Manager as Coach: How To Lead Better
Updated: Mar 24
Google's manager research revealed their best managers are effective coaches.
It's no secret, the Manager as Coach gets results. Increased engagement, improved retention and higher performance.
In a highly competitive market, being an effective coach is not just optional, it’s essential.
The problem. Most coach training for managers sucks.
Only about 33 percent of LOB respondents in our latest study said that they have become much more effective as managers after taking part in development programs.
Training is theoretical and lacks practical tools.
I take a different approach.
Helping managers find small coach-like behaviours they can use today.
For example, in this article you will find:
This article is split into two parts.
Part 1 - How to become a Manager as Coach. For managers who want to get started today.
Part 2 - Why become a Manager as Coach. For managers who aren't convinced coaching is for them.
Let's begin 🚀
Part 1 - How To Become a Manager as Coach?
WTF is coaching?
Coaching is what turns ordinary people into extraordinary product teams.
When you think of coaching, what comes to mind?
Let me guess - a sports coach on the sidelines shouting instructions to their under-performing team.
The dictionary supports this definition. It uses adjectives such as teaching, advising, telling.
Therefore it would be easy to conclude that the Manager as Coach is about fixing people by shouting at them.
Not that different from the traditional command and control leadership style.
If that's all that is needed, maybe you can stop reading now and get on with the day job.
A further google search reveals another type of coaching: life coaching.
You might even come across the Tony Robbins documentary: I am not your guru
You are now thinking: I'm supposed to be the team's therapist?
The answer is of course, no.
This confusion around what Manager as Coach means is rampant.
I'm here to help give you clarity.
There is a different kind of coaching that get results.
It's primarily not about telling people what to do. It's not about being a therapist.
I describe it like this:
Coaching performed by a Manager is primarily about listening well, asking good questions and sensing how best to respond. Always with the intent of helping people maximise their peformance.
In practical terms, this means mastering three skills:
But these skills are incredibly difficult to master and do consistently.
You are under pressure, have little time and have many distractions.
The natural thing to do is not listen and tell people to "get on with it".
Furthermore, you have very few role models.
Your manager "coaches" at you all the time. Telling you what to do and how you need to up your game.
This makes your journey to becoming more coach-like that little harder.
I could do with an example right now...
Coaching is usually a conversation.
A conversation between manager and team member.
Coaching can be done with teams and groups. It can be done virtually or in person. It can come in many different forms.
For the Manager as Coach, the most obvious time to use coaching is in a one-on-one.
I'll assume that you already have a weekly one-on-one with each of your team members. If you don't now is a perfect time to start.
The problem. Most one-on-ones are rubbish.
10 minutes of chit chat, 20 minutes of status updates and a few awkward minutes of silence. They don't in any way contribute to high performance.
This is where coaching can help.
Transforming your conversations from awkward to effective.
Your best coaching tool for these conversations is the open question.
Open questions work because they invite deeper thinking. They help people think through problems from different perspectives. They demonstrate your interest and curiosity. They build engagement and accountability.
To begin, you just need to start and end well:
👉 Start with this: What do you want to explore?
👉 End with this: What was most useful for you?
👉 Everything in between: Ask open, curious questions
You will be surprised how much your conversations will improve by starting and ending with an open question.
Coaching doesn't need to be rocket science.
I created a toolkit of 5 simple tools, you can start using today:
How To Develop Coaching Skills
To become better coaches, Managers must develop three skills: listening, asking and sensing.
To really listen is to be moved physically, chemically, emotionally, and intellectually by another person’s narrative.
Every manager likes to think they are good listeners.
The reality. Most of us are terrible listeners. It's not your fault. We work in environments that make sustained focus incredibly difficult.
The opportunity. When you become a better listener everything improves.
You make better decisions. You build better relationships. You do less work. You make fewer mistakes. You build great teams.
Listening is a habit.
"The seemingly simple behaviour change of giving a little less advice and asking a few more questions is surprisingly difficult."
Michael Bungay-Stanier - The Coaching Habit
You were promoted to a manager based on the quality of your answers. Expertise got you to this point.
The problem. When you have all the answers, you become a bottleneck.
When you become a manager the focus must shift.
From answers to questions.
To unlock engagement in your team, you need to ask questions. This encourages everyone to be involved in problem-solving.
Asking questions sounds easy but often managers ask bad questions.
You can start today by asking open-ended questions.
These typically start with what, when, who and how.
Wise executives tailor their approach to fit the complexity of the circumstances they face.
The least obvious of the three coaching skills is Sensing. I call this the art of coaching.
Knowing how to respond in a given situation.
When to ask vs tell.
When to listen vs speak.
When to put pressure on vs take the pressure off.
When to persist vs adapt.
To choose the best response you need to sense what's going on.
This sensing happens on many levels.
What is going on for you?
What is going on for other people involved?
What is going on in the relationship?
What is going on in the wider system?
By becoming better at sensing you increase your hit rate. The likelihood you'll choose the most appropriate response in any leadership situation.
When and How To Use Coaching
Coaching conversations in the workplace are varied.
There are three common examples:
Routine One-On-Ones Conversations
Career Development Conversations
This is the easiest opportunity to integrate coaching into your management style.
A coaching style one-on-one means in general:
Your team member primarily owns the agenda
Your team member does most of the talking
You ask most of the questions
You do most of the listening
Your one-on-ones become easier once you know the questions to ask.
Here are 7 questions taken from The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay-Stanier :
The Kickstart Question - What’s on your mind?
The AWE Question - And what else?
The Focus Question - What’s the real challenge here for you?
The Foundation Question - What do you want?
The Lazy Question - How can I help?
The Strategic Question - If you’re saying Yes to this, what are you saying No to?
The Learning Question - What was most useful for you?
Career Development Conversations
The most common frustration I hear from team members: we never talk about my career goals.
Too often managers focus on the here and now. They fail to put focus on the team's broader career goals.
This is because the near-term pressures take time and energy.
Another reason is that managers don't know how to structure a good career development conversation.
When you ask the question: "Where do you want to be in 5 years?" and your team member responds "I'm not sure" It is awkward.
The good news is that there are hundreds of coaching tools to help.
Here are 5 of my favourites:
A team member stops you in the hallway. "I have a challenge. How should I tackle it?"
How do you respond?
You are short on time. You haven't prepared. You have little context.
These situations are common.
Every bone in your body will want you to quickly give some advice and move on.
The Manager as Coach knows advice can be problematic.
Instead, the better approach in these situations might be something like this:
"I don't have time to discuss now. But let me ask you this question: "What is the real challenge for you?" Think that through and let's connect later today after this meeting."
You always have a choice in how you respond. The best managers have an ability to sense, based upon the situation, what might be the best response.
How does coaching compare to other leadership styles?
We have learned so far that coaching is primarily about listening, asking and sensing. With the intent to help people grow.
Leadership is highly situational. That means there is no single right way to lead.
This is why the skill of "sensing" is so important. Understanding what is going on in the moment so that you can identify the most appropriate response.
Daniel Goleman identified 6 leadership styles that effective leaders use.
The big idea is that the best leaders are flexible. They don't overuse any one style of leadership. They are flexible based on the situation.
Most interesting from the study, coaching was the least used, yet most impactful.
Your experience might agree.
The dominant leadership style in most organisations is command and control.
We must become better at asking and do less telling in a culture that overvalues telling. It has always bothered me how even ordinary conversations tend to be defined by what we tell rather than by what we ask.
Edgar H. Schein - Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling
This is a challenge for managers.
The environment around you will nudge you towards telling people what to do.
However as we explored, in complex environments, coaching often gets results.
Part 2 - Why Become a Manager as Coach.
Why the big focus on coaching?
The old dictator of a coach shouting out a team doesn’t work anymore.
Let's say you're in the following situation...
The senior management at your company noticed your technical expertise and potential, so they promoted you to a managerial position where you have to lead a small team.
Your new team begin working on the first feature. They encounter a serious technical challenge. There is strong disagreement within the team on what to do.
The team approach you for advice on what to do.
Given your experience, you think it's something quite easy to overcome.
How do you handle this situation?
These moments can feel great. You feel valued and respected for your expertise.
The problem: your advice isn't as good as you think it is.
Your advice can work well in simple situations (where is the product roadmap documented).
But most problems your team face are highly complex.
There is no rarely a single right answer.
In fact, you can tell the team the "right thing" to do and get bad results. The blame game will start.
On the occasions when your best advice actually works, guess what happens next.
The team will come back over and over again for your "expert advice". You'll become a bottleneck, overworked and stressed.
Your team might even assume that if they don't ask for your advice you'll get angry.
A coaching style of leadership helps you overcome these challenges.
You help the team self-discover their own solutions. By listening well and asking good questions.
“Attention, the act of listening with palatable respect and fascination, is the key to a Thinking Environment. Listening of this calibre is enzymatic. When you are listening to someone, much of the quality of what you are hearing is your effect on them.”
When you ask more than you tell these three benefits occur:
The team feel empowered and engaged.
The team often identify better solutions than you would have
You have more time to focus on strategic challenges.
How Becoming a Better Coach Helps You
This all sounds great, but what's in it for me?
Here are three benefits for you:
You get more time.
Time is your most precious commodity. Instead of getting into the middle of every conversation, you encourage the team to find their own answers. The team become more competent at problem-solving. This creates more time for you to tackle the really big strategic challenges.
You climb the career ladder
When you become a great manager people take notice. Every organisation wants people that can lead at scale. In a highly competitive market, your ability to develop great talent will be highly prized. You'll be given bigger teams and more responsibility. Your coaching skills enable you to scale.
You build a legacy
When people look back at the best managers in their career, your name will be top of the list. Managers who know how to coach have some of the biggest impacts on a person's career. When you help people achieve great things, you'll build an incredible legacy.
But remember, these are really side-effects by focusing on helping others achieve high performance.
Be the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage.
What Problems Does Coaching Solve?
Coaching helps you tackle three management challenges:
Coaching is what turns ordinary people into extraordinary product teams.
Coaching has been shown to be an effective way to help people perform.
Talent Development is about helping people perform at their best. People want to perform in environments that get the best out of them.
When managers create an environment for people to do their best work, people will want to stay.
There are only two ways to influence human behaviour: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.
Every organisation is undertaking a digital transformation. This means roles and activities will be changing. The Manager as Coach helps people through the change journey. They understand that change is scary. They also understand that people want to be heard. Listening to dissenting voices
The hardest part of management is the hard conversations.
Poor employee performance or behaviour
Complaints and grievances
Giving bad news, such as ending employment or advising unsuccessful job applicants
Communicating tough business decisions.
Professional coaches are experts at having difficult conversations. They master a few skills to better navigate the tough moments. It doesn’t make the conversations easy, but the outcomes are typically better for everyone involved.
Because of this, it’s common for the most difficult conversations to be outsourced to a professional coach.
This is not optimal.
Instead, leaders need to learn how to become better at having difficult conversations.
There is no hiding the fact that these conversations will happen often and are required to reach high performance.
The good news. Once you develop the core coaching skills (listening, asking, sensing) and learn a few coaching tools, these hard conversations become easier.