Welcome the New Partners: 21st Century Leadership Coaching and Technology

Leadership coaching is undergoing a transformation in response to a business environment marked by constant change. Soon, technology will deliver artificial intelligence-based apps for responsive manager education, while coaches focus on relationship building.
By Ingrid Johnson

The practice of business coaching has gone through a progression of changes reflecting the state of the business environment and the needs of clients at the time. Originally reserved for mostly senior executives and using standard management principles, coaching today must be more flexible, adaptive, scalable, and able to utilize technology to achieve the greatest benefits.

As the business environment increasingly becomes more complex and uncertain, coaching strategies are evolving to better meet client needs, such as relationship building and embracing new technologies like artificial intelligence.

Coaching in Uncertain and Changing Environments
Coaching can make a difference in many ways, from improving the ability of business leaders to engage employees to increasing organizational adaptability. To remain as effective as it has been in the past 30 years, the practice must evolve along with the business environment, now global for SMEs as well as large corporations.

Coaching was originally reserved for the C-suite executives and focused on developing decision-making competencies. Today, coaches may work with C-suite executives, senior leaders at the vice president level, unit leaders or top-tier managers, frontline managers, and high leadership potential talent. Each group of employees has different needs, and coaches must be able to provide the right coaching focus. Some of the traditional factors are addressed, like motivating staff and communication skills, but more topics reflect a future expected to get even more complex. They include leading during turbulent times, change management, strategic thinking, working in times of uncertainty, and using influence rather than command-and-control.

Coaching for the 21st century is people focused because interpersonal relationships have never mattered more to business success. Relationships can be face-to-face or technology-based as more companies go global and the internet makes it possible to regularly connect with people as customers, suppliers, and community members.

Leaders must be able to effectively utilize multiple channels of communication. Who would have believed just a few years ago that CEOs of large corporations would begin to tweet or send direct social media messages? Coaching someone to successfully manage these types of relationships is different than coaching someone to hold effective meetings in person. The potential ambiguity in messaging and increased transparency are just two challenges leaders must embrace and manage while they maintain organizational culture and vision.

Coaching leaders for success also means the one-on-one coaching format is no longer adequate by itself and will increasingly expand to include the coachee's team members in recognition of the importance of developing successful working relationships and the dynamic decision-making environment. This is particularly important in companies with diverse leaders coming from different cultures and generations and with disparate perspectives. Coaches must be culturally attuned to the changing workplace if they are to be effective in the current and future business environment.

Changing Mindsets
The uncertainty and volatility that business leaders must deal with on a daily basis can create a lot of anxiety in the very people tasked with minimizing discomfort in their workforce. A relevant coach recognizes the need to help leaders deal with ambiguity, helping them change perspectives and develop increased self-awareness. Leaders must change mindsets that rely on past leadership practices and traditional management approaches to mindsets that embrace new learning and adaptability to volatility.

Objective feedback through tools like 360-degree assessment and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator will continue to be used in the future, but technology is also bringing important changes to coaching. Behavior-based coaching is recognized as the model that best meets the needs of leaders in the complex business environment, but one-on-one or small group coaching limits the benefits that coaching can deliver to the organization.

Technology offers the promise of scalability so that anyone can access development programs at any time. Of more importance is the fact the coaching industry is on the cusp of experiencing a transformation as a result of the development of applications powered by artificial intelligence (AI).

Artificial Intelligence
AI is technology that makes it possible for education and development programs to adapt to the learner's needs.

An early entrant in this emerging market is BRiN, a mobile-based application intended to serve as a personal business advisor. It includes a large library of educational videos and artificial intelligence to customize coaching based on user data. The more the application is used, the “smarter” it becomes in the delivery of customized information. There is plenty of room for content expansion since currently only videos of business experts are included, covering a range of topics that include mindset, product, marketing, sales, operations, people, finance and strategy. The application currently targets small business leaders.

IBM is a leader in the development of AI, which the company prefers to call Augmented Intelligence. The IBM Watson Business Coach application uses cognitive computing to find statistical patterns in huge amounts of data and utilizes those patterns to help humans draw conclusions. It offers users personalized advice to help them overcome business challenges. A voice-enabled conversation between Watson the computer and the business professional leads to a personalized roadmap and inspiration from other business leaders. Learners go on a “cognitive journey” during which Watson uses internal, external, structured, unstructured, voice and visual data – combined with the ability to understand, reason and learn – to help managers make better operational decisions, communicate in real time, and optimize business processes.

Coaching is no longer just for executives because organization-wide managers must be prepared to be effective and adaptable leaders in a volatile and complex business environment. Decisions are no longer made in silos, and leaders must be skilled at building relationships across widely dispersed networks. They need to learn leadership behaviors that increase employee engagement and satisfaction, promote innovation through team building, and develop decision-making skills for uncertain business conditions where continuous change is the norm.

Leaders for the 21st century must be transparent and empathetic, and developing heightened self-awareness is a first step.

Technology can, and will, change how some aspects of coaching are delivered. However, one thing that will not change is the need for human leadership coaches because they create the expert input the computers rely on: It takes a human to really know a human.