One of the most important and sought-after skills in the modern workplace is the ability to coach others.
It’s one thing to identify coaching as an important capacity — it’s another thing altogether to develop that capacity. The reality is that many HR departments are not practiced in developing the coaching capacity in managers. What’s more, most managers do not think of themselves as coaches to begin with. They see coaching as a different job, usually done by someone outside the company.
To expand one’s coaching capacity, it makes sense to begin with a basic question: What exactly does it mean to be a coach, as distinct from a manager? And how can those two competencies complement one another?
Realizing Outcomes Versus Empowering Individuals
The difference between managing and coaching stems from what each is out to achieve. In simple terms, management is about ensuring the job gets done. Managing begins with the question: What outcome are we out to achieve, and how can I ensure we will get there?
A manager gets paid to assume accountability for the overall performance of the team. To that end, managers pull from a range of tools in their managerial toolkit: They coordinate resources (both human and financial), they create structure, they provide clarity and they apply incentives (as well as consequences).
Coaching, on the other hand, is about getting people to be their best selves. Coaching begins with the question: What obstacles stand in the way of this individual becoming a peak performer, and how might we remove those obstacles by increasing the individual’s awareness?
This difference isn’t merely theoretical — it leads to all sorts of differences in practice, which we will look at now.
Solving the Problem Versus Developing Problem-Solving
Managers are more likely to jump in to fix a problem themselves when the people they manage encounter a breakdown. After all, when the outcome is imperiled, a manager often prioritizes that it get done and done right. “I’ll just do it myself,” is often the most expedient and least risky strategy.
A coach would never jump in to “just do it myself.” For a coach, the focus isn’t merely diagnosing and fixing the problem — it’s about developing the individual to solve the problem themselves.
A coach would get curious about what’s getting in the way for the individual performer. How are they observing themselves? (E.g., “I am not capable.”) How are they observing the situation? (E.g., “It can’t be done.”) What mood are they in? (“I’m overwhelmed and frustrated right now.”) Where are they abdicating power and responsibility? ( E.g., “If it weren’t for Mark, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”) What assumptions are they banking on? ( E.g., “Next quarter is going to be different; it has to be.”) A manager might feel the need to sidestep these questions to get the job done — a coach would almost certainly be concerned with exploring them further.
Ultimately, a coach focuses on keeping the responsibility for results with the performer.
Listening for Results Versus Potential
Another example of how managers and coaches would go about a situation differently is the kind of listening they bring to interactions.
Managers listen for results. Are we tracking on this project? Is this individual performing in a way that will yield the result we need, and, if not, what intervention might we stage?
As a reflection of this, managers often listen for what can go wrong. Again, their primary concern is to hold the overall goal in mind and to ensure that the team reaches that goal. To that end, an effective strategy is to constantly assess risk and to prepare for contingencies.
Coaches listen for potential, and what gaps, if closed, could make a difference. They start with the assumption that the performer is capable and can cause the result. Are you bringing your best self or your limited self? Do you have energy? Are you waiting for someone to solve your problems? What is the next productive action you can take? Are you able to take that action or is something blocking you? Are you connected with a larger purpose and stakeholder interests? What assessments do you have about this situation?
As a reflection of this, coaches often listen for what can go right. They very much operate in the world of growth mindset. They assume that the individual performer is capable and can fully accomplish their job with a little help in navigating their environment and relationships.
Managing is Assumed, Coaching Requires Permission
Generally speaking, one does not need to request permission in order to manage someone. It is assumed that a manager will check in with their direct reports to ensure they are hitting targets. It’s their job after all. Management is not personal in nature. It’s in the domain of tasks, projects and deadlines.
Coaching, on the other hand, can be personal in nature, which requires a different level of relationship. While management is relatively neat, coaching can get messy. Coaching involves “going deep” — it requires that someone let a coach in to see how they are observing, how they are feeling, what mood they are in and what’s getting in their way.
Therefore, you need permission to coach someone, and that permission is often granted only in situations where the individual trusts the coach. A major consideration for the coach, then, is earning and sustaining that trust. For example, a coach would be careful to ensure that any vulnerable moments shared in a coaching session were not subsequently used against the individual.
You Don’t Need Managing or Coaching — You Need Both
The truth of the matter is, when it comes to managing and coaching, it simply isn’t an either/or proposition. It isn’t enough to just have managing skills or just having coaching skills. Rather, the modern-day leader needs to develop their range to employ both skills when appropriate. It’s about having the sensitivity to diagnose a given situation and decide what is required in that moment.
In the beginning, managers looking to incorporate coaching into their leadership often find it challenging to make space for within their day-to-day interactions. When under pressure to get it all done, the time and energy needed to slow down and coach doesn’t always seem worthwhile. In the end, though, it’s precisely this coaching capacity that can bring out the best in their people and propel their team to better (and more efficient) results in the long term.