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Managers as Coaches: Where Most Get It Wrong

The Many Hats that Managers Wear logo It’s a common fallacy. “We deploy our managers as coaches” is often said but not often true.

The idea is a good one. Organizations that actually do this see far-reaching business benefits. But saying it and doing it are two different things. Most organizations don’t understand the difference between managing and coaching well enough to realize that managers as coaches is unrealistic for them.

Note that coaching and mentoring are not the same. Coaching and managing are not the same either. While a manager might be able to wear all three of these hats – manager, mentor, coach -- chances are that they will more often manage and neglect the other two needs.

It’s not impossible to train, equip, and enlist managers as coaches. But it does require training, practice and reinforcement. First, though, it requires understanding why it matters and how to successfully integrate both roles into the management function.

Five Great Reasons to Offer Coaching for Employees

The business case for coaching is rock solid. The benefits, though, are not achieved by labeling some management styles as “coaching.” Rather, the benefits listed below are associated with genuine coaching – promoting self-discovery, reflecting back key ideas to build self-awareness, challenging others to stimulate new ideas and options, and maximizing potential.

The International Coach Federation defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership.”

Those are the objectives of coaching that produce outcomes like these:

1. The Return on Investment is massive. A study conducted by Manchester, Inc. demonstrated that companies realized a return on coaching that was 5.7 times greater than what they invested. The quantifiable results included improvements in productivity, quality, organizational strength, customer service, employee retention, cost reductions, and bottom-line profitability.

2. Employee growth is dramatically accelerated by coaching. Because coaches get people invested in their own development and promote self-discovery, commitment to learning and goal attainment is significantly higher than when people are not in control. This boosts retention and application of what’s been learned. It also links learning to goals which, in turn, increases the likelihood of goal attainment.

3. Coaching boosts employee engagement. The first and most important component of employee engagement is emotional connection to the organization. When employees receive coaching for development, they believe that their organizations are investing in their growth. This ennoblement and support strengthen emotional connections between employers and employees.

4. Learning cultures spring from coaching support for employees. Coaching has a carryover effect. The person who receives coaching becomes more independent, freeing up time for others to get support and attention needed. Additionally, once coached, employees tend to emulate behaviors modeled by their coaches. They listen better, ask more questions, encourage others, and continue to set and pursue goals with deeper commitment.

5. Coaching equips people for autonomous goalsetting, accountability, and problem solving. Once coached,

Coaching is often provided by external sources, by people who are credentialed and experienced as coaches. This ensures that benefits are realized and that there is no confusion between coaching and managing. However, as employees begin to demand more development and growth opportunities from employers, there’s a desire for efficiency. Since managers are already interacting with employees, the popular notion is that managers should also be coaches.

The Barriers Most Managers Face and Why They Get It Wrong

There are seven barriers in most organizations that keep managers from truly becoming coaches. None of these are intentional. Typically, those who want to coach are left to their own devices and must figure out how to compensate for the lack of organizational awareness and support in these areas.

KPIs for managers focus on functional/technical work. Given a choice between managing tasks that drive daily deliverables and coaching work that develops people, most managers will choose the former. That’s because their performance evaluation, pay, and promotability is generally linked to the deliverables. That’s unfortunate, and it signifies a miss in measuring what really matters.

Most managers are not taught how to be coaches. Coaching is not a new-fangled style of management. It’s not a buzzword that means being empathetic as a manager. Credentialed coaches invest many hours in training, skills practices, and mastering a set of coaching competencies that are not the same as managerial competencies. Most managers don’t know what they don’t know about coaching… the examples they’ve seen internally are from others who also misunderstand what it means to coach.  

Not all managers have (or want to have) the skills needed for coaching. Effective coaches are excellent listeners. They ask thought-provoking questions. They push back, gently, when connections are being missed or when people attempt to rationalize their misguided efforts. Coaches refrain from giving their opinions and from prescribing solutions. They evoke awareness and cultivate trusting relationships.

Managing and coaching are different disciplines. Consider these key differences:

  • Managers set goals. Coaches facilitate goalsetting by others.

  • Managers evaluate performance. Coaches facilitate self-evaluation.

  • Managers tell people what to do. Coaches ask questions about what people plan to do.

  • Managers focus on short-term deliverables. Coaches focus on long-term development.

  • Managers are accountable for team output. Coaches are accountable for individual growth.

The roles of managers and coaches can be at odds. Driving for daily output doesn’t always allow time for experimenting, failing, learning, reflecting, improving, and talking through the next steps. Managers may fear that coaching will take too much time, not yield immediate results, and prevent them from achieving short-term deliverables.Figure of manager attempting to comfort employee

Not all managers are committed to employee growth. For various reasons, managers may have mixed feelings about employee growth. They may fear losing high achievers. They may feel threatened by ambitious employees who are growth minded. They may not be personally motivated to grow and, therefore, not see the value of others growing either. With a short-term focus on getting today’s work done, employee growth may seem like a luxury to work on some other time. Whatever the reason, managers who don’t value growth won’t put time and effort into supporting people development.

Coaching can have negative connotations. In some organizations, coaching is what’s offered as a last resort.

Unfortunately, these seven barriers often overshadow the five benefits that could be achieved if managers were better equipped to wear their coaching hats more often.

Creating Fair Expectations for Managers as Coaches

For managers to also be effective coaches, organizations need to set fair and reasonable expectations.

First, it’s imperative to fully understand the differences between managing and coaching. That includes defining the parameters of what coaching is and what it’s not. For example, coaching is confidential and it’s self-directed by the person being coached. The coach is not the couch. There’s no need to look back and figure out why things are the way they are. Coaches help people focus on future growth.

Organizationally, do you really want your managers to spend time coaching?

If not, perhaps because they’re so busy managing that it wouldn’t be practical to train them and then dedicate time to coaching, consider the options you have for bringing in outsiders to provide effective coaching.

If so, there’s another tough question to ask. Are your managers skilled in the competencies of coaching? Do they listen well, ask great questions, think critically, value learning and growth, and foster relationships with 2-way trust?

You’ve checked both boxes? You have a desire and commitment to prepare managers as coaches AND managers with the essential skills sets to coach?

Then you’re ready for the next step. Consider what you will do to reframe the management role. Coaching simply won’t work if you don’t allow time for it. It will fail if you don’t provide adequate training and skills practice. And it will be backburnered if managers are only incentivized and measured on the work of managing, suggesting that coaching is optional or something to bolt on when time allows.

You likely have opportunities you can leverage for reframing the management role. You could, for example, turn 1-to-1 meetings into coaching meetings. You could start with director-level roles and equip those managers of managers as coaches so they can model and reinforce coaching behaviors. You could also enlist HRBPs or other resources as coaches to supplement managers, temporarily, during a transitional period.

Whatever easy-to-implement options you choose, don’t leave this step out. Create metrics for managers that are related to people development. Quantity of coaching meetings, number of promotions from the manager’s team, advanced skill sets acquired, number of development goals attained, and so on… these people metrics are every bit as important as performance standards related to short-term output. Without these types of metrics, coaching will always be an afterthought.

Finally, don’t expect managers to magically transform into coaches overnight. It takes hours of practice and time to build new habits for coaching. If you see the value, make the investment!

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