Army training in classroom

Maximising potential through military-style coaching

Lessons from the Royal Australian Air Force and Australian Army

5 minute read
Army training in classroom

Despite having vastly different goals, business organisations have much to learn from military leadership and coaching.

Thanks to TV, movies and pop culture, you might imagine military coaching to be very autocratic, with firm direction, loud interactions and boisterous orders.

In fact, modern military coaching is far more about listening and guiding people to unlock their own potential.

It is a philosophy that has many important synergies with corporate leadership.

So, what can business leaders learn from modern military coaching?

A strategy of unlocking potential

Royal Australian Air Force Training Systems Officer Wing Commander Jacqueline Carswell described coaching as unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their performance by helping them to learn, rather than teaching them.

She said successful coaching came from being altruistic and non-judgemental.

“Coaching for me is about wanting the best for others,” Wing Commander Carswell said.

“It’s about listening and asking questions without judgement.

“As a coach, I want to help people recognise how capable they are and how important their role is in whatever team they find themselves in.

“Since I am not telling them what to do, when they come up with a course of action and it is successful, their confidence and subsequent performance improves.

“Coaching helps build confidence and trust in both individuals and teams to work through courses of action to come up with a way forward.

“It provides a level of control, responsibility and accountability.”

Former Australian Army Captain and WithYouWithMe Chief Executive Officer Tom Larter said he found many military coaching techniques translated to businesses.

“The military fosters leadership around collaboration, listening – especially to those with experience – and mission command, which means letting your people get on with the job without constant direction from you,” he said.

“I’ve found many synergies with business leadership.

“Foundationally, it’s about knowing your people, caring about individuals and building effective teams.

“The greatest coaching tactic I learnt in the military was ‘ask, don’t tell’, and the ability to use Socratic questioning to help a person come to an aha moment of learning through experience.”

How can businesses maximise people’s potential through coaching?

When incorporating coaching into your organisation, Mr Larter said to start with a clear direction of what you want to achieve.

“Be deliberate in your coaching efforts and understand what you need people to learn,” he said.

“Start by building a comprehensive skills framework and mapping your workforce against it to identify where the gaps and opportunities are.

“Encourage employees to undergo skills and cognitive assessments, so you can match their capabilities to the framework, irrespective of their current or past jobs.

“By arming both employees and leaders with this information, you can make career development conversations far more targeted and aligned with current and future business goals.

“Supporting employees through investment in their development and providing internal mobility opportunities is likely to increase loyalty and staff retention, particularly as individuals increasingly prioritise professional growth as a key factor in their commitment to an organisation.”

Fostering a culture of continuous learning

Mr Larter said one of the military’s greatest strengths was creating a culture of continuous learning with a focus on consistent improvement across all areas.

He said everyone was taught how to train, coach others and lead at a foundational level, and believed businesses could take steps to curate a similar growth culture.

“Build this approach by adopting a skills-based method to workforce management,” Mr Larter said.

“View your workforce and teams as sets of skills to be deployed against task requirements.

“It’s a more agile way of doing business, which allows you to make workforce decisions based on data about the skills you have and the skills you need.

“Individual employees also benefit because value is placed on their current skills and ability to learn new ones, rather than their previous role title or educational background.

“Skills are valuable, regardless of where they’re learnt.”

Delivering choice, commitment and diversity

According to Wing Commander Carswell, the Royal Australian Air Force benefits from shared culture, values and experience.

She said much of the Royal Australian Air Force coaching program’s success could be attributed to constant development and diversity.

“Establishing policy and best practice guidelines, along with a network of qualified coaches who can support one another and provide choice to your workforce has been successful for the air force,” she said.

“Coaching can be a very personal experience, so it is good to have a choice.

“Our coaches also do not coach exclusively – they are professionals in their primary field as well.

“Committing to the professional development of your coaches is important; it reinforces the commitment to your program of maximising the potential of your people.

“Diversity in styles is also widely sought-after because it provides great options for creating capability, bringing different thinking and ways of doing things.”

Wing Commander Carswell said the most important military coaching tool, which could translate to businesses, was commitment to the individual and team.

“Servant leadership is one philosophy I strongly believe in and is intrinsic to military leadership.” 

“A great quote from Simon Sinek: ‘Leadership is not about being in charge, leadership is about taking care of those in your charge’, she said.

“I believe businesses, which adopt this type of philosophy, can be very successful – coaching as a strategy sits very nicely with this.”

Translating military skills into a business world

Wing Commander Carswell said there were plenty of ways military and businesses could overlap their skills.

“There are always opportunities for business and the military to share,” she said.

“With more flexible types of employment in the Australian Defence Force (ADF), there are opportunities for our people to step out and work in business for a while.

“Businesses can encourage their people to consider joining the ADF as a reservist to provide their expertise to the ADF and receive ADF training, which includes coaching as part of their service.”

According to Mr Larter, businesses can gain valuable insights and knowledge by hiring former military personnel.

“A good way to gain insight from military coaching is to hire veterans into your organisation,” he said.

“Typically, veterans have a strong aptitude for leadership, are purpose-led and are willing and able to learn new skills quickly.