Manager as Coach: Can you really be agenda free?

Posted June 21, 2011 in Career Management, Latest News & Insights

One of the best kept secrets for any leader is having an external Coach.  I continue to be amazed by the numbers of leaders who still don’t hire Coaches for themselves and/or think of it as some “remedial” service that should only be tapped into for people who suck.  To the contrary, in my experience, the people who actually benefit the most from coaching are the people who are already good at what they do, self-aware and self-motivated.   I don’t believe in “fix it” coaching.  Recently, I’ve been thinking the whole “Manager as Coach” concept and whether it’s inherently impossible for managers to be “Coaches”.

Before I get started, I have to set out how I define a “big C” Coach.  To me, a Coach is a person who has the right questions… not all the right answers.  A Coach’s sole purpose is to help you be the best that you can be, but they can’t (and shouldn’t) do the work for you.  They probably don’t know enough about what you do to be able to offer concrete advice (if you need advice, work with a mentor or a “small C” coach).  A Coach champions YOUR agenda… not your organizations (that’s probably a dirty little secret that many coaches wouldn’t want exposed, given that most organizations foot the bill).  The reality being that if you get better at what you do, your organization will reap the benefits and rewards ten-fold.  And, if it’s not the right job for you, then you should get of the way so that the organization can hire someone who’s perfect for the job.

So, that being said, in my experience most organizations don’t want to hire “big C” Coaches.  Most organizations are looking for “little c” coaches who will help drive the organization’s agenda, not the individuals.  And, in many cases, these coaches are brought in to manage performance issues that internal managers appear ill-equipped to handle.

Performance coaching like this should rarely be outsourced… every manager needs to be able to have those types of coaching discussions that improve performance.  It’s our jobs to train, develop and support people to drive the organization’s goals.  However, more and more, we also need some “Big C” Coaching skills to ask the right questions and make sure that those organizational goals are actually in line with the needs and desires of the individual.  If they’re not, that’s when the wheels of your own talent management plans start to fall off.

For example…  your star employee tells you that they don’t know if they aspire to the role that you have been tracking them towards.  This is a huge problem for you because your own “next move” is dependent on having a successor ready to step up and fill your shoes.  This person is your only candidate.

Given that scenario, as their manager, can you firmly place a “Coach” hat on your head and listen without judgment as they explore career options with you?  Can you remain neutral as they explain why being a VP of your division may not line up with their own ambitions? (Key words here being may not.)

I think that’s really tough to do.  It’s certainly a great credit to you if your reports are willing to have such candid conversations about their career struggles, but once that seed of doubt about their ambitions has been planted, can managers step back and not move into a defensive position?  Although you want to help your employee figure out what they really want to be when they grow up, you also have to think about the health of your division and team.

Striking a balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the organization is something that every manager as (big C) Coach has to be able to do.  But it’s certainly not easy.  And, keeping our own personal agenda’s in check is probably one of the biggest pitfalls that we have to be aware of in order to be successful.

In today’s talent-driven economy, your best performers are going to expect these types of candid, partnership-based conversations.  I really think it requires a new mindset towards our roles as Coaches and one that we all need to figure out how to navigate in order to engage and retain our keepers.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

Happy leading!


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