The manager as coach

Coaching is a popular topic, particularly in the world of business. Executive leaders employ personal coaches to have developmental conversations, to explore hypothetical scenarios, and to encourage self-awareness. It follows that the practice has expanded, with many people deciding to make careers of coaching, as greater numbers of individuals use coaching services to improve their own development.

One of the defining aspects of business/life/personal coaching is the absolute focus upon the processes of coaching. The coaching engagements are typically short term, perhaps six separate sessions for instance, and therefore there is a lot of emphasis on developing techniques to establish ‘rapport’ quickly between the client and the coach.

Coaches that focus on helping clients solve their own challenges need not know anything about a particular business domain or industry; in fact the fresh perspective may be a significant advantage in terms of lateral thinking. In addition, each engagement is clearly identified – the session will be dedicated to coaching – with no chance of conversations being polluted by the most recent managerial crisis.

Such coaches practice the skills of coaching conversation, using powerful questions to challenge and pursue potential barriers in the client’s thinking. The conversation may be augmented with specific tools that can help clients gain a new outlook on a situation.

What these coaches don’t have therefore, is a line management responsibility for the client. In fact, they are employed by the client so there is a relationship of service. The coach is not required to appraise the client with a view to determining any actions other than to improve the client’s performance. Finally, the coach has a defined engagement with the client that is usually temporary in nature. Once the required development has been undertaken, the relationship ceases.

In sharp contrast, the coaching manager has a line management responsibility for the coachee. They are required to appraise the coachee at least annually, and the outcome of that appraisal may be linked to career progression. In addition, the relationship normally is expected to be of a more significant length.

With these characteristics in place, how does this affect the manager’s ability to coach?

Reflection: Think beyond the use of open questions in your dialogue with staff. What difficulties might you envisage if you adopt a more developmental approach towards your staff?

It’s important to realise that a coaching manager has to adopt a different outlook to a ‘pure’ coach. Coaching practice is different to having the responsibility for staff and operations. Tasks have to be completed on time and to the correct standard, in an efficient manner. There is bound to be directive language in the requisite conversations, otherwise the short term objectives might not be met.

In terms of the annual appraisal, or any event where a manager has to evaluate the performance of a member of staff (which is more common in project-oriented environments), then there is a fundamental tension between making judgements and coaching.

When we appraise staff, we are placing the focus upon the objectives of the organisation, rather than the needs of the individual. As we have discussed so far, whilst coaching could be the preferred way of supporting the development of individuals, it can only at best follow on from an appraisal.

The fact that an appraisal conversation can be less conducive to coaching, means that the coaching manager would be wise to clearly identify the context of the discussion up front. So, be clear when you are making organisational judgements based on the needs of the institution, and be clear when you are coaching.

Developing a coaching mindset

The decision to coach is relatively easy to make. There are simple practices that can be adopted such as asking open questions and ‘active listening’ that can yield a lot of value. As managers in challenging environments we can forget that we are immersed in the present and consumed by tasks that need completing. The time to pause and reflect can disappear and therefore our opportunities to learn are diminished.

However, adopting simple changes in behaviour does not in itself result in a coaching mindset. Some extra value will be obtained, but ultimately there is a limit to what can be achieved by listening and questioning as a line manager. Remember, the pure coach does not have direct responsibility for your own development; they merely help you identify the need for it.

As a coaching manager you must truly want to help people. Managers who see their staff as instruments for their own advancement will struggle with developmental coaching. They’ll adopt some techniques that make them perform better in the long run than a directive manager, but the real power of coaching will not be realised. 

Where some managers can go wrong is that they want to help staff, but their help actually constitutes advice and directive instruction.

Every time you use a directive approach towards your staff, you are inhibiting the opportunities for them to think for themselves and possibly solve the problem in the future, without bothering you!

Managers that adopt a coaching mindset tend to look within themselves and use the coaching of others to increase not only the coachee’s self awareness, but that of their own. They will serve their staff by genuinely supporting their development, and they will strive to be helpful rather than evaluative. Along the way, a coaching manager will develop an individual coaching identity, that will be based upon their own personal values.

Reflection: In your current context, what will be possible as a result of you adopting a coaching mindset?

The ‘un-coach-ables’

There is one further difference between personal coaching and the practice of the coaching manager. Executives hire coaches out of choice. They are wanting help with something and the coach is brought in to assist.

Imagine the scenario where you are introduced to a coach upon the recommendation of your line manager. In fact, your line manager has read about the benefits of coaching and feels that you will be able to perform better after coaching.

How enthusiastic are you likely to feel about this?

This is an example that supports the perception that performance management is viewed as a remedial task, and that by association, coaching is similar as it is a method of improving an individual’s performance. This is problematic for two reasons.

First, as we have discovered, coaching is related to learning. If the recipient doesn’t want to learn, they are unlikely to embrace coaching. This might not be a conscious decision on the part of the individual; they may not be sufficiently self-aware to recognise that their actions are creating challenges for others.

Second, coaching is often deployed as means to ‘fix’ people. If there are specific weaknesses in an individual’s performance, it could be that the individual may not also be receptive to coaching.

As a result, a considerable amount of time and effort is expended attempting to coach the ‘un-coach-ables’, rather than supporting able staff who are willing to grow.

Coaching should not be viewed as a panacea. The coaching manager will achieve far more by concentrating coaching upon receptive staff, so that their talents and abilities can be realised. In the longer term, our fostering of a coaching culture will create an environment whereby those who have been coached will adopt the necessary mindset to coach others, resulting in a reduction of the impact of individual poor performance upon the performance of the collective.

Exercise

Reflect back over the conversations you have had over the past working week.

  • What proportion of these discussions did you provide advice?
  • What were your reasons for providing advice?
  • What were your reasons for asking questions?
  • If your staff were less dependent upon your expertise, how would you spend your time?

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