Finding the Balance Between Coaching and Managing

December 2, 2021

Finding the Balance Between Coaching and Managing

Ask 100 people if they have good common sense, and more than 95% will tell you they do. Ask them if they are good coaches, and almost as many will say yes. Executives we talk to assume that if they’re good managers, then being a good coach is like your shadow on a sunny day. It just naturally follows.

This would be good news if it were so since more and more top executives are expecting managers to coach their direct reports. In fact, one at Wells Fargo announced that he expects the bank’s managers to dedicate two-thirds of their time to coaching employees.

What’s more, employee surveys we’ve conducted over the past decade show that employees want coaching. Our own empirical evidence echoes myriad studies in finding that effective coaching raises employee commitment and engagement, productivity, retention rates, customer loyalty, and employee perceptions of the strength of upper-level leadership. Responses we’ve collected over the 10 years from some half-million individual contributors worldwide, evaluating about 50,000 of their managers in 360 reviews, show just about a perfect correlation between the leaders’ effectiveness in developing others and the level of their employees’ engagement and discretionary effort.

Unfortunately, our long experience helping executives find and develop their strengths has taught us that coaching is not something that comes naturally to everyone. Nor is it a skill that is automatically acquired in the course of learning to manage. And done poorly, it can cause a lot of harm.

What’s more, before they can be taught coaching skills, leaders need to possess some fundamental attributes, many of which are not common managerial strengths. Some actually run counter to the behaviors and attributes that get people promoted to managerial positions in the first place. Here are a few attributes we have recently begun to measure to determine what might predict who would make the most effective coaches. You’ll quickly see the conflict between traditional management practices and good coaching traits.

Being directive versus being collaborative. Good managers give direction to the groups they manage, of course, and the willingness to exert leadership is often why they get promoted. But the most effective managers who are also effective coaches learn to be selective about giving direction. Rather than use their conversations as an opportunity to exert a strong influence, make recommendations, and provide unambiguous direction, they take a step back and try to draw out the views of their talented, experienced staff.

A desire to give advice or to aid in discovery. Direct reports frequently ask managers questions about how they should handle various issues or resolve specific problems. And managers are often promoted to their positions because they are exceptionally good at solving problems. So no one should be surprised to find that many are quick to give advice rather than taking time to help colleagues or direct reports discover the best solution from within themselves. The best coaches do a little of both.

An inclination to act as the expert or as an equal. We’ve all seen instances when the person with the most technical expertise has been promoted to a supervisory or managerial position. Organizations want leaders to understand their technology. So, naturally, when coaching others, some managers behave as if they possess far greater wisdom than those they coach. But in assuming the role of guru, the well-meaning manager may treat those they coach as a novice or even a child. Still, the excellent coach does not behave as a complete equal, with no special role, valued perspective, or responsibility in the conversation.

How effective is your approach to coaching? We invite you to take a coaching evaluation to see where you stand in comparison to outstanding business coaches. It will measure how strongly you prefer to behave collaboratively or dictatorially, how prone you are to giving advice or enabling other people to discover answers for themselves, and how apt you are to exert your expertise or treat everyone as equals. While certainly the best coaches adjust their style to the particular person and situation at hand, we have found that there are ideal ranges on the scores for all six of these dimensions.

Neuroscience is consistently reminding us that the brain is remarkably plastic. So even though we’ve found a strong correlation between certain traits you may not already possess and the ability to be an effective coach, we have found that people can learn to acquire them — if they are willing to work at it. What that takes is a willingness to step outside your comfort zone and behave in ways that may not be familiar. It’s just like learning to play golf or tennis. What feels awkward at first begins to be more comfortable in time.

Leaders can learn to be more collaborative as opposed to always being directive. They can learn the skill of helping people to discover solutions rather than always first offering advice. They can learn how satisfying it is to treat others with consummate respect and to recognize that in today’s workforce, it is not unusual to have employees who are more comfortable with the latest technology than their leaders are.

—Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman
Connect with Zenger Folkman on LinkedInTwitter, and Facebook.

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(This article first appeared in HBR)

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