The fallacy of the manager as a coach

Teaching - sChoosing the right tool for the job, and for you…

Early in my career, if your boss offered you coaching, it meant this was your last chance to stay in your job. For most, it was a “shape up or ship out” remedial intervention. And for some, it still carries that stigma.

Thankfully, most leaders now see how much greater potential it can release: bringing good performers to the level of the best, while taking the best to a whole new level; building better teams, and helping rising stars take on the mantle of leading them.

Coaching has become a byword for enlightened management.

But it’s also become a shorthand for a mythical panacea, the default style all managers should adopt, and a catch-all model for developing people.

It’s none of those things.

The main reason managers and leaders struggle to get results from coaching their people, is because it’s not coaching they’re after, nor is it what most leaders or managers are best equipped to provide. And yet, this seems to be what’s expected in this enlightened management world.

And thus, as “managers who should use coaching more”, we find ourselves responding to those seeking advice by asking how they would do it, how else, how confident on a scale of 1 to 10, and so on, whilst all the time, they know we know the “right” answer, and we know they know that we know.

It’s a corporate version of pin the tail on the donkey.

The problem is not that this isn’t a development opportunity – it is. The problem is we’re using the wrong tool. Coaching is just one tool in a box alongside teaching and mentoring, and someone who lacks the knowledge or skills to do a job, needs teaching, not coaching.

But here’s the thing: being good at a job doesn’t necessarily convert to being a good teacher. Most of us make most of our decisions intuitively, and not everyone has the capacity, let alone the patience, to pick apart their own process and turn it into a teachable framework. It is a learnable skill for managers, but it’s also why we have teachers and trainers.

When someone does have most of the knowledge and skills but lacks experience, you’re in mentoring territory: helping them to find their way, anticipate what comes next, avoid the bear traps you probably stepped in yourself, and helping them out of the ones they discover for themselves. This is the natural space for most managers, and this is where the best excel.

It’s only when someone has the knowledge, and the skills, and the experience, that coaching comes into its own. Coaching has to genuinely start from the perspective that the other person knows the content and the context far better than you, and the solutions they can generate will be far better than anything you could suggest. That’s why it uses so many questions.

If that’s genuinely you, brilliant. Coach away!

But the challenge for most “managers who should use coaching more” is that, usually, they understand context and content all too well. What they would personally do is nagging at the back of their head. And all the time they’re fighting a losing battle with the temptation to make suggestions, to “add value”, to point out ways things could be done better.

This is why most great managers are brilliant mentors, uneven teachers, and terrible coaches. And it’s why the outcome of most managers trying to coach their people is usually frustration for both parties. And once again, this is why we have coaches.

Developing your people is an absolute must in any organisation. But development comes in different flavours at different stages – each with different names, and crucially, with different tools and different skills.

So, call it what it is. Recognise your strengths and weaknesses. And employ the right tool for the job at hand.

Only then will you start releasing all that potential.

Leave a Reply