How Managers Can Become Effective Coaches of Employees

Coaching has become a bit of a buzzword these days. As a manager, are you actually “coaching” your employees? Or are you just having a “telling” conversation with them, with some advising and instructing thrown in? 

Managers and business leaders can become effective coaches, but it’s not something that someone just picks up intuitively. Although some may be more inclined to take a “coaching approach”, anyone truly interested in becoming “manager as coach” benefits from some solid training in the discipline. 

Let’s start with “What’s the definition of coaching?” 

Coaching is a process in which an experienced individual supports the growth and improvement of others through training and guidance. Managers who coach people cannot make another person committed to their own success. Nor can they unilaterally motivate that person to change. Rather, motivation that leads to commitment must be intrinsic — it must come from within that person — if they are to make a lasting positive change and reach their potential.

This is why we talk in terms of “coaching conversations”. Examples of coaching conversations are:

  • Counselling, to solving a work-related problem, 
  • Mentoring, to clarify organizational culture and help employees proactively manage their own career
  • Tutoring, to help employees increase their knowledge and skills 
  • Confronting performance problems by giving corrective feedback. 

Managers who want to be effective coaches need to learn the skills and a proven process in order to have these conversations in a way that leads to successful outcomes.

Effective coaches help employees solve problems on their own

One of the central goals of coaching is to empower employees to confidently and competently address the changing conditions of the work and tasks at hand. This means equipping them with the skills and tools they need in order to recognize emerging problems and opportunities, determine their cause, identify potential solutions, and effectively implement strategies without always looking for the input or guidance of a manager. 

In other words, coaching is centred around strengthening the capacity of employees to problem-solve on their own.

When managers are able to have problem-solving conversations with employees and/or team members, they don’t step in and tell them what to do or even rush them to make up their minds. Part of the process is to offer space and guidance in a manner that affirms the employee’s understanding of the situation. They ask clarifying questions so the employee can get to the root of the issue, provide direction and support for their ideas for solutions, and reinforce the next steps the employee is committed to taking.

Imagine the following example. See the difference between the two approaches.

Example one: Poor coaching for problem solving

Employee: I can’t seem to get the client to trust me. He keeps asking for Sally, the senior account manager, to advise her.

Manager as “boss”: You need to be more assertive. I learned that lesson many years ago. In the meantime, pass him on to someone more senior. We don’t want to lose the sale.

Example two: Good coaching for problem-solving: 

Employee: I can’t seem to get the client to trust me. He keeps asking for Sally, the senior account manager, to advise him.

Manager as coach: How long have you been working with the client? 

Employee: It’s been several months now. I’m a bit frustrated.

Manager as coach: Have they had opportunities to understand your skills and experience in order to build trust? Have you spoken with Sally about this?

Employee: No, I don’t think the client sees what I’m capable of. Maybe Sally and I could find a way to involve me more in front of the client.

Manager:  That’s a great idea, I’m sure Sally would be willing to help you have success with the client.  When would you have the opportunity to discuss this with her? How do you feel about some additional sales training ? 

The above is a simple example, but it demonstrates why it’s a challenge for most people when someone brings us a problem. We want to step in like an advice columnist, often inserting ourselves into the situation, i.e., “let me tell you how I used to handle these issues!” 

Effective managers help employees reach their potential 

If managers don’t give employees the opportunity to solve their own problems, employees can’t develop their skills and have influence on how they get their work done. Over time, they avoid doing the “wrong thing”, especially if they perceive their manager distrusts them. As a result, they can’t reach their full potential. This only creates direction seekers and takers, not critical problem solvers.

On the other hand, as employees learn, they develop both in skills and confidence. Performance improves, they are more satisfied and engaged, and organizations are more successful.  

Effective managers are patient 

A quick fix may lead to a temporary shift in behaviours, but it rarely results in long-term sustained change and superior performance. It takes patience to solve problems by helping others come up with a solution. Effective managers spend time with employees. Instead of a “once a year” performance review, they use an on-going coaching process for reviewing work with their employees, engage people in discussions about what’s getting in the way of performance, and most importantly, celebrate wins along the way. 

Effective managers are aware of their employees’ development needs

Through coaching, managers are constantly assessing their employees’ knowledge, skills, and confidence. By doing so, they can capitalize on their employee’s strengths, minimize weaknesses, and identify areas for improvement and development. This increases the likelihood the employee will succeed in their role.

When a specific job needs doing, managers know who is ready and able to take it on. They also know how to avoid inadvertently setting someone up for failure. If an employee is not detailed-orientation, the last thing you want is to put them in charge of an accounting function! 

Why managers need training in how to be effective coaches

Great manager-coaches know how and when to ask the right questions at the right time, when to give feedback, when to advise, what the person is motivated by, and how to confirm commitment. 

In addition, managers need to learn specific skills such as

  • Building commitment and collaboration among team members
  • Clarifying tasks and expectations, 
  • Opening channels of communication, and removing obstacles to productivity 
  • Communicating behaviours that facilitate successful problem-solving conversations while avoiding behaviours that hinder positive results from those conversations. 
  • Delegating well to give team members influence over their work.
  • Showing appropriate and specific appreciation.

All of the above require skills training in how to have coaching conversations in all four areas of coaching mentioned earlier: counselling, tutoring, mentoring, and problem solving. 

If you’re looking for practical management coaching skills training, there are many options. Make sure, however, they are teaching skills you can apply on the job immediately, not theory about the impact and importance of coaching employees. 

Coaching For Commitment is a course that is available in-person and online. Over 1800 managers have taken this course and successfully applied these skills to develop high-performing teams.

Coaching gets results. Research proves it. 

Becoming an effective coach is definitely worth it. Gallup started studying managers many years ago (including an analysis of 49,495 business units with 1.2 million employees across 22 organizations in seven industries and 45 countries) and found that great managers have completely different outcomes from adequate ones.

In summary, they’re not bosses. Rather, these managers are coaches. A key finding from the study showed that: “Coaches understand, leverage and get great satisfaction from deploying the unique talents and strengths of each employee. Workers who know and use their strengths average 10% to 19% increased sales and 14% to 29% increased profit, among other bottom-line results.”

It’s hard to argue with these kinds of results! 

About the Author

Rachelle Lee is President of Einblau & Associates, a full-service management consulting firm serving clients across North America. She specializes in leadership coaching and training, strengths-based assessments, and succession planning.

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