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Transformational Coaching: 6 Ways To Facilitate Difficult Change

Forbes Article by Forbes Council Member, Joe Frodsham

The coaches at my firm have worked with over 4,000 leaders over the last two decades. Through the years, we have spent hours debriefing, reading and developing the craft of coaching together. In the process, we have surfaced some key insights, patterns and practices of transformational coaching.

What Is Transformational Coaching?

Transformational coaching is coaching focused on deep, sustained personal change—change that requires a new way of thinking or change in a core, embedded behavior. Transformational coaching is needed when strong personalities need to change behavior or develop a new capability.


Some examples of people who might benefit from transformational coaching include the C-suite leader whose misogyny is impeding his ability to effectively manage and develop female employees. Or the high-performing director whose intensity and task-focused behavior achieves results but who's perceived as a self-interested steamroller whom nobody wants to work with. These types of coaching assignments require an approach focused on deep and difficult change.


In an effort to share our collective learnings on transformational coaching, I have summarized them into six principles and practices. Aligning with these principles, and implementing the related practices, establishes the conditions of sustained change—even transformation.

6 Principles And Practices

1. Build Trust

Effective coaching begins with trust. Leaders will only be open and vulnerable when they believe their coach has two things:

• Relevant experience: insights and processes they can learn from

• Pure intent: a sole focus on the coachee's success, with no conflicting goals

Best practice: Share your background and approach as a coach and dedicate time upfront to understanding the leader's values and challenges. Avoid providing immediate solutions; instead, focus on active listening and gaining a deep understanding of their perspective. Echo what you hear from the coachee so they can clarify and know that you fully hear and understand them.

2. Surface The Source Code

Your challenge is to know the leader at a deeper level to facilitate deeper change. You need to get below the surface to understand the "source code" of their predispositions and motives.

Best Practice: Use a validated assessment to reach a deeper level of insight into the leader’s core dispositions. Examples of validated assessments include the Leadership Temperament Index (LTI), Hogan Assessments and the Birkman Method. When the assessment results are debriefed with the leader, they inevitably have "aha" experiences. The credibility of the coaching is increased, and both coach and leader gain insight into the predispositions that need to be addressed to realize sustained change.

3. Use A Focused, Goal-Driven Process

Coaching can, and should, focus on real-time issues in the leader’s work environment. However, there must be a few key goals that the coaching focuses on consistently—one to three areas that are agreed on during the objective-setting process and defined to ensure progress can be measured. Examples include:

• Develop more effective leadership of people as measured by a consistent year-over-year increase in employee engagement survey results.

• Build capacity to have the crucial conversations needed for accountability and development to realize higher performance and promotability across direct reports.

Best Practice: Drawing on the leader assessment and desired coaching outcomes, establish clear, measurable objectives. Use the SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) criteria to define these goals.

4. Create A Safe Environment

Given their positions, leaders often find it challenging to be vulnerable or admit uncertainties. A coaching relationship should provide a confidential and non-judgmental space for them to share and reflect. They must know that the coach represents a safe harbor to be fully open and candid and that conversations will not be shared.

Best Practice: Set ground rules early on, and reassure the leader that coaching is a safe space to discuss fears, failures, biases and aspirations. Let them know you will ask their permission before touching base with their boss on progress and that the actual coaching conversations will always be confidential.

5. Challenge Continuously And Constructively

Leaders often operate in echo chambers where they receive filtered feedback. A coach should provide honest, constructive feedback to give leaders a clearer picture of their impact.

As a coach, you must share perspectives and feedback the leader is not hearing from people in their organization or personal life. These conversations can be hard but are often unavoidable in transformational coaching. If you are not making the leader uncomfortable at times, you are not likely to realize deep change.

Best Practice: Ask probing questions that push leaders to think deeply about their assumptions and behaviors, especially the assumptions behind their patterns of frustration. Don’t let the leader retell an account without asking them to assume the opposite perspective and process the larger impact, both good and bad, of their actions and decisions. This level of micro-analysis of thought and impact is at the heart of the deeper pragmatic awareness needed for transformational leadership.

6. Commit To New Behaviors—One At A Time

Humans seek homeostasis. We can generally only make one significant change at a time. As a coach, you play a key role of accountability partner and support through the change curve. In my experience, deep change can often be achieved in four to six weeks, with up to three significant changes over the course of a five- to six-month transformational coaching engagement.

Best Practice: Pick one area of focused change at a time. Present the leader with cues and reminders—perhaps a short daily email and a call whenever extra support is needed. Have the leader engage key people they trust in their work world (perhaps their boss and key peers) to provide real-time feedback on their focus behavior. Don’t wait for perfection to celebrate successes.


Transformational coaching is not for the faint of heart. As a coach, you need to initiate discomfort and deal with the intense emotions that often surface from the leader. However, when successful, transformational coaching truly changes careers and even lives.