Managers: Want Better ROI? Manage Less, Coach More

Whether you read about business trends in HBR, listen to TED talks, or keep current via seminars, you’re probably awash in recommendations for increasing effectiveness. One idea with tremendous staying power is “the manager as coach.” Why does this concept stay evergreen as other trends ebb and flow? Because it serves both manager and employee so well.


What Differentiates Coaching From ...

A couple of things to get out of the way up front: Why coaching .... vs. advising, consulting, mentoring, training, and good old-fashioned managing? Coaching has myriad definitions (as do some of these other terms, of course), but the simplest way to start defining coaching arises from where the focus falls. As this recent Forbes comparison shows: “Managing is all about telling, directing, authority, immediate needs, and a specific outcome. Coaching involves exploring, facilitating, partnership, long-term improvement, and many possible outcomes.”

The focus shift is more than directive to open-ended. Just as the training field evolved from “training” to “learning,” the manager vs. coach nomenclature hints at a similarly changed emphasis. Old-style training focused on the content the trainer wanted to deliver; learning moved the focus to what the “trainees” needed—and wanted—to know. A seemingly minor shift that has had huge ramifications.

(Of course having good coaching yourself is a prerequisite to offering it to your people. it’s hard to evangelize about something you’ve never experienced! In fact, Forbes Coaches Council member, Elle Ingalls, says, “leading by example will change the paradigm of ‘you need assistance, but I'm just fine,’ to ‘I have benefited, and now I want you to experience this.’") 

6 Steps to Start Shifting from Managing to Coaching

But enough about me ... what do YOU think of me?

1. The old joke aside, coaching means focusing on your employee or direct report. The emphasis is on their needs, interests, and issues—rather than your goals as their boss (even if yours are legitimate company product launch goals, say, or your own personal performance metrics). What do they need? What are they worried about? How do they tend to troubleshoot or solve problems?

2. You can best learn the answers to these questions if you ask don’t tell. This is sometimes hard for  engineering managers to grasp. “But my direct reports have to know what I need them to do, ” we hear them say. Fair enough. But surely, there is time to solicit as well as specify information and goals? As Monique Vancour notes in a HBR article, “as a manager, you have a high level of expertise that you’re used to sharing, often in a directive manner. This is fine when you’re clarifying action steps for a project you’re leading or when people come to you asking for advice. But in a coaching conversation, it’s essential to restrain your impulse” to hold forth.

What’s a good way to get started? Bersin & Associates recommend the following open-ended questions:

  • How can I help you? 
  • Walk me through your thought process?
  • What other approaches might you take next time?
  • How are your emotions influencing your perception of the situation?  

(Engineers aren't known for being overly emotional, but try substituting “beliefs,” "expectations," or "assumptions" for the word "emotions." And remember that just because you don't display emotions, doesn't mean you don't have them—or that they can't affect your work.)

3. Practice active listening. Once you’ve asked, get yourself (and your agenda) out of the way so you can truly hear concerns and questions. Monique Vancour stresses that you, “succeed as a coach by helping your team members articulate their goals and challenges and find their own answers. This is how people clarify their priorities and devise strategies that resonate with what they care about most and that they will be committed to putting into action.”

4. Encourage employees to supply their own solutions. As coach and employee learn the ropes, both may default to familiar patterns and roles. But given that the whole point of coaching is to elicit answers from employees, not supply them yourself, Tanya Ezekiel says, “When someone asks you what to do, ask them what they think will work. Ask how they came to that conclusion. ... Show them that you value their input, and empower them to make decisions and be ready to defend them. The Socratic method, with its interactive dialogue of asking questions to prompt solutions, is tailor-made for engineers, who already tend to problem-solve via testing assumptions. And employees are clearly more likely to implement and remain enthusiastic about a solution they’ve arrived at themselves.

5. Build in accountability. The best conversations and conclusions in the world cannot survive a lack of follow-up. However informal your coaching structure—whether a casual ad hoc conversation or a weekly routine—ensure it includes a way for employees to keep their commitments. It may be as simple as a deadline for “homework assignments” or inquiring about previous actions at the beginning of the next coaching session.

6. Enjoy the fact that coaching is “contagious” in the best possible way. Tanya Ezekiel says, “over time, you’ll find that people will begin to bring you solutions instead of problems, and they’ll encourage their teams to do the same.” As employees learn to internalize your queries, and adopt your approach to troubleshooting, they’ll start to ‘run their own diagnostics.’ Once the coaching approach has become second nature, they may help inculcate the coaching process in your organization via an informal ‘each one, teach one’ process.  

Over time, you’ll find that people will begin to bring you solutions instead of problems, and they’ll encourage their teams to do the same.
— Tanya Ezekiel

The Pay-Off

Facilitating employee growth means each employee can develop into his or her best work self, which usually means increased self-awareness and improved problem-solving capabilities, at a minimum. Magda Mook, CEO and ED of the International Coach Federation (ICF), says ICF's research with the Human Capital Institute “has shown that organizations with strong coaching cultures consistently report higher employee engagement and revenue than peer organizations without strong coaching cultures.” Noting that low employee engagement costs companies millions, she adds that the ROI on coaching “is significant and long lasting.”

Just how significant can that ROI be? In a MetrixGlobal LLC study, “companies including Booz Allen Hamilton received an average return of $7.90 for every $1 invested in executive coaching.”



A future blog-post will help you learn the organizational steps to transitioning your department or division from a management mentality to a coaching culture, and build the coaching business case for your own upper management.