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Can a manager be a coach?

5 min read


Can a manager be an effective coach? Some (often, professional coaches) say that they can’t and shouldn’t, because they have too much of a vested interest in the outcome of the coaching and couldn’t possibly be neutral enough to hold back on their opinions.

Then again, a lot of managers think they are already coaching when what they are really doing is a lot of teaching, advising and telling — or, worst case, micromanaging (think Pointy Haired Boss from “Dilbert”). They use the phrase “coaching” to describe just about any conversation they have with an employee.

Both are valid positions. It all depends on how you define what “coaching” is. I like to think of it as the skill and art of helping someone improve their performance and reach their full potential. There is a spectrum of coaching skills — from directive (teaching, advising, giving feedback, offering suggestions), to asking questions and listening — the real magic of coaching is when the coach takes a more non-directive approach (asking questions and listening) and the person can solve his or her problems. When people can come up with their own solutions, they are more committed, the fixes are more likely to be implemented, and these people are more likely to develop and solve similar problems next time on their own.

Great coaches help minimize the “noise” and distractions that are getting in the way of someone’s ability to figure out what’s going on and what to do about it. Great coaches know how and when to ask the right question at the right time, when to give feedback, when to advise, how to get the person to focus and how to gain commitment.

Managers can do this; in fact, I’ve seen some do it very well. But they have to let go of a few beliefs and pick up a few mindsets and skills. Here’s a summary of what I think needs to happen.

1. Managers need to let go of the belief that their job is to have all of the answers.

While many managers won’t admit they think they know more than the sum total of their entire team, they still act that way. It’s human nature. We all like to be advice columnists when it comes to other people’s problems. The problem is, when you don’t give employees the opportunity to solve their own problems, they don’t develop. Instead, they become dependent and never reach their full potential.

2. Managers have to believe that every employee has the potential to grow and improve.

3. Managers need to be willing to slow down and take the time to coach.

Yes, it’s quicker and simpler to tell and give advice. Coaching does take a little more time and patience upfront, and it takes deliberate practice to get good at it. However, it’s an investment in people that has a higher ROI than just about any other management skill I can think of. People learn, they develop, performance improves, people are more satisfied and engaged, and organizations are more successful.

4. Managers need to learn how to coach.

You can’t just throw a switch and be an effective coach. You need to have a framework, and it takes practice. Most coaches I know use the GROW model as their framework. They like it because it’s easy to remember and provides a road map for just about any coaching conversation. While there are many versions of the GROW acronym, the one I use is:

  • G = goal. “Tell me what you want to get out of this discussion?”
  • R = reality. “So what’s actually happening?”
  • O = options. “What could you do about it?”
  • W = what’s next. “What are you going to definitely do about it? By when?”

To learn how to coach, I’d recommend that managers experience what it’s like to be coached by someone who’s really good at it. Then, read a good book on the topic. I just finished “Effective Coaching,” by Myles Downey, but there are many other good ones. Then, practice, practice, practice and get feedback. After a while, you become less dependent on a linear framework and begin to comfortably bounce from one step to another. It also helps to have a toolkit of favorite questions to ask for each step in the GROW model.

Managers who want to be effective coaches will most likely need to let go of some assumptions about themselves and their employees, be willing to learn and practice a style of management that will initially feel unnatural and awkward. However, the rewards will be well worth the effort.

Dan McCarthy is the director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire. He writes the award-winning leadership-development blog Great Leadership and is consistently ranked as one of the top digital influencers in leadership and talent management. He’s a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership. E-mail McCarthy.