Does a leader really have to be a coach?

It sounds soft, but getting the most out of your employees is just good business.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 27 Mar 2017

It used to be so easy. You wanted something done, so you simply ordered your underlings to have it on your desk by 5pm. Problem solved. Alas, office life isn’t quite so straightforward in the 21st century. Now it’s all first names and employee engagement and teamwork exercises, where a manager isn’t a commanding officer any more, but a leader, and where a leader is apparently also a coach.  

Coaching at work sounds like some ghastly fad, a step up from being the office cheerleader, which is unfortunate. All it really means is helping people get the best out of themselves, which has of course been an essential part of good leadership since time immemorial.

The emphasis on leadership as coaching is fairly recent, but there are good reasons for that. Flatter structures, remote working and less a deferential culture all play a role. ‘The command and control approach is just not suitable because of the way in which teams come together now and the way people work,’ says Nick Shaw, an occupational psychologist and managing director of CEB’s UK talent assessment and HR business. ‘Our research shows that leaders have teams that are about 50% larger than they were six years ago.’

On the one hand, then, there isn’t the time to micromanage your employees (the average number of direct reports is now 6, though increasingly they’re spread across different locations). On the other, businesses are finally waking up to the substantial body of evidence suggesting that empowering employees gets far better results than shouting at them like a deranged drill sergeant.

‘You have to engage people and get into their motivational core, and the best way of doing that is empowering by the coaching methodology,’ says Nigel Nicholson, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School.

You coach, then, for the discretionary effort, for superior information flows, for all those untapped insights and ideas from those closest to the organisation’s problems. You don’t do it just because you’re feeling warm and fuzzy on the inside that day. It’s simply good business.    

How do you actually coach someone?

Coaching is the art of the question, says Nicholson. A good coach will gently tease the best answer out of someone, rather than imposing their own ideas. ‘Asking questions is the least developed skill in management. People seem to think being a leader is standing on a podium making speeches, but it’s also what are the sharp questions to ask someone on how they’re thinking.’

Once you know how someone thinks about a problem, you’re then able to figure out whether you’re pushing them too hard or not enough, or what they need to help them do better. You can then share your own insights in the spirit of advice, not command, if appropriate. Coaching essentially enables you to tailor your management style to different people.

This is not to say that you are only limited to the softly softly approach. Coaching is essentially a management tool, but it’s not your only one. ‘There will need to be times when you’re more assertive – these are the things we agreed, I haven’t seen them done, why is that? In building high performance teams, leaders need to be able to recognise which times that style is needed, and when you can afford to take more time and help them understand the causes of why something isn’t working,’ says Shaw.

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The trick to knowing when to use which? Getting to know your employees, how they think, how they work, who they work with and why. Setting aside that time is doubly important, Shaw says, when your team isn’t always in the same place at the same time.

‘Bring other data sources to bear. Find out who the stakeholders are on that project they’re working on, drop them a quick call and say you’ve got a catch up with them, is there anything you’d like to pass on. If you can’t see it for yourself, you need invest the time in building a picture of how that person works and the impact they’ve had,’ says Shaw.

It can also be very useful to normalise the giving of feedback more generally, essentially by encouraging peer-to-peer coaching. This doesn’t have to be huddled round a campfire on some awful away day. It could be five minutes after a meeting for the team to give someone constructive criticism on their presentation, or more formal 360 degree processes.

‘People might feel uncomfortable to start with, but with perseverance and role modelling by the leader, you can cultivate that type of feedback culture,’ says Shaw.

Coaching is a management tool that won’t come easily to everyone, but everyone can do it with a bit of practice, and almost invariably that would be a good thing. Not every situation calls for a coaching approach, but at the very least learning that there are different ways to get the best out of people is good for self-awareness, a quality without which any leader will eventually struggle. 


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