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The Manager as Coach

Table, chairs, blue sky

The Business Coaching series is now available to download as a free ebook Creative Management for Creative Teams.

Following on from my post about the External business coach, this one looks at the the role a manager can play as a coach for her team.

Most people think of an external consultant when they hear the phrase ‘business coach’. Yet managers can have a powerful influence on their teams and the organisation as a whole when they adopt a coaching style of management.

As a way of managing people, coaching differs from the traditional corporate ‘command and control’ approach in the following ways:

  • collaborating instead of controlling
  • delegating more responsibility
  • talking less, listening more
  • giving fewer orders, asking more questions
  • giving specific feedback instead of making judgements

This is not simply a case of ‘being nicer’ to people – delegated responsibility brings pressure to perform and coaching managers maintain a rigorous focus on goals and results.

The role of the manager-coach is very different to that of an external business coach. Whereas an external coach has the luxury of a laser-like focus on the coachee and his development and performance, the manager-coach needs to balance the needs of the coachee, other team members and the organisation as a whole.

Some people argue that it is impossible for a manager to act as a coach, given her position of authority over her team. While authority is an important issue, it need not be an insurmountable obstacle – as long as there is genuine trust and respect in the working relationship. It is also a fact that coaching frequently takes place between peers and even upwards on occasion, with some enlightened bosses happy to be coached by their team members.

In his book Coaching for Performance John Whitmore raises the issue of managerial responsibility and authority, and asks ‘Can the manager, therefore, be a coach at all?’:

Yes, but it demands the highest qualities of that manager: empathy, integrity and detachment, as well as a willingness, in most cases, to adopt a fundamentally different approach to his staff… he may even have to cope with initial resistance from some of his staff, suspicious of any departure from traditional management. (p.16)

Advantages of manager-coaches

In-depth knowledge of people and organisation
However well an external coach listens and observes, she does not have the same level of exposure to the organisation and its people as a manager, so will never have the same depth of knowledge about them.

Longer term relationships

Because managers spend more time with their team members, they have the opportunity to get to know them better and build a solid foundation of mutual trust and respect, which is essential to an effective coaching relationship.

More opportunities for influence

Managers’ contact with staff is not confined to formal business coaching sessions – they are constantly interacting with their team members and have many opportunities to influence them.

So what’s in it for the manager?

It’s probably fairly obvious that coaching benefits the people being coached – but what about the manager? If you are a busy manager, can you afford the time and effort required, when you already have plenty of other demands to cope with?

I would argue that coaching is not a case of ‘giving up’ your time and energy to helping others achieve their goals and solve their problems – it will also benefit you in the following ways:

A more committed team

Empowerment is a powerful motivator. When you make a genuine effort to include people in setting their own goals, making decisions and implement their own ideas, they are likely to become more committed and focused at work.

Better team performance

Because of its dual functions of managing performance and developing people, coaching leads to better individual and collective performance. The ongoing learning process means that the upward curve can get steeper over time.

Better working relationships

Good business coaching promotes trust and collaboration, and leads to better working relationships. It doesn’t mean you become everyone’s best friend, but it does mean working relationships can get easier and more enjoyable (or in some cases at least less stressful) for all concerned.

Better ideas

When you get into the habit of asking questions to draw out people’s creativity, you may be pleasantly surprised at the quality of ideas your people start generating. After a while, you may not even need to ask every time – they will get into the habit of bringing you suggestions.

Better information

If you are genuinely coaching people in a collaborative, open spirit, people will feel more confident in coming to you with vital information – including telling you the ‘bad news’ while there is still time to do something about it.

Investing time to gain time

There is no doubt that in the short term it’s often quicker to ‘take charge’ and give orders instead of coaching. That’s fine for ‘fire fighting’, but in the long term, the more you direct, the more people will rely on you for directions, and the more of your time will be swallowed up by it. If you invest time in coaching however, over time your people will require less and less direction, and you will be confident in delegating more and more to them – freeing up your time for the tasks only you can accomplish.

Later in this series I write about The Business Impact of Coaching and how it benefits coachees and the organisation as well as managers.

Which is better – an internal or external coach?

Neither. If we compare the advantages of using an external business coach and having managers act as coaches, we can see that they are complementary:

External business coach Internal manager-coach
A fresh perspective In-depth knowledge of the organisation and people
Strong focus on the individual Balancing individual and team needs
Effective short-term interventions Longer-term relationships

The decision on which type of coach to use, or whether to use a combination of the two, will depend on the needs of the individual, team and organisation.

‘Coaching the coach’

One very common way for external and internal coaches to work together, is when a coaching consultant is brought in to ‘coach the coach’ – i.e. to help the manager develop her coaching skills. This can be a very effective (and time-efficient) way of helping managers develop their skills, particularly with experienced managers who know the basics and want to refine their skills or deal with more complex people management challenges.

Another form of ‘coaching the coach’ is when managers coach each other on developing their coaching skills. Coaching has the biggest impact on an organisation when it ‘cascades’ through the management ranks, with senior managers coaching juniors to be better coaches, who in turn coach their juniors (and sometimes vice-versa). At this point, coaching behaviours become the norm – part of ‘the way we do things round here’.

Next in this series – Coaching and Leadership


  1. AMEN! I never viewed management as anything but as a coach. If you aren’t creating the next stars in the organisation, your just the warden.

  2. Thanks Rosanne, I like the ‘warden’ too – I might borrow that (with attribution, of course).