Four Tips for the Coaching Manager

by Patricia Wheeler, Ph.D.
February, 2008

If there was ever anyone who excelled at creating and communicating a clear vision, it was my client Harry.  He was known throughout his organization for this skill, and as a result was sent to turn around an underperforming team.  Harry wasted no time communicating the vision to his direct reports.  Two months down the road, the team’s performance was improving but not at the rate Harry expected. 

I asked him about his approach as team leader; he described numerous meetings and emails in which he told his team about the need for results and the specific steps they should take to accomplish them.  I then asked when, if at all, he elicited their experience and ideas, he admitted that he had been telling far more than asking.  We talked about the difference between the managerial tools of “directing” and “coaching,” and he decided to add more coaching to the mix.

Harry then met with his team and admitted that he had not asked them their ideas about implementing the changes.  He asked them for FeedForward…what was working well so far in his approach and how the team could be even more successful.  I asked him afterward about the meeting; he was surprised at how much useful information he learned, and how, unless he made a few minor course corrections based on the team’s experience, the turnaround would not succeed as anticipated. 

Months later, I asked him how his use of coaching skills had the biggest impact on the team.  He replied that asking open-ended questions had helped greatly.  Previously, he asked questions such as, “Will you meet the deadline?”  His direct reports did not consider it an option to say no or point out obstacles to their results-driven boss, so they frequently made the mistake of over-promising and under-delivering.  As a manager-coach, he learned the slightly different question of, “What obstacles will get in the way of meeting this deadline, and what approach do you suggest taking?”  This created a mutual problem-solving dialogue which led to more on-time delivery of results and a proactive, rather than reactive, response to roadblocks.  Results delivered: a more effective…and more confident, motivated team. 

Some managers decry coaching as a “soft” strategy.  Actually, it’s anything but soft.  Coaching definitely leads with a positive, can-do spirit in which individuals are seen as capable.  But effective coaches hold a mirror to their coachees in a way that leads them to confront and deal with their missteps and derailing behaviors as well.  So this supposed “soft” approach is one that yields hard, measurable results. 

When managers coach, they promote worker accountability. Effective coaching managers craft agreements in which the coachee agrees to specific timelines and accountabilities.  The cost?  More time spent up front in conversation, clarifying the vision, the desired results, and the steps it will take to reach them.  The payoff?  Fewer wasted hours, less destructive emotion expressed, more efficiency and engagement.

Four tips for coaching managers are:

  1. Be clear about the outcome you’re mutually seeking.  In a coaching arrangement, be very clear about what you are trying to improve, and why it is in the enlightened self-interest of both the individual and the organization.  If there has been an issue where performance is in question, I coach leaders to check and re-check understanding of the task, the coachee’s responsibility, and the role the manager plays in ensuring the desired results occur.  With a recent client, the usual suspect was lack of clarity.  In this particular case the team leader assigned tasks individually without fully clarifying the roles, responsibilities, decision rights, requisite collaboration, and skill sets of the employee. Often team members were not sure where their accountability ended and someone else’s began.  This resulted in slowness of execution on a highly visible initiative, which threatened the team’s credibility within their organization and reflected badly on the employee who felt hung out to dry and the manager who did not produce critical results.
  2. Ask before you tell.  When I train managers in coaching techniques, one tendency I observe is too much advice giving.  Advice is well and good, but it’s not coaching.  Often managers give advice which works for them but not the person they’re coaching, and thus experience frustration when their suggestions fall flat.  Ditto when a manager gives advice before truly understanding the situation from the coachee’s frame of reference.  Ask open ended questions, such as, “What’s missing in the current plan?” and, “Given the time constraints, how do you propose to complete this project on time?”  And don’t waste time trying to prove yourself right (and them wrong); really listen to the answers.   This is especially important in a developmental dialogue – know what the other person wants before offering sage wisdom.
  3. Offer yourself as a resource whenever possible.  Ask those whom you are coaching what they need from you to accomplish the desired goal.  Be clear, of course, whether you can deliver what’s asked.  Time is the rare commodity of busy managers. So be honest about your span of control and real ability to give focused time to those who will ask for your counsel and coaching. The bonus here, in addition to added traction toward the goal, is that the employee you’re coaching has the experience that his or her boss genuinely cares….which is a great driver of retention and engagement. 
  4. Practice self-development.  The best workers want authentic leaders who walk their talk.  Your behavior is the best demonstration of your commitment to continual improvement.  We strongly suggest transparency – making sure your direct reports, peers, and bosses know what you are personally committed to improve, and involving them in the solutions.  In short, if you want to be a good coach, make sure that you know what a good coaching experience feels like.

Patricia Wheeler is the Managing Partner of The Levin Group LLC, a consulting and advisory firm with over 20 years of experience in improving senior team effectiveness, organizational performance, and leadership solutions for CEOs, top executives, and Senior Teams. She spends most of her time working with senior leaders. You can contact Patricia by telephone at 404.377-9408 or by e-mail here.

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