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Leadership  |  Professional development

How can NEDs use coaching to improve an organisation

RideTheWave - Professional Coach Training

If you are already a non-executive director or looking to become one, to equip you fully for this kind of role you may have been considering getting a professional executive coaching qualification as a way to enhance your wealth of expertise and open further doors.

A good NED should be able to wear a number of different hats and be able to ascertain exactly what the organisation/board might benefit from in the moment. By asking the most relevant and insightful questions, the NED can help others gain greater clarity and identify new opportunities and possible courses of action. Reflecting on these questions, members of the board can continue to reap the rewards even when the NED is absent, which is valuable  when contact time may be limited.

So what is coaching and why does it appeal to people like you?

In the 1970s, tennis expert and Harvard educationalist, Timothy Gallwey, shook up the world of sports coaching with his book “The Inner Game of Tennis”. In his words, the core idea of the book is “the opponent within one’s own head is more formidable than the one on the other side of the net”. He claimed that if a coach can help a player remove or reduce the internal obstacle to their performance, there will be much less need for technical input from the coach.

At the time this was pretty controversial, to be a tennis coach surely you need to have the technical expertise and ability yourself to be able to develop another player? It turns out not, and this is very exciting for the business world and possibilities for using coaching techniques as leaders, managers and team members.

There are many situations in which you will be leading, managing or working with people where you have no experience or knowledge of the technical or detailed nature of their work. You cannot advise them or tell them what to do because you do not know but you will be able to help them a lot more: you can coach them.

The essential belief underlying the art and science of coaching is that people have the capability to develop, change, and solve their own challenges. People have all the resources required within them. A coach is there to facilitate the brain’s exploration of possibilities and unlock these internal resources.

In the words of the man considered to be the pioneer of coaching in organisations, Sir John Whitmore, “coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is about helping them to learn rather than teaching them”. So, without any detailed knowledge of maths, law or finance, it is possible to successfully coach mathematicians, lawyers and bankers. This is a wonderful skill when you are leading, managing and working with people whose professional and technical expertise might be a mystery to you, but you still need to be able to motivate and support them.


Think of coaching as facilitating somebody’s thinking process. To do this, you need to do two key things: listen and ask questions.

When was the last time somebody listened to you? I do not mean just listening to respond to a question, I mean really listened to you.

And another question: when was the last time you really listened?

​The image below shows different levels of listening from cosmetic to deep listening. An example of cosmetic listening is the morning pleasantries as people arrive in the office, there is nodding, um and ahhing but the person listening is probably still checking their phone or thinking about what they have to get done that day.

Moving to a conversational level of listening starts to engage the brain as questions are asked in response to answers. This is probably the most common form of listening and certainly has an important role but consider that when you are in conversation what Mr Stephen ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ Covey said, “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”. Consider this the next time you have a conversation and try to really hear what is being said rather than thinking about how you are going to respond. You will be amazed at the powerful impact this can have on the person being listened to. It will deepen the relationship and trust, and you will find out a lot more about what is going on in their life. You will then be actively listening. Congratulations! This is a scarce skill!


At the deepest level of listening, which is sometimes called empathic listening, you are listening to not only understand, you are “listening” for non-verbal communication such as body language, tone of voice, and the underlying sense of emotion.

Sometimes excellent listening is enough, but sometimes you need to do a bit more to help people unlock ideas or open new possibilities. You can do this by asking great questions.

What makes a great question? The answer is that it really depends on the context. It takes practice and experimentation to find the right questions, and the same question will resonate differently with different people in different situations. But here are a few simple guidelines to help you ask better questions.


1) Avoid yes/ no questions

By using an open-ended question you get insights and additional information you might not have known existed. Questions with “would,” “should,” “is,” “are,” and “do you think” all lead to yes or no. Questions with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “how,” or “why” lead to people giving some thought to their answers and provide much more information.

For example: “Does that feel ok?” could be asked as “How do you feel about that?”

2) Exploratory questions

Do not accept the first answer. Be curious and dig deeper with follow-up questions…

For example: “What makes you say that?”, “What do you think is going on?”, “How do you know that to be true?”, “What’s the evidence?”, “What else?”.

3) Frame questions is a positive way

For example: “What do you think is leading to you missing deadlines?” could be asked as “What could you do to help you meet your deadline? “

But remember the most important part of asking a good question is waiting patiently for the answer, and not interrupting. Do not be afraid of silence.

So, after all those questions, here is an important one to ask yourself. WHY do I need to know about coaching?

Embracing a coaching approach can enhance your personal and professional relationships. As a non-executive director, working with the principles of coaching you get a two for one deal – you get the job done to a higher standard by giving the person responsibility, and you develop your team at the same time. We live in a VUCA world and in this age of data proliferation are constantly facing cognitive overload. The most common answer to the question “How are you?” seems to be “busy”. Taking time to ask people questions and listen, and giving people time to think is not a luxury: it’s essential for productivity, performance and wellbeing.

After this brief introduction to coaching I hope you feel inspired to try it out, and excited about the impact it could have on you and the people you interact with.


Related post: Are you a mentor or a non-executive director?


Written by Lucy Mullins

Lucy is the Co-Founder and Course Director of #RideTheWave. She is also the award-winning Co-Founder of StepLadder, a fast growing fintech company. She has won awards for her work in the finance sector including Innovator of the Year at the Women in IT awards and Fintech Champion at the Women in Finance awards 2020. She is an entrepreneurship expert at the University of Oxford and is passionate about empowering people to take on leadership roles and fulfil their potential through coaching.

If you are interesting in how a coaching qualification can enhance your NED skillset, visit our website with one of our Directors and learn more about the courses we run.


This blog post is sponsored by Ride The Wave.


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