Founder & Managing Director Matt Somers - Coaching Skills Training Ltd
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Coaching: If you manage people, you’re a coach whether you like it or not!

All managers are coaches – but not all managers know this and not all managers are good at it. How can we get managers to better embrace their coaching role?

21st Jan 2020
Founder & Managing Director Matt Somers - Coaching Skills Training Ltd
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Coaching in the workplace
filadendron/iStock

You may have seen Alister Shepherd’s excellent article on TrainingZone at the end of last year entitled ‘Why coaching is a manager’s job’.

Given the time of year, you may even have resolved to be a manager who takes up the coaching challenge or, as an L&D practitioner, have resolved to help your managers accept that coaching is part of their role.

Well, in this post, I’m going to extend Alister’s argument one stage further and set out why I believe it’s not even a matter of choice. I’ll explain instead exactly why I believe that if you’re a manager of people, you’re their coach whether you like it or not.

Coaching qualities

On our coaching skills training programmes I like to run the following exercise.

I ask participants, working individually, to consider the qualities of an effective coach and have them make lists of the various attributes they can think of, be they to do with knowledge, skills or personal qualities. Most can reel off quite a few but if they run dry, I might ask them to think about a person they’d really like to be coached by and then to think about what it is about that individual that they’d value.

Then I’ll go around the group collecting their various thoughts on a flipchart at the front of the room with the same heading.

The flipchart shown below is pretty typical.

Coaching flipchart

Almost invariably listening – arguably a skill – comes first. But then we get into areas that we might think of more as personal attributes such as empathy, trust and approachability.

Managers cannot hope to keep pace with the ins and outs of all the jobs performed by their teams.

It’s not unusual for a participant to suggest that they were thinking about a coach’s emotional intelligence rather than their expertise, experience, time in the role and so on.

I then like to return to the heading – The qualities of an effective coach – and ask, “If I crossed out the word coach and replaced it with any of your job titles would anything come off the list?”

There’s usually a few sighs and lots of talk of endless stuff that would have to go on the list, emails, pointless meetings, etc. 

But then a hush descends as the penny drops. Nothing would come off the list. The job of being a manager (assuming there are people to manage) and being a coach are largely identical.

How do we get managers to accept this?

My surprising answer is NOT by sending them on a coaching skills training course! Well, not without some work up front I’m afraid.

We know that training participants are good at adopting new behaviours for a while when they return from a course, but these normally go out of the window the next time they come under pressure and revert to old habits. Unless the learning experience (and that includes pre- and post-training conversations) has challenged assumptions and changed the way people think.

A good first step instead is to raise managers’ awareness of how things are now. Before we can expect them to embrace the idea of a coaching role we may have to point out that their current approach isn’t working.

Perhaps you have some 360 feedback or similar that shows that the team aren’t responding as well as they could be. Or perhaps there is some data from a recent engagement survey that highlights the need to change the nature of the line management relationship.

In smaller organisations there may not be this kind of sophisticated data available and it might require an honest conversation between HR and the managers concerned instead.

After that, it’s best to remind managers of the persuasive arguments for taking up coaching. Those has been covered in countless articles but the main ones are probably worth repeating here.

“You and your team have to deal with constant change”

At one time we could expect to leave school, college or university with an education that would last our working life. We could enter the workplace, refine and develop this knowledge and, as we moved up the ladder and into supervisory or managerial positions, we could impart our knowledge and share our wisdom with those who would eventually replace us. Knowledge was power and commanded respect. Managers would proudly say ‘I wouldn’t ask anybody to do anything I’m not able to do myself.’

This position is no longer sustainable. It is reckoned that the body of knowledge we have when we leave the education sector is redundant inside three years. Managers cannot hope to keep pace with the ins and outs of all the jobs performed by their teams.

As a manager of people, being a coach to the team is inevitable. They can do it well or they can do it badly. What they can’t do is avoid it.

“Hierarchies are disappearing”

The last couple of decades saw increasing competition and developments in technology, amongst other things, cause many organisations to downsize. More often than not this meant losing large numbers of so called middle-managers and resulted in the ones left behind having to find ways of achieving more results with fewer resources.

Where previously organisations would have carried some slack, there is now a need to be precise and focused in all areas of activity. Vertical reporting lines have been replaced by matrix-type structures, which mean people can expect to report to two or three managers depending on the work they are doing. 

This is likely to become ever more the case in the future. Against this background, managers cannot hope to lead and develop their teams by being the font of all knowledge and simply passing down the orders. Instead they need ways to help their people access their creativity and flair. They need ways to make people feel empowered, resourceful and motivated to achieve. 

“Our people are our only true competitive advantage”

If we get a new IT system our competitors can get the same by the following week. 

We might secure a large amount of capital investment or funding but there would be nothing to stop our competitors doing the same.

Any organisation, however sophisticated, is ultimately a collection of people. It follows that if we want to improve business performance, then we must always look to improve the performance of people – individuals and teams – as this is where the potential for improvement lies.

Nothing is more frustrating than hearing managers cry “We’ve got to get the best out of people”, then watching as they do the exact opposite, tying themselves in knots trying to stuff the best in to people. 

“Your team expect to be developed”

Some managers might have joined the organisation at a time where they could have reasonably expected a job for life in return for their valiant efforts at work, but those days are long gone.

Now, in return for their work and endeavours, people expect to be encouraged to grow and be developed so that they can move on to bigger and better things. People now talk of CV building and employability as being crucial areas to consider when assessing where they want to work.

As a manager of people, being a coach to the team is inevitable. They can do it well or they can do it badly. What they can’t do is avoid it.

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