Can a Manager be a Coach?

Originally posted at Smartblog on Leadership 5/23/2013:

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

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

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

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
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 bouncing 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.