Coaching by Managers: No Appointment Required

I met with a lively and well-informed group of leaders from the Singapore Ministry of Health recently. Although they may not have needed my expertise on executive coaching, their questions instead centered on why a supervisor, manager or executive needs the same skills that professional coaches use. We teach that leaders can be more effective if they have a coaching mindset and coaching skills, but what does that mean? As they pointed out, executives seldom have time to take a 1/2 hour to hold a “coaching session.”

Coaching can be useful for both improving performance and developing others, but it may look quite different in practice. For the active manager, coaching happens in the moment, in the hallway, or walking from a meeting. It doesn’t usually require an appointment – just an opportunity.

Take the typical problem of a direct report coming to you with a complaint about the performance of a peer on a project. This can be approached in a variety of ways, but I think a coaching approach promises the most desirable results.

Let’s consider the alternatives. Presumably you, as a manager, could agree to go talk with the peer and solve the problem. Depending on the approach you take, the peer may be resentful, feel betrayed by the co-worker, or find it helpful to get some assistance. However, no matter how skilled you may be at the intervention, it will not improve the working relationship between the two peers because one of them ran to a greater authority. The best that can be hoped for is compliance in the present project and postponement of the conflict to the next joint project.

So, let’s suppose that you resist the temptation to fix the difference between two others, but instead use a directive approach to save time and get the problem off your plate. “Go. Work this out between you!” seems likes a better option, but it also has some inherent limitations. There’s no telling how well prepared the direct report is to actually work it out effectively. It is likely that the only certain result is that the direct report who came with the problem feels ignored and is now frustrated and irritated.

Perhaps a coaching approach could yield a positive result without taking a lot of time. One of the key components of a coaching mindset is a determination to let the person being coached keep responsibility for the solution. So a coaching leader will respond without taking over the problem. Questions work best. “What have you done so far to solve this?” could be a good opening. “What else could you do?” “What do you know about why your colleague is not delivering?”

These questions take about the same length of time as giving advice or issuing an order, but they create the possibility that the person being coached will take a new tack, try a different approach, and keep at it. They reduce the chance that you will make it worse through intervening (since no one can actually solve a conflict between two others). More importantly, they imply that you have confidence in the intelligence, good intentions, and capability of your direct report. More clearly than just announcing, “I have confidence in you!”, it communicates the truth of that.

Toolbox When you add coaching to your repertoire of management and leadership skills, you enlarge the range of actions available and you encourage your direct reports to stretch themselves to consider alternatives. Coaching approaches are not the best for everything (you still need to direct, organize, advise, and teach), but they are a valuable tool in your box.

Have you added coaching skills to your leadership toolbox? If so, how has it made you more effective as a leader?

~Doug Riddle

7 thoughts on “Coaching by Managers: No Appointment Required

  1. Good simple example Doug. I tend to describe the ownership issue around the notion that “a pushed insight is not an insight,” the implication being that when the person being coached “joins the dots” and has an “ah ha” then the level of ownership is much more enhanced.
    I also think the last paragraph is critical – its about having Coaching as one of the tools in the box, but critically it is also about understanding when to select, plug and play that style as opposed to others. In these days of financial turnmoil and resource constraints (perceived crisis), the danger is that managers deploy more directive styles when coaching might be more appropriate/take a little longer but deliver longer lasting value added and ownership.
    To extend the metaphor, I might have all the tools in my box, but I tend to use a small subset of them regularly (disposition towards a particular leadership style), so I am more likely to reach for those tools with which I am familiar as opposed to best tool for the job – ie coaching takes practice and embedding to become a natural part of the repertoire

  2. Thanks for the post! We have been having problems with some of the managers at our office and there are some helpful tips in here. We are considering using an online supervisor training course for our supervisors.. has anyone had any success with these types of courses?

    1. Hello Kate – There are some good programs available depending on what your managers are struggling with. Regardless of what training you provide, you will need to ensure that your training investment leads to the results you want – that your managers actually apply what they learn with their teams. As this article states so well, coaching skills within your front line leadership team are critical – and will save your organization a lot of money in the long run.

  3. Interesting perspective on executive coaching. I particularly liked your reference to the need for the manager to direct, organize, advise, and teach. Executive coaching is a must in combination with these other activities. I would be interested to learn more about how you differentiate teaching from coaching.

  4. Even those who are not leaders should be given advice on coaching. I agree, it can improve the performance and confidence of a person. They will soon realize that the qualities of a leader can be applied to being a parent.

  5. Thanks for the post. Agree – having coaching as a tool in the kit means being equipped and ready to use ‘in the moment’.

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