Why being a coach is a good investment for managers

“Coaching” is a word that is thrown around all the time in the business world.  The perspective is, generally, that “coaching” is a management style that is more welcome by employees, than, for example, telling/showing them what to do.  I’d like to explore this concept a bit more, because, the answer is not all that straightforward.  What we will explain is why coaching for performance is a great investment for managers.

First, we need to clarify what we are discussing with the term “coaching,” specifically, what is “performance coaching?”  In most management situations we are not talking about a process known as “executive coaching.”  This is generally either a remedial or developmental intervention to assist a high potential, relatively senior manager develop needed interpersonal behaviors.  This is a very specific kind of coaching, more akin to psychology, and very often delivered by trained psychologists who specialize in this discipline.  Nor are we talking about “career coaching.”  This is an important need for many employees, but one that the person’s manager may not be well suited to deliver.  Career coaching is similar to career counseling, in which the best direction for a person’s career is determined.  Like with executive coaching, often assessment instruments are used to provide guidance to the employee about his/her skills, interests and so forth.  If the employee is not in a position they enjoy, but performs well, it may be difficult for the manager to have the objective perspective that career coaching demands.  Career coaching is also best delivered through specialists.  So, there are specialized forms of coaching that are not something that a manager would routinely be expected to deliver. 

Then, what are we talking about?  Something that faces every manager every day – is “performance coaching.”  I think this is generally what is meant when the word “coaching” is used in business. Here the issue for the manager is to determine what the employee needs in order to work to his/her full potential.  This is a basic task of management.  It is the manager’s role to work with the employee to determine this, and to make sure the employee is adequately prepared to succeed in their job.

The term, “coaching,” has been adopted into the business world from sports.  Let’s look at how the word coaching is used there.  First of all, the operational manager of the team is actually called “coach.”  And, I would maintain that “performance coaching” in the manner described above is exactly the role that the coach fulfills for his/her team.  In the sports world it is clear that athletes need to both learn and drill on the basic skills, which is achieved through telling and showing approaches.  Once the basics are mastered, the athlete is also then “coached” in how to improve their performance of the basic skill, how to interpret it and how to adapt the skill in different situations.  Multiple managerial styles are used.  The “coaching style” – giving support and advice, is used alongside the basic tell/show training.  The coaches job is to integrate these styles, based on what the player needs.  Noone would suggest that a  sports coach substitute inspirational lectures for basic training, or subtle hints for an honest and direct assessment of a problem – the point is that multiple styles are necessary to develop the full potential of even the most talented player.  Read the books written by the great coaches — how to do this is what they are talking about.

In the business world, somehow,  a “coaching” style of interaction with employees (vs. “telling” or “showing”) has come to be seen as a panacea for all modes of management interaction with employees, which it is not.  This happens when we confuse the idea of being a coach – who appropriately uses different styles and approaches - with a managerial style of advice and support, often termed “coaching.”   Situational leadership  is a methodology that has been developed to guide managers through the thought process of what style of interaction an employee needs from them.  To summarize, the most effective approach is influenced both by the nature of the task and the maturity level of the employee with respect to meeting the needs of the situation at hand.  A true “coach” understands how to select the best style, and needs to work at it to get this right.  I would maintain there is no more important work that a manager can do than learning how to be an effective coach.

 It is my experience that the reason coaching by managers is not more widespread is that many managers do not understand how coaching works, and are often not trained in how to perform coaching effectively. They rightly perceive that the “coaching style” is not a panacea, and they confuse this with becoming an effective coach who uses multiple styles.  Therefore they do not coach, because they lack confidence that they will be successful in improving the performance of their employees with this approach. Most people, especially under performance pressure, resist using approaches that they are not confident how to do, or that they will work. This is why so much money is wasted on lessons to improve the golf swing, for example ;-) .  Just like it can feel better when you are standing on the tee to let your old swing rip, it can feel better to a manager to use the managerial style that is most comfortable to them, rather than focusing on what the employee really needs to perform best.

I sometimes hear the argument that coaching employees is a waste of time, that what works best is to tell people what is expected of them as clearly as possible and let them figure it out.  Why open the door to a dialogue with an employee when what matters, in the end, is just getting the job done, they argue.  The idea that you waste time improving someone’s performance through coaching makes no sense to me. If through this process the manager learns that the ability and/or desire of the employee is limiting his/her success in their current role, that is a valuable realization for both. In these cases, the win-win position is to have an honest dialogue with the employee about the situation and face up to whatever the issues are. If they cannot be resolved so that the employee can be successful in their current role, it is again a win-win situation to find a way for them to move on to something more suited to their situation and bring in someone who can excel. Conversely, if the employee improves, through your coaching, to the point that they outgrow the potential of their current job, you have the opportunity to move them to a more impactful role, grow your organization to match their growth, or, let them move on to something that will be more fulfilling. I guarantee that if the latter happens, you will have a friend and ally for life in that person who has benefitted from your coaching skills.

About Wendy Vittori

Wendy Vittori is Strategy Consultant. With over 30 years of executive business leadership experience, Wendy works with dynamic small and mid-size organizations to help them improve organization performance and business results. She is a Certified Master Practitioner for MBTI® and conducts MBTI individual and team assessments and workshops.
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