found this very interesting concept, it's called the ‘ARC’. It's part of your internal competitive strategy. And it's a concept that I borrowed from economists Saloner, Shephard, and Podolny. The ARC stands for architecture, routines, and culture. So, think of your ‘architecture’ as all the formal processes, structures in an organisation—the organisation design, the incentive, the performance systems. ARC, the R stands for routines which are everyday processes—how employees are hired, promoted, how we deal with their successes and failures in the organisation, and ‘culture’ we all know, is, you know, the tingly feeling you walk in the moment you enter a place—the rituals and norms, and as we say, ‘the way things are done around here’, that's the culture.

So how do we infuse this coaching mindset into the organisations’ ARC, not just the culture? In order to embed coaching into your organisation's ARC, don't just tell people what to do, demonstrate by example. Like we talked about those uncommon leaders. It's about role modelling, right? It's about how you hire people. So, don't just hire for potential but hire for pedigree; don't hire just for skills or the experience, but also hire for attitude, right? When you evaluate people, measure what matters. Are these people enabling and building other leaders? When you promote and elevate, though, elevate those that are elevating others. Celebrate these people who are building others. And that's the kind of culture that you build in an organisation, right?

When you infuse this into how you hire, promote, elevate, celebrate—that's when coaching becomes part and parcel of all you do. And these organisations truly understand that we want to make ourselves learning organisations. Uncommon leaders are products of such learning organisations, where there's a clear focus on building, nurturing, and honing individual coaching skills and a coaching mindset, right? These leaders understand that building the next line of leaders is their responsibility. And they all do that, at all levels in the organisation.

Rajshree Shukla: 19:14

Absolutely Ruchira. I loved how you spoke about pedigree, and it's almost like leaving a legacy as opposed to having a short-term goal. It's definitely about building another set of leaders once you move on.  

Ruchira Chaudhary: 19:26

You know, when I was writing, a lot of people would send me quotes. So my Prof sent me this and he said, “Did you know that Mahatma Gandhi said rather famously once, that the sign of a good leader is not how many followers you have, it's how many leaders you create.” And I thought it really resonated with me, so I've used that a fair bit.

Rajshree Shukla: 19:47

Moving on Ruchira, I'd like to talk about how we have witnessed, you know, changing norms and how there is a shift from possibly authoritarian to more emotionally intelligent leaders nowadays. So how do you see the future of leadership evolving? What do you see as the core traits that could be visible in leaders of tomorrow?

Ruchira Chaudhary: 20:07

You know, there's a lot of conversation around how we have to reimagine leadership today, right? You used the word ‘possibly authoritarian to emotionally intelligent leaders’ in your question. I call it moving from a landscape of instruction to motivation. We also know that the command-and-control style of yesteryears is no longer relevant. It's really passe, right? We cannot function like that. We cannot tell people what to do, because let's face it, our world today is so complex, so interconnected, so wired, almost complicated, that no one leader can have all the answers. You have to take people along in the journey. And you have to leverage their collective intelligence, right? We talked about this.

In the 1990s, this narrative started changing about what defines a good leader. And now today, because these businesses have become so networked and so complicated, nobody can have the answers. The pandemic has amplified that. So, this counter-narrative that emerged through the 1990s—redefined excellence in leadership in a way that aligned to, in fact, many of the traits that women brought to the workplace, right? It was moving away from being aggressive, from being almost narcissistic, ambitious, to empathetic, being more collaborative. Satya Nadella showed us that listening was a highly underrated but a very effective skill for a leader. So that's the kind of change we are seeing now.

Today, we have leaders who lead by example. And not only that, these leaders constantly leverage the collective intelligence of their people, they give them a voice, they surround themselves by a diverse set of leaders whose opinions they value.

And what the crisis has also shown us is that you cannot take your people for granted, right? You have to ask them, they need to have a say in how things are done. And good leadership today is about all of these things. It's about doing all of these things right. It's about resilience, resilience in yourself, but also making your people resilient. It's about building those reservoirs of trust, which clearly has been in short supply if you look at the survey results. It's about checking in on your people, but not constantly checking on them and breathing down their necks. It is about empathy. And at the heart of all of that, it is about taking them along, it's about elevating them. And these leaders, when they shine the light on others, believe me they shine brighter. That's uncommon leadership.

Rajshree Shukla: 22:49

I completely agree. Leaders are striving to be more approachable and inclusive today, and how that has become a criterion for effective leadership. Do you have any prescriptive advice for different strata of managers as they embark on the journey of being coaches?

Ruchira Chaudhary: 23:04

You know, it's a great question, but I will be very honest. Whether you're a manager, a gig worker, you could be a student by the way, think of coaching as a life skill. Just like in sports and performing arts, coaching is at the centre of all people do, right? It's about making people a better version of themselves; it's about making them go higher.

Think about coaching as a way to take others along, to enable them, to uplift them. And regardless of whether you're in the corporate world or not, coaching is really not about learning new skills, right? Coaching, in fact, is in many ways about unlearning. It's about letting go of your old beliefs. It's about opening up your mind to the many possibilities and it's about having a growth mindset, which is a belief that everybody can grow and change, and when you start believing in that, you will go higher, and you will shine even brighter. I hope you coach your way to uncommon leadership.

Rajshree Shukla: 24:08

As Ruchira said, we all have it in us to reinvent ourselves as coaches. At the end of the day, it’s about leading by impact and not influence. Understanding the relevance of coaching and the willingness to coach and being coached will certainly lead to real-time impact.

Last but not the least, we can all be agents of change to instill this into our organisation’s cultural fabric and leave behind a legacy of coaches.

Thank you for your valuable insights, Ruchira! It was wonderful having you with us today.

Ruchira Chaudhary: 24:39

It's my pleasure entirely. Thank you so much for inviting me.

Rajshree Shukla: 24:43

Thank you for listening in folks! Watch this space for more interesting conversations with industry experts and practitioners in our upcoming issue in March 2022.

Ruchira Chaudhary, Author, Executive Coach, Founder– TrueNorth Consulting

Ruchira Chaudhary is a leading executive coach with over two decades of experience in emerging markets in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and also runs a boutique consulting firm focussed on organisational strategy solutions. She teaches as affiliate faculty at top-tier business schools including Chicago Booth, SMU, NUS, IMD, ISPP, and recently London Business School. Her book titled ‘Coaching: The Secret Code to Uncommon Leadership’ explores some of the key ingredients to impactful leadership and was published in April 2021 to much critical acclaim.

The idea of ISB Management ReThink was born out of the impending need to revisit and redefine the time-tested tenets of management, and at the same time, identify how they can still hold on to their relevance in contemporary times. With the ever-changing dynamics of management philosophies, and the associated classroom teaching methodology, it is about time to readjust the focus by shaking the fundamentals, breaking myths and bringing about the change necessary to survive in this cut-throat era of stiff competition.