Tackling Leadership Inertia

Techniques for helping coaching clients convert “good intentions” into actions.

You can’t plough a field by turning it over in your mind—old Irish saying

You know the drill. Having established a strong trusting relationship with your coaching client, you were pleased to find that this individual quickly displayed insight into those behaviors that were impeding her organizational success. Moreover, your client appeared to be strongly motivated to discover how to take steps to become a stronger leader. Based on all of this, you worked together to set coaching goals, then encouraged your client to take the first steps to meet these goals.

Then the inevitable happened, as you watched your client take two steps forward and one (or sometimes more than one) step back. You began to wonder why all of the great discussions that took place during your coaching sessions failed to translate into actual progress on the job. Action plans were created but not consistently implemented, and those small change steps your client committed to take never seemed to materialize. Although you diligently reviewed your client’s progress during each session, and helped identify potential obstacles to personal change, the way forward seemed slow and tedious. As one of my professional colleagues put it, “There seems to be a lot of motion, but little momentum.”

When faced with this scenario, coaches frequently rely on a few predictable techniques. We ask our clients to recommit to the goals they initially set for coaching, or we conduct a “motivational session” to remind our clients of the potential problems and issues that can resurface if substantial changes don’t materialize. The problem with these approaches is that they work at the wrong level. Often, it is not a matter of motivation or insight, but rather of execution. The reason for this is that the change issues we encounter with our coaching clients simply reflect the same challenges any of us experience when we are attempting to make difficult changes in any area of our lives, regardless of whether those changes involve getting back in shape or learning a new foreign language.


The solution to this dilemma involves introducing clients to simple tools and techniques that can help them gain traction in the coaching process, and convert “good intentions” into significant behavioral change. Here are five simple steps you can take as coaches to make change “stick” and strengthen leadership performance. These change techniques are extracted from my most recent book, “Working Deeply: Transforming Lives Through Transformational Coaching” (co-authored by Dr. Ken Ideus).

1. Break the coaching change goal into digestible bites. Sometimes the problem is simply that the change goal you and your client have identified hasn’t been clearly defined. Take the coaching goal of “becoming a stronger organizational influencer.” Does this mean your client needs to be more effective when influencing the decisions of senior leaders, or peers, or external customers? Is this issue most visible within group interactions, such as presentations to senior management, or in one-on-one discussions with forceful leaders? Is it better defined as a planning issue (the leader has difficulty crafting a compelling business case for change) or as a communication issue (in group meetings, the leader experiences “deer in the headlights” moments when challenged on key points)? What does the organization expect this leader to be able to accomplish with the help of these newfound influencing skills? In other words, what assumptions have been made regarding how behavioral success is supposed to show up in improved organizational performance?

Instead of rushing through this process, I recommend that you focus your first coaching session on constructing coherent goal statements, then take the time to test them out with your client’s manager. As an example, see what happens when we rewrite our coaching goal of “becoming a stronger organizational influencer”:

“Over the next year, Christine is expected to assume a stronger orchestrating role in integrating the two Operations functions of our two newly acquired companies into a consolidated Corporate Operations Department. To support this performance goal, her coaching goal will involve learning how to become more influential with senior leaders within our evolving organization. This will involve learning how to identify the key stakeholders responsible for critical business decisions, determining when and how to enlist the support of these executives, building a compelling business case for change, and anticipating and addressing stakeholder concerns regarding new initiatives.”

2. Make use of implementation intentions. This technique has been developed and tested by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer, a professor of psychology at New York University. Dr. Gollwitzer has performed a lot of applied research that demonstrates individuals are more likely to achieve their life and work goals when they describe the specific small actions they will take in order to achieve these goals. Implementation intentions work because they call our attention to certain situational cues or “triggers” which, in turn, alert us to situations in which we have opportunities to change our behaviors. I once coached a leader who was trying to become more accessible to his work team. One small commitment step involved having this leader enter his office area through the side door each morning, rather than use the front door that was immediately adjacent to his office. By agreeing to take this small action, my client got into the habit of walking by each of his team’s cubicles and offices, and pausing to talk for a few minutes. The point of implementation intentions is not to force a radical shift in a client’s behavior, but simply to encourage coaching clients to support continually positive change by engaging in a series of small but cumulatively powerful actions.

3. Bake coaching goals into work schedules. Far too often, leaders regard coaching activities as things that occur apart from, and in addition to, their “real” work responsibilities. One way to change this narrative is through a technique I refer to as the use of naturally occurring events. This involves encouraging your client to scan her calendar to identify events that could serve as “test points” to try out new leader behaviors. The idea here is to fold coaching into your client’s natural, ongoing business agenda. For example, take the case of the leader who is working on more effectively managing work conflicts. In this case, a naturally occurring event might be an upcoming staff meeting, in which that leader will need to maintain her composure while negotiating resource support and project priorities with the head of another department.

4. Keep coaching goals top of mind. A significant personal barrier to change is inattention. Simply put, in today’s workplace most professionals find themselves overwhelmed by competing demands, ranging from the flood of e-mails jamming their inboxes to the incessant demands posed by paperwork and meetings and the growing addiction to cellphones and social media. The solution to this problem is the use of a technique I call electronic prompting. To use this technique, during the last 10 minutes of your next coaching session, ask your client to take out his cell phone and identify exactly when, where, and with whom he will commit to trying out certain change actions. The next step is to ask your client to load this action item in his cellphone, and set an alert to automatically prompt the leader with a reminder about 10 minutes before the scheduled event. This simple technique magically eliminates the “I just forgot to…” excuse.

5. Build in a real-time feedback system. Because coaches typically see their clients only once or twice a month, they seldom have opportunities to give their clients feedback in the moment, as those leaders are engaged in significant leadership challenges. One way to overcome this limitation is to help your coaching client identify an organizational truthsayer. This is someone who is in a position to directly observe your coaching client, and provide that leader with real-time feedback immediately after he has experimented with a new leader behavior. The leader who is attempting to encourage more idea generation in team meetings could, for example, explain to one of his team members in advance of that meeting that he will be trying out a new approach to facilitating the meeting, and would welcome feedback on how he is doing. The key to making this technique work is for you and your client to select, as truthsayers, employees who are in the most credible position to provide feedback on a particular leadership competency. In my experience I have found the client’s manager or other senior managers are in the best position to provide feedback on such competencies as strategic thinking and planning, whereas peer-level leaders are often in a better position to observe how a client negotiates or manages conflict. In the same way, a leader’s direct reports are in the best position to provide feedback on the degree to which the client sets clear performance expectations, coaches for improvement, and provides effective feedback on their performance.

There you have it: Five simple and useful techniques for helping your client convert good intentions into positive behavioral change.

Robert Barner, Ph.D., is an executive coach and a talent development consultant, with more than 40 years of applied experience in the field. This article is adapted from his book, “Working Deeply: Transforming Lives Through Transformational Coaching” (coauthored by Dr. Ken Ideus). He can be reached via e-mail: ibscribe@me.com.