The Manager as a Coach

(by George Telfer)

"Who dares to teach must never cease to learn."
(John Cotton Dana)

A key factor in leadership is the ability to inspire and challenge others to attain higher levels of performance that will achieve the organisation's objectives through the successful execution of an agreed strategy. In a world that is now truly global, increasingly unpredictable, ambiguous and intensely competitive, effective coaching is one of the most important roles a leader can fulfill to improve the capabilities and performance of the people they lead. Therefore it might seem reasonable to expect coaching to have a high investment in an organisation's strategic vision; however, coaching, compared to a more traditional management style of command and control, may appear somewhat incongruent with this approach and an unnecessary diversion from a more task driven focus. Consequently, many managers still remain resistant to any changes that may involve a perceived loss of control.

The responsibility of every leader is to shape the future, provide the clarity that enables people to see the ‘bigger picture’, and define a shared vision for everyone. As Peter Senge points out however, leadership is not about teaching people how to achieve that vision; it is more about fostering learning in order to build success from within the team. Managers must realise that learning has to permeate the entire organisation and accept that coaching has a significant and increasing influence on individual and collective learning. Arie De Gues even suggests that: “Your ability to learn faster than your competition is your only sustainable competitive advantage.”

Further research in the field of learning has led to the notion of ‘learning organisations’; a term first coined by Bruce Garrett, and provides an important link between leadership, coaching and learning. It would be difficult to visualise a learning organisation without effective leadership and a strong coaching philosophy. Equally, in an empowering culture, everyone may lead at certain stages and should therefore aspire to be effective in the coaching of others. This undoubtedly accounts considerably for success and sustainability within organisations.

Being a learning organisation, however, is not the same as achieving ‘Investors in People’ or having polished plaques proclaiming such on the walls of the main reception. It is about leaders fully understanding peoples’ expectations and facilitating what is necessary to help them develop and improve. Coaching is not so much a single process of ‘adding on’ but is also one of subtracting or ‘unlearning’ whatever is getting in the way of moving towards a desired goal, and the willingness to take the risks sometimes needed to foster talent and ability appears crucial if an organisation truly wants to develop its people. Pivotal in any coaching relationship is the importance of a positive and interactive atmosphere, created through rapport, mutual respect and trust, and a clear understanding of common objectives. If required, managers must therefore be prepared to change too, and reach out to grasp the coaching mantle.

Where a significant coaching relationship exists, research shows that promotions and remuneration are greater, as is the level of commitment by learners to their organisations. However, the presence of a coach alone does not automatically lead to positive outcomes and bad or enforced coaching can actually be destructive. It is also important to reinforce the principle that coaching and management are not mutually exclusive to one another; organisations will fail if every manager does nothing but coach from '9:00 - 5:00' in the same way that faiure will inevitably result if managers do nothing other than command and control.

On this note, one of the myths that surrounds coaching is that it is purely a facilitative process and should therefore avoid any element of teaching or instruction. The popular adage of" “the more you tell – the less they learn” works well and is a noble principle, but used in the wrong context it can be frustrating, time consuming and inappropriate in many learning situations for both parties. Therefore coaches should not become slaves to theory and view coaching in too narrow a waveband. Today, everyone is teaching someone, something, and with the pressure on time and results, a more pragmatic approach may be necessary at times and wholly acceptable to the learner to enable progress and achieve a quick win. At times too, a coach needs to get tough to overcome some of the self-imposed barriers that people can create. Good coaches recognise and pick up the 'learned helplessness' in some people and will coax, cajole, and tug quite forceably on the learner's self-respect when it's needed.

Without becoming pervasive; plenary sessions, where experiences are actively supported and explained, are important elements in personal learning, just as ‘one to one’ facilitative sessions are, between coach and learner. At times, we may need to support through direct explanation, with the learner required to actively listen and then act upon instruction, with good common sense and experience helping to remove any persistent bottlenecks in their development.

In our courses at LtEI, we aim to provide a practical coaching methodology through which participants can learn through experience, reflect upon that experience, and then translate new knowledge through action. Questioning and listening techniques are used throughout, highlighting one of the most critical skills in any coach or leader; the ability, effective questioning and feedback, to raise awareness in the learner. Equally important is actively listening and fully engaging with the learner in order to understand. If the goal is to become a great coach, we start by becoming a great listener.

Listening may be viewed as a skill by some managers and more often seen as sheer hard work by others. In truth, good listening is based upon a set of personal values, and the right values are even more fundamental to a coach than any set of polished skills. Therefore, if the goal is then to become a great listener; get interested in people. An effective coach reflects an underlying positive attitude towards people by assuming positive intent, as good coaches primarily align their personal values, congruence and communication skills with others in order to release untapped potential.

A further inhibiting factor in developing a coaching culture within an organisation is that its managers may fail to understand what good coaching actually looks like. Often, there is little or no concept of what is involved and confusion as to what the relationship between the two parties should be? In essence, a coach is someone we learn with and effective coaching is ‘performer focused’ with attention directed towards the learner and their performance, thus enabling the learner to focus directly on the skill or task. Every learner is different and a coach should adapt to their learning style rather than have the learner adapt to them. However, as coaches we are learners ourselves and can be somewhat self-limiting if too insistent on our own preferred learning style. Good coaches are skilful in adapting to the learner, although it is also beneficial for the learner to be aware of the advantages of learning in different ways too.

As stated, great coaches are able to guide the personal development of others, but they also work hard to learn themselves. Coaching is about stretching people; if we are not stretching; we are not growing, and the capacity to remain open to learning oneself is a critical requirement in any leader or coach. Therefore, the importance of those right beliefs and values is central to coaching; without which any new learning will have a limited and short-term impact. We can impose a style of teaching, coaching and even leadership on others but we cannot impose learning. In the same way that people must want to learn, a manager must see the genuine value of coaching or will simply find it less challenging to continue managing people in the way they always have.

Without a strong set of shared values, more often than not the organisation will change the manager before the manager changes the organisation and it takes vision, passion and action to drive through change. Unfortunately, values are not so easy to coach but as an effective manager, one can encourage and enable people, through coaching, to align who they are with what they do.


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