To Coach or to Manage? That is the Question!

To Coach or to Manage? That is the Question!

April 21, 2016

More and more frequently, executives and managers are being charged with coaching their teams. But within organizations, there is typically little support provided to help with preparing managers for this role. Instead, managers find themselves offering coaching out of context, or confusing management with coaching, or just feeling like failures in this unexplored terrain. I have been asked for clarity about this issue by several of my own coaching and consulting clients.

Despite the rise of the coaching component in the management world the question of what coaching actually is, and how it differs from ordinary management, and what it takes to succeed at it is left to each manager to muddle through on his or her own. So this post is meant to be a basic primer on what coaching is and how it can best be approached in the workplace.

The biggest source of confusion that I see is a conflation of two very different domains: Management and coaching. But the difference is very stark and really quite simple. Managing always pertains to the work itself. The subject matter of management is about outcomes, operations, work-related tasks, work-related skills and deliverables. Coaching addresses itself to a person’s behavior and its impact on the work. Coaching is about developing people as distinct from systems or work product.

Every one of us has areas where we both can and (hopefully) want to develop ourselves. It may be in our own leadership or communication, in our time management or productivity, in our organizational or relationship skills. And as leaders, we can also identify areas of potential development for our teams. For example, if you have a great, super-creative developer who misses meetings, maybe you want to work on his ability to work with a team. Or you may have a great sales-person, who you would like to groom into training other sale people, but who doesn’t know how to convey his skills to others. Or a line-worker who is highly effective, energetic and committed, and who you see could eventually become a manager – if she had the leadership skills necessary to succeed. Any of these scenarios would be great opportunities for coaching.

A successful coaching relationship usually starts with areas where we see weakness, or opportunities for growth. Those on our teams who we hope to groom into levels of greater responsibility, or more leadership or greater numbers of direct reports are likely to benefit immensely from focused and effective coaching. So in order to deliver really great coaching there are some important steps to take:

  1. You can only coach those who are coachable, and only when you have permission. This is a critical factor that is often over-looked. In order to be coachable, someone needs to value the coach’s input, want to develop themselves in the areas identified for development, and agree to take the coaching given. Everyone will NOT do that. So before you set out to coach someone, you need explicitly to discuss the plan and ask for agreement. If your team member is not interested in being coached or willing to look inward and consider the feedback you give, then forget it. That person may have reached their highest level in the organization, and as long as they do their job, all is well. But the odds of much advancement are reduced by the lack of coachability.
  2. Coaching requires dedicated time. Just offering coaching input at random times, without a formal process and willy-nilly, is a recipe for chaos and ineffectiveness. Set aside specific times for coaching conversations, with regular updates and check-ins. Put it on the calendar and keep those appointments.
  3. For coaching to produce real results you need an actual goal. To begin a coaching process you need to have something specific to work on. A great place to start is with your performance review data. Assuming that your performance reviews identify both strengths and areas needing work, they can provide a starting point for coaching your direct reports. Another way to establish goals is to ask your team what they, themselves, see as needing development for their career future. They may have a great sense of their own weaknesses, and be able to provide the starting goal for coaching.
  4. Tracking Progress empowers everyone in a coaching relationship. Find a way to identify the “symptoms” of your coachee’s weakness, and a set of behaviors, experiences or outcomes that would constitute progress. For example, someone you are trying to coach on time management might track how frequently they are on-time meeting deadlines or getting to meetings. Or a disruptive team member might track progress by noting how frequently he is required to clean up a “mess” with a co-worker. Find a way to see the upward trajectory and the coaching will be its own self-reinforcing feedback loop.

Bear in mind, coaching is always about behaviors and their consequences. So keep yourself attuned so that you notice when you stray from management into coaching and vice versa.

I have only addressed the domain and mechanics of coaching here, not the actual substance of it. I will get to that in the next few weeks with a separate post about the listening and conversation skills that make great coaching work. Stay tuned.

If you are interested in experiencing coaching for yourself, contact me for a no-obligation, complimentary coaching session!