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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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Should line managers coach?


Just because you can, doesn't mean you should. Robin Hoyle trains his sights on line managers.
Whenever I write about line managers being crucially important to effective L&D (which I do, often) I fall into the trap of describing the role I want them to take as being a coach. A few recent experiences have caused me to question this terminology.
To understand my disquiet, I need to let you know what I mean by a coach. I'm not talking about someone who demonstrates what they want you to do and then supervises your first few efforts. Nothing wrong with 'sitting by Nellie' as it used to be called, but when about half the top selling training books on Amazon have the word coaching in the title, I'm guessing that all those pages are devoted to something other than simple functional coaching.
I'm also not talking about the kind of coaching that gets done by the perma-tanned external consultant in a black turtle neck. Whether they call themselves executive coaches, life coaches or personal facilitators, their therapy-lite role as cheer leader and spiritual guide is not quite what I'm on about either.
"Line managers have an absolute duty to support the development of their team members. But are they the right people to provide coaching?"
The type of coaching I'm talking about is the sort that uses one of the many coaching models designed to get an individual to look at their performance and aspirations and recognise what needs to happen to the former to enable the latter to be achieved. As last year's survey by the Henley Management School found, this kind of internally resourced coaching is set to rise across many organisations.
As many of my previous contributions to TrainingZone have made clear, line managers have an absolute duty to support the development of their team members. But are they the right people to provide coaching? A couple of my clients have a so-called coaching culture and the default coach for each individual is their line manager. To have someone else involved, a team member would need to be brave enough to effectively sack their team leader as coach. Brave, bordering on foolhardy.
This hints at my first challenge. To work in the classic coaching models requires a degree of openness which we shouldn't necessarily assume is always the case when talking to our boss. In many organisations, development discussions are tied up with performance appraisal and a whole other level of being economical with the actualité comes into play. In the performance appraisal/annual bonus discussion, will I really discuss my weaknesses openly and the difficulties that I've had during the year? Unlikely.
Another issue: What if the aspirations you want to discuss are about moving to another team, being promoted, perhaps replacing the current team leader or even going elsewhere for a broader range of experiences? I am sure that there are managers who think only of the good which the organisation can gain from realising the full potential of each of their team members before they inevitably move on and - if they're any good – will assist them to grow within the business as a testament to their leadership and selfless devotion to duty. I'm sure there are others as well. In fact, I have numerous anecdotal accounts from those whose coach actually thwarted their advancement because they were too valuable in their current role to the team, and the team leader's performance statistics.
One disgruntled coachee (alternative vocabulary welcome) told me that when she eventually left the organisation, the HR team let slip that they had been told by her line manager not to promote her because he didn't have the time to train her replacement. She was regularly coached by that same individual and she said he was good at developing the skills needed to do the current job, but whenever discussion turned to aspirations beyond her current role, the conversation was cut short and her confidence actively undermined through comments about ambition outstripping ability. 
Then there are the 'lead from the front' team leaders. The sort who think they are great people developers because they 'show them how it should be done'. With these characters, discussion tends to focus on 'why can't you be like me?' When the one-to-one conversation takes place it is often limited to delegating tasks and pointing out your shortcomings.
I had a boss like that once. His standard phrase used at all times when he made a 'helpful' pronouncement was "I'm surrounded by idiots!" Did I go to him to discuss areas of concern that, with guidance, I wanted to work through and improve upon? What do you think?
So line managers may not make the best coaches but do they still have a role in supporting L&D? Yes they do, and we should be expecting them to discuss development options with individuals. We should hold them to account for their team members taking up training programmes and using resources to develop their performance. We should expect them to follow up after training programmes – creating opportunities for the application of what has been learned.
Maybe the quality conversations which make up the effective coaching relationship should be delegated elsewhere to support an objective focus solely on the individual's aspirations. 
"I think the answer to my question "should line managers coach?" is no. But somebody else should."
Two examples of good practice spring to mind. In the contact centre industry, it is not uncommon for teams to have an experienced and seasoned member in the role of coach. They have scheduled time away from the phones specifically to support individuals in improving their performance but they are not the team leader. Appraisals and staff management are not part of their brief. This seems a good approach where staff need day-to-day help to do their job.
The second example comes from education. In some universities and colleges, those staff who are currently in front line teaching roles, but have been identified as potential faculty heads and managers in the future have access to senior personnel on a monthly basis to discuss non-functional development. Many other organisations use a similar approach, occasionally described as mentoring rather than coaching. But the models used – discussing where the individual wants to get to, where they are now, discussing options for how they can bridge the gap and setting goals for both formal and informal development – are applied alongside an exposure to management thinking from a different department. This objective exposure to the wider enterprise seems to embody a number of advantages which may be lost if the only coaching option rests with the line manager. Similarly, the senior member of staff learns valuable lessons about life at the sharp end.
I think the answer to my question "should line managers coach?" is no. But somebody else should. Be very clear if you take this into your organisation that this doesn't let team leaders off the hook for playing a full role in developing their people.

Robin is senior partner at Learnworks. He is a writer, trainer and consultant helping global businesses develop people and improve performance

Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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