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When Managers Become Coaches: A Guide for Modern Leaders

In 1938 Henry Ford famously said, “Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?” If we think about how we conduct business today in the age of information, there is a rise of people who principally use their brains rather than their hands to produce value. Coined ‘Knowledge Workers’, these people look for different guidance and management supports to years previous.
In my own experience, I was fortunate enough to take on the management responsibilities of a sizeable team in a busy, growing IT consulting company. It came with its fair share of challenges, but the learning was immense. On reflection and in line with the cultural changes outlined above, I always struggled and still do with the term manager.
Traditionally managers manage. As a generalisation, they give direction, support and answers to get a particular job or task completed on time. However, my experience led me down a different path. I invested time and energy in developing a coaching approach in my role rather than a traditional managing one, and I’ve felt the benefits. Here are some of the things that helped me frame this:

Less Knowing, More Understanding

Management is a busy role and when busy, we form habits. I know for myself working in consultancy, I used to jump to solution mode with my people. I learned to become aware of this and to adapt my approach centred around really listening, showing empathy and asking good questions. In doing so, you can really begin to understand your people’s needs, challenges and ambitions.
From the outset in our regular catch-ups, I would always be explicit in outlining my approach with my people. If you get this right, you should be actively listening and asking questions for the majority of the time you meet. Such an approach allowed them to arrive at their solutions to problems, to gain confidence and to articulate frustrations or ambitions they had in their work.

Develop a Framework

Providing structure and developing a framework was something I benefited from early on. At the start of each year, I would meet with my team leaders and conduct a focused session relating to their own career goals and development. For this, I used a visualisation technique I learned through working with a leadership coach as part of my personal development previously. Here’s how it worked:
It is used in an interactive session where the top of a table is drawn on a whiteboard. With each person, you then ask them to think about ambitious stretch goals and define how success or the outcome would look. This frames what goes on the table top or what it represents. You then look at the four supporting pillars or legs that will keep the table upright and ensure its stability and structure. Defining what each of the legs was would lead to clearly defined actions or supporting development needs. The emphasis here was on balancing priorities and actions as without one of the legs in place; the overall goal would never be realised. This could take a couple of sessions to get right, but I found it set out the precise developmental needs and led to some wonderful personal goals, and each person took ownership of them.

Ongoing Support

No more than the table needed the legs to fulfil its role, your people need to be supported in achieving theirs. I used to hold regular 1:1s with each of my team leaders where our conversation was centred around how things were going for them, their teams, and what significant obstacles we needed to overcome. I used to encourage our 1:1s were forward-looking and not spent focused on what happened in the past.

Be the Signpost

If you look at any of the great coaches, whether it be in sports or another discipline, they surround themselves with a great team. Great coaches lead people, remove blocks and have the right team at hand with depth and expertise in different areas where needed. They never try to be an expert in every discipline. I used to spend quite a bit of time mapping out my wider team members strengths and identifying coaching and mentoring opportunities. I would act as a signpost to bring these people together. At all times it’s essential to set clear expectations with everyone involved and ensure the person who has agreed to be a mentor is comfortable in doing so and sees it also as a development opportunity for themselves.

Reflection and Refinement

As I was learning in my approach, I made space for reflecting after each session on how things went. Make some time – ideally right after your conversations when it is still clear in your mind – to think about the following questions:

  • Did I respond in the best way?
    • For my people?
    • For my company?
    • For their overall performance
  • What could I do differently and better next time?
It sounds like a lot of additional work, but a few minutes of reflection on the effectiveness of your approach and asking your people about their experience will go a long way to improving things for everyone. I used to start the next 1:1 by asking for their feedback on the last session, for instance.

Lead by Example

I talk about consistency a lot in leadership, but it’s a trait I look for and also try to uphold in how I approach my work. In the context of coaching others, it is imperative. If you agree to follow-up on pressing matters for your people, do it. If you’ve planned 1:1’s in the calendar, don’t reschedule. Be organised and prepared, and if you are genuinely overstretched and struggling to close out on actions for your people, be honest.

I recall several great developmental conversations with my team leaders. Some had ambitious career plans and goals that would ultimately involve great people leaving and investments required that didn’t align with what our company was doing. At all times, I would support their aspirations. I would always encourage them to go on that journey and that whatever we could do to support that, we would. I’d also be realistic about where that started and ended.

When it comes to developing my leadership style, I’m still learning in this capacity. Starting a business has brought a whole new set of challenges and opportunities to refine and adapt my approach. There are times, of course, as a manager where you have to manage, but I encourage you to develop coaching skills. Over time, I noticed how my team leads developed their skills to help find solutions, make decisions and came to me less frequently for answers. When they did, it was with different questions and requests that were well framed, showing they valued my input, time and expertise. I truly believe businesses will succeed or fail based on how well they can empower and trust their people and team leaders play a pivotal role in this. I have found adopting the more coach like method accelerates progression and leads to a better working environment for everyone involved.
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