No Image Available


Read more from TrainingZone

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

Are two heads better than one? Your boss as a coach


Multiple bossesDo managers make good coaches? The answer from the experts is unhelpfully yes, no or sometimes, depending on who you ask. So why the discrepancy in views? Louise Druce investigates.

Managers are in an ideal position to teach staff the tricks of the trade but does this make them good coaches? The experts are divided, except on the fact that if bosses do decide to go down this route, it's not as simple as telling people what to do or how to think – in fact, it's quite the opposite.

Coaching uses techniques such as observation, talking, listening, questioning and reflecting to get the best out of staff and allow them to solve situations by thinking for themselves. This means the relationship has to be honest and open, something that might be difficult if your employer is in charge of the agenda. Could you really imagine telling your boss that you don't like they way they handle staff or that you can't stand your clients?

"Are all good managers effective coaches? I suspect so. Does that make all effective coaches good managers? Not unless you can sit on a one-legged stool!"

Andrew Wood, managing director, Trainer Bubble

"A psychological contract exists between a manager and a member of their team, and it's quite different to the contract that exists between a coach and a learner," says Philip Ferrar, principal consultant at training and development consultancy Momenta. "The problem is two-way trust. The employee can't completely trust their manager because the manager has a different agenda that isn't just about the individual. They have to look after the business and there are times when that will come to the fore."

It's a u-turn from Ferrar's way of thinking a few years ago when he worked in the financial services arena. He happily admits he was all for bosses being coaches and used to train and coach coaches himself. However, serious doubts about its true effectiveness started to surface as he delved into research for a master's degree dissertation in 2006 on the subject.

What quickly became evident was although there was plenty of information available from a management point of view, there was a worrying lack in the coaching sphere of good, existing research as to its success to draw on. As he started to talk to managers, learners and professional coaches who had experienced both points of view, and compared their findings with the results of the management research, it was apparent that coaching conducted by managers was working well in some respects but regularly hitting the buffers.

"There is a tendency in management towards the short-term imperative and getting things done here and now. The coach doesn't have that," says Ferrar. "A coach has the luxury of not setting goals, the individual sets them." He also identified problems around coaching being viewed as an extension of management, rather than as a positive tool in its own right, and a 'set up to fail' syndrome among managers. "The manager can create groups within the team," Ferrar explains. "If a person is doing well or perceived to be favoured by the boss, they might be seen as in the 'in' group. If they are being coached because their performance isn't good, you might be in the 'out' group. A person can be set up to fail when the boss is actually trying to help them."

David Pardey, senior manager, policy and research at the Institute of Leadership, also spots a potential conflict between a boss with a directive style of management and the non-directive nature of coaching. Even if organisations are more collaborative in their approach, should things go wrong in the company so people feel under threat or there are greater risks, Pardey says the first management instinct is to adopt the directive approach. "When times are hard you need to encourage people to deal with the situation. A more directive approach and a movement away from coaching closes down peoples' creativity and motivation," he cautions. You may be pouring oil onto the fire."

Mind over matter

However, Carol Wilson, head of accreditation at the Association for Coaching and managing director of consultancy Performance Coach Training, argues it's possible for managers to be coaches all the time, even when being directive. It comes down to really understanding what coaching means. "There's a misunderstanding with managers that go on two-day coaching courses that coaching is about using certain techniques such as listening and questioning, and if you learn them you will be a great leader," she says. "That's where the gap appears.

"If you had £2,000 and were told to buy yourself a coaching course, would you ask your boss to do it?"

Philip Ferrar, principle consultant, Momenta

"Coaching is a mindset. It's a way of behaving towards people which involves treating people with respect and listening to them so you can put yourself in their shoes, taking the approach of whatever would best develop that person, move them forward and build that person's self-belief and confidence so they can improve their performance and discover their strengths inside."

Wilson believes part of being a good coach is being a good role model, something she has experienced first-hand when employed at Virgin. She also says it helps bosses get back in touch with the organisation. "When I started working, I hadn't worked in a company before so I did the job in the way Richard Branson did, which I had absorbed by osmosis, and asked people about their jobs to tap into their knowledge.

"We learn from imitating others - even when we learned to walk and talk. In the workforce, we unconsciously and consciously imitate the boss and take on their traits, even if we don't like the way they behave. We look to our bosses to see what's expected of us and how we are supposed to perform."

Based on this idea, all three experts do agree that in order to be an effective coach, managers need to set model behaviour. "If the boss isn't performing well, either in terms of managing people or in doing their own job, that's bound to have a detrimental effect on the people underneath," says Wilson.

In particular, she highlights the fact that a disproportionate amount of middle managers get sent on coaching courses when often it is people higher up who don't go on the course that need to be fixed. In contrast, in companies where the CEO has put his or herself on the line, have seen "instant, fast and remarkable" effects.

"Coaching managers can only be effective if the senior managers are effective themselves," Pardey adds. "Managers need to model the behaviour they want people to introduce. If they are not doing it themselves, it is then very hard to persuade people it is supposed to be what they are doing."

It is like a domino effect. A middle manager who takes on coaching responsibilities also has ethical issues to think about, especially as the learner's main problem may well be that same line manager. Pardey says there needs to be a mechanism whereby they can discuss problems openly but in confidence with a third party, such as HR.

So do managers make good coaches? The jury is still out and will be for a long time to come unless bosses re-think approaches to coaching. Even then, the dual role could become a single, inner battle. "I'm not saying managers can't be effective coaches but by occupying the role of manager you will experience difficulties, sometimes serious ones," says Ferrar. "It's not something within their control; it's not a skill set. It's to do with the two roles being different and they do not always sit well together."

ElephantsWhat makes a good coach?

* A coach is able to work alongside individuals to improve their performance at work, regardless of whether they could do that work themselves.

* They help people to see opportunities for improvement and practical ways forward for themselves.

* A coach uses a blend of observation, talking, listening, questioning and reflecting back to the learner.

* During the conversation, the coach encourages the learner to identify goals and objectives, rise to challenges, overcome obstacles and move to action.

* When things don't go well, the coach supports the learner and helps them to reflect on their learning from the experience.

* When things go well, they help the learner to pinpoint what worked well so they can do it again.

Andrew Wood, managing director of business consultancy Trainer Bubble


Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!