Managing as a Coach

By stepping away from being a subject matter expert and toward a focus on people and coaching, a manager is in a much better position to transform their job into a leadership role.

One of the more typical paths to a career in management is to be good at your tasks. I don’t mean good at your job; I mean good at getting tasks done — being a knowledge or subject matter expert. The reason task or subject orientated people are often promoted is because there is an assumption that the skill set of completing individual tasks and knowing the answers about a subject are the same skills required to manage people. In this view of management capabilities, it is generally held that the role of a manager revolves around:

  • Knowing what needs doing.
  • Knowing how to do it — aka having the right answers.
  • Telling people how to do the thing that needs doing.
  • Evaluating the performance of people who have been told to do the thing.

I find it strange that this approach persists because one only needs to listen to any successful CEO or Chairman, and you will usually hear them say something along the lines of “I surround myself with people who know things I do not”. In such a context, it should be self-evident that senior leaders do not succeed by knowing how to do tasks or knowing the answers, and then telling others what they know. Rather, they are possessed of the ability to form a team of great people, and then coach them to achieve the objectives set. An approach that not only enables Leading At Scale, but also facilitates team growth as your capabilities as a coach are not constrained by your capacities as a knowledge or subject matter expert.

For those who have encountered coaches in the past, chances are I am not referring to what you have encountered. That is, people who will help you develop your personal brand, tell you about the benefits of getting up early, taking exercise, setting personal goals. These are all great things, and there is a place for a coach of that nature, but ultimately, they are still doing what many managers do — sharing what they know with someone less knowledgeable.

Instead, when talking about a coach, I am referring to managers who can develop a sustainable learning environment in their team or organisation. In other words, leaders who can help people to become autonomous not just in the execution of their role, but in their ability to discover new pathways to achieving their objectives.

Telling Vs Teaching

When I talk with managers who have settled into the mould of telling their subordinates what to do, it is common for them to bluster that coaching is ‘wishy-washy’, is too soft to achieve measurable results, or takes too long. Yet look beyond the bluster and you will usually find a manager who is psychologically uncomfortable with the approach of coaching. Either because they lack the skills required, or because they fear being deprived of what they see as the main duty of a manger — asserting authority over other people.

Although over twenty years old, Daniel Goleman’s article Leadership That Gets Results remains insightful in the observation that:

the coaching style is used least often. Many leaders told us they don’t have the time in this high-pressure economy for the slow and tedious work of teaching people and helping them grow.

The time pressures inherent in organisational management drive many managers to adopt a ‘tell and sell’ approach when dealing with performance conversations — even though those same managers, when asked in a training setting, assert that ‘ask and listen’ is a more efficacious approach. In a nutshell, the ‘tell and sell’ approach tends to unfold a little like this:

Manager begins the conversation with an open-ended question, trying to lean into the ‘ask and listen’ approach: “Tell me how everything is going for you?”

Employee, if things are not going well, will generally reply with: “all good, busy time, but getting there.”

Manager, clearly thinking things are not going well, and frustrated the employee is not more forthcoming, abandons ‘ask and listen’ for a more direct approach: “Things are not going well, I am concerned about your output.”

Employee, now defensive, moves into fight or flight: “It is a difficult time for me and you cornering me is not helping the situation.”

Manager, realising that tell has not worked out well, tries to end the meeting on a positive note (sell): “We are a team, if we all just pull together and get our work done, we can be very successful.”

Employee, feeling like they have side stepped a landmine, returns to work feeling demotivated but glad they got out of having to change their approach.

If this coaching scenario sounds eerily familiar, you are not alone. You are also in a strong position as once you recognise the behaviour, the road to true coaching lies ahead.

GROWing as a Coach

Of the many coaching models, one of the most widely used is GROW, which is an acronym for Growth, Reality, Obstacles / Options, Way forward. It is important to note that in the coaching space, there is something of a gulf between the psychologists and non-psychologists. Much the same way that in the leadership space there is a gulf between leaders and managers who like to style themselves as leaders.

The good news is that here I am focusing on what a manager, with no training in psychology, can do to make a richer and more meaningful team environment. Which, unless one is willing to tackle eight to ten years of tertiary study, is about the most that can be hoped for and does, objections of ivory tower academics notwithstanding, make a meaningful difference in helping you to think differently about your practice of management. Therefore, so long as the approach is largely confined to goal-directed areas, such as team or departmental objectives, it can be a powerful tool.

The four parts of GROW are:

  1. Goal: what your employee or college wants to achieve. As a thought exercise, it is helpful to start with what is the goal the individual wants to get out of this coaching. Then, we can move to what they want or need to achieve in their role / organisation at large.
  2. Reality: where are they now (who, what, where, when). This is all about grounding thinking about the true distance to their goal. This can be one of the hardest aspects to coaching as people either seeking or in need of coaching are often lacking a firm grasp on reality. It is important to note that this is about conscious raising, not telling people where they are really at. Ask questions and then listen as their answers form.
  3. Obstacles / Options: it is important to tackle both as our options are seldom, if ever, unlimited. In which case, what are the obstacles that are limiting our options? Until we can face the reality of these obstacles, we will not be able to strategise about what we can do to surmount them.
  4. Way Forward: this not only requires plotting a path, but in summoning the will to walk it. Once the coaching session is over, the individual is accountable of their choices and by extension their destiny. They will fail if they consistently need you to be the boot in their behind to get motivated. In this context, they need to be challenged on their will to see the process through. To get up and exercise, to sit down and study, to go out and network. If their motivation is not sufficient, coaching will flag and fail.

The challenge for managers in this process, is that most of coaching will not take place in a formal setting. For example, sitting down for an hour and going through the GROW model. Instead, it happens in the dozens of micro-interactions that happen with a team across the working week.

It happens in the way in which a manager responds to an email, follows up on a request, queries an employee to help them think rather than telling them the answer. But most of all, it happens in the space created in the working day. If employees are keep constantly under the pump, coaching will NEVER work. Much as managers need the space to think and plan, employees need the space to think and execute. They also need the psychological safety necessary to navigate their own path, rather than feeling compelled to get done what the boss tells them to do.

This should not be confused with an unstructured workplace, in which employees are left to their own devices. Rather, it is to give space for management by objective and self-control, a space in which if the objectives are not achieved, then performance management needs to follow. In this context, coaching a team is a process that requires reciprocal trust and benefit.


Coaching is a poor management tool for which to reach if employees are resistant to either change or learning opportunities. And it is usually a complete failure if the manager in question is inept at feedback or lacks a consistent approach to organisational behaviour. In such circumstances, coaching conversations will tend to create an environment of apathy or even fear, rather than motivation.

For these reasons, coaching is most effective when conceived of as an organisational capability and capacity. That is when coaching goes beyond a managerial skill and manifests in the cultural transformation of becoming a learning and development led organisation. A process that needs a clearly articulated why.

A great why example was the approach taken by David Morley, who spoke about his time as Senior Partner at the law firm Allen & Overy:

My pitch was this: ‘As a senior leader, you have roughly 100 conversations a year that are of particularly high value—in the sense that they will change your life or the life of the person you’re talking to. We want to help you acquire the skills to maximize value in those 100 conversations, to unlock previously hidden issues, to uncover new options, and to reveal fresh insights.’ That resonated. Almost everybody in a key leadership position at the firm recognized that they struggled with how to make the most of those conversations, and they could readily see that they lacked skills.

In addition to a compelling why, modelling the right behaviour is essential to success. Whether you are the CEO and wanting to lead by example, or you are a junior manager hoping to see your organisation take on a ‘learn-it-all’ approach, thinking about your attitude, body language, and the way in which you question people, all helps to foster a supportive rather than judgemental environment at work. By also leveraging the skills outlined in Leading Psychological Safety in Teams, managers can build momentum because people will invariably mimic the behaviour that is consistently modelled around them. Particularly if that behaviour is modelled by a person in a position of status or authority.

By asking questions, challenging assumptions, and supporting employees, instead of providing canned answers and endless rounds of judgement, managers are in a strong position to lead development rather than merely mandating what needs to be done. By stepping away from being a subject matter expert and toward a focus on people and coaching, a manager is in a much better position to transform their job into a leadership role. That is, to lead at scale by truly empowering their team with the skills needed to create sustainable value in the organisation.

Good night, and good luck.

Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash.

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