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The Rough Notes Company Inc.



September 24
10:40 2020

Management by Coaching

By Kimberly Paterson, CEC


The key is knowing when it works and when it doesn’t

Today’s complex and rapidly changing environment is dramatically raising the expectations for employees at all levels of the organization—especially managers. Long gone are the days when technical expertise, basic people skills, and command and control leadership were enough to get the job done. These times demand resilient, adaptable employees with critical thinking skills, problem-solving capabilities, and the ability to work collaboratively across departments. Growing these talents takes a specific management style. That’s why leaders are increasingly seeing the value of a coaching management style.

Coaching is about growing and developing talent and maximizing each employee’s potential. In the past decade, the use of coaching as a management style has increased exponentially in organizations of all sizes and across a broad range of industries. A recent survey of over 500 of the largest U.S. companies revealed that 81% of respondents say they lead people and grow talent through coaching.

Leaders often earn their positions because they’re proven problem solvers. Many find it difficult to put their “fixer” skills aside and facilitate others in reaching their own solutions.

In a coaching model, managers avoid telling and then selling people on what they need to do. They go beyond passing on the core skills required to get the job done and take the time to identify and develop potential. They teach their direct reports to think for themselves and give them the confidence and latitude to solve problems and take on new challenges. It is one thing to aspire to that kind of coaching, but it’s another to make it happen as an everyday practice throughout an organization’s many layers.

At most firms, the gap between aspiration and practice is wide.

The gap between knowing and doing

Consider Chandler, a regional sales leader for his organization. He believes in the effectiveness of coaching. He’s read a few books on the topic and has seen it work firsthand for himself and two of his salespeople.

Chandler knows what he’s supposed to do when he talks with one of his sales professionals about a performance issue: “Ask and listen,” don’t “tell and sell.” But Chandler struggles because, deep down inside, he’s already made up his mind about what the employee’s problem is and how to solve it. During the conversation, Chandler asks a series of questions designed to get the sales professional to come to the same conclusion.

Let’s see how the conversation unfolds. Chandler begins with an open-ended question: “Your new business numbers are really down this quarter; what’s going on?” The sales professional reacts defensively and starts complaining about the competitiveness of the firm’s markets. Chandler believes the problem is that the sales professional isn’t making as many new business calls as she used to make.

Frustrated, he asks another leading question: “What are you doing differently this quarter than the previous three quarters?” This invariably elicits another complaint about the markets that have been used for her last four new business proposals. When he still doesn’t get the response he wants, Chandler gets more direct, but the sales professional still fails to give the hoped-for answer.

Eventually, feeling that the conversation is going nowhere, Chandler switches into “tell” mode to get his message across. At the end of the conversation, he feels like he made his point. In reality, he’s learned nothing about why the sales professional is off target, and she has learned nothing about how she might get back on track.

That’s not coaching—and not surprisingly, it doesn’t play out well. Chandler violates two core concepts of coaching. Effective coaches understand that the individual usually has the answer to his or her own problems. What the employee may need is the coach’s help in surfacing the solution.

Comfortable in his role as problem solver, Chandler assumes he knows the best way forward before he even has a conversation. Good coaching depends on active listening. That means being curious and listening with an open mind, truly hearing what’s being said and not being said, and showing that you believe in the individual and his/her abilities.

The gap between knowing and doing is wide. Leaders often earn their positions because they’re proven problem solvers. Many find it difficult to put their “fixer” skills aside and facilitate others in reaching their own solutions. But the reality is, when you tell someone what to do and how to do it, it unleashes little energy in the person, it destroys initiative, and it may even depress motivation. It also assumes that the manager knows things that the employee doesn’t—a risky assumption in a complex and continually changing work environment.

Most important, when leaders keep doing what they have always excelled at (solving other people’s problems), it does not build individual or organizational capacity.

A common reason leaders cite for not using coaching as often as they’d like to is lack of time. Coaching requires an amount of patience and time leaders don’t always have. That’s why it’s important to know when to use a coaching approach.

When coaching doesn’t make sense

Coaching isn’t always the answer. The truth is, when used incorrectly, it can do more harm than good. Here are five situations when it’s best to avoid coaching:

  1. The task is about transferring specific skills or knowledge. If the issue at hand is related to a lack of knowledge, skills, or abilities in a particular area, asking questions to help the individual find the answer is not helpful. When the task is a straightforward transfer of information, or there are set ways in which things need to be done, a direct approach is more efficient and effective.
  2. Fast action is required. Avoid coaching when you’re in damage control mode or when you need your team or the individual to respond quickly.
  3. The individual isn’t ready. People have to be ready and open to learning. If the employee doesn’t trust the manager or feel open to a conversation, coaching is not going to be effective. Managers who are new to coaching or lack training often waste valuable time and resources trying to coach an employee who is not ready. It is also essential to recognize that people have the right not to change. They just need to understand the consequences.
  4. The issue is about character. If the behavior or situation you’re attempting to correct is related to a character flaw, like untrustworthiness or spitefulness, don’t waste your time. You can’t coach character, and this person probably shouldn’t be part of your team.
  5. A mental health issue. If someone has a mental health challenge that is negatively affecting performance, he or she should be referred to a mental health professional. Your attempts at coaching may end up badly.

Seven tips for more effective coaching

For managers who want to do more coaching or become more effective, here are seven core concepts to keep in mind:

  1. Make sure the relationship is solid. Trust is the foundation of coaching. If the person you’re attempting to coach doesn’t feel connected to you in some way, all the good intentions and training in the world won’t make you effective. The relationship you develop matters more than anything else.
  2. Be mindful of your timing. Coaching takes more time and concentration than simply telling someone what to do. Avoid coaching when you or the employee is distracted or pressed for time.
  3. Ask thought-provoking questions. The goal is to help the individual unlock previously hidden issues, see new options, and gain fresh insights. Questions are the coach’s primary tool. The questions you ask and how you ask them make the difference between a coaching conversation that feels like an interrogation versus a valuable learning experience.
    Good coaching questions give someone who’s busy and competent the space in which to step back and do a self-examination. The right question can help the employee see his or her actions from a different perspective or envision a new solution to an old problem. Use “what,” “how,” “who,” “where,” and “when” questions. Stay away from “why”; it can feel confrontational and judgmental and lead the person to feel defensive.
  4. Be curious. View the coaching conversation as a learning experience. Be genuinely curious about the employee’s experience and perspective. People can tell if you’re just asking a question because it’s what you’re “supposed” to do. And you won’t get to that one question and moment of self-discovery if you’re just going through the motions.
  5. Listen. The way you listen makes a huge difference in the quality of information you receive. A person’s words don’t really tell the full story. Many times, people themselves aren’t clear on what they are thinking or feeling. Even when they are clear in their minds, they may have difficulty putting it into words.
    Good listeners look beyond the words and pay close attention to verbal and visual cues. They listen carefully for tone, including clues like the speaker’s level of confidence or commitment and the particular words the person emphasizes. They look for dissonance between the speaker’s words and his or her body language.
    The better listener you are, the more likely people are to open up to you. When a person feels listened to, he or she feels valued and respected. Rapport improves, and the level of trust increases.
  6. Don’t be sidetracked by the symptom. Often the stated problem is not the issue. Rather, it’s the result of the real issue. To move forward, the coaching process needs to help the employee peel away the layers and get to the heart of what’s standing in the way.
  7. Define a clear next step. Create the transition from talk to action. End the conversation with the employee agreeing to a next step and a time frame for when it will happen. Gauge the employee’s commitment to taking action by asking a question like: “On a scale of one to ten, how likely is it that you will do this?” If the employee responds with an eight or higher, he or she probably is motivated enough to follow through. If the answer is seven or less, follow-through is less likely. In that case, you’ll need to cycle back through the earlier steps of the process to arrive at a solution the employee is more likely to act on.

A tool every 21st century manager needs

While coaching isn’t a silver bullet for every situation, it’s a tool that should be in every manager’s toolbox today. Google’s “Project Oxygen” is proof positive. In an effort to identify what makes a great manager, the company analyzed 10,000 bits of information, including performance reviews, surveys, and nominations for top manager awards and recognition. When the dust settled, Google was left with eight unique qualities. The trait that rose to the top as the most important was “Is a good coach.”

If you’re looking to build your coaching skills, start by getting a good coach. Whether it’s someone in your organization or someone from the outside, there’s no better way to build your coaching skills than to allow yourself to be coached.

The author

Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM ( CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property and casualty insurance companies, agencies, and brokers. She can be reached at Follow Kimberly on and

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