Are you either a manager or a coach, or can you be both manager and coach?

One of the positives that came out of the first Covid lockdown in 2020 for me was that I had the opportunity to join Google’s Mastery Faculty of virtual facilitators, to deliver training in coaching skills to managers. It’s been a fantastic opportunity to work in depth with managers on how they can use a coaching style with their teams – and to watch them discover the benefits to their teams, to themselves and to the business.

In this article, I cover some of the issues in establishing a coaching culture. It’s not just about providing the training and practice in the skills of coaching – though that is essential. It’s also a mindset shift about the role of a manager and there are some mental barriers to overcome.  Read on to find out what Google managers, and their coachees, think about coaching.

What is Coaching

Coaching is not training or telling someone what to do. It is helping them, by asking open questions, to work out the answers for themselves. It is:

“unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them learn rather than teaching them” (Gallwey)
Helping someone “to learn to solve a problem or do a task better than would otherwise have been done” (Megginson and Boydell)

Why we need to Coach

Being able to coach has become an essential skill for people managers.

People expect more from work than just doing what the boss says. They expect to grow professionally and personally. And indeed, in bringing their whole selves to work, they contribute more and feel more fulfilled. This is especially true of millennials (born 1981-1996), who want their managers to be more supportive and “empathic”, someone who is concerned about their well-being . Similarly, Gen Z, (born since 1997) report a desire for careers with a positive impact on society and the environment, and they want fulfilment from their work.

The pandemic has resulted in more hybrid working and it is estimated that 46% of the workforce will work partly from home , making it more difficult for managers to engage and inspire people individually or create team spirit. In this environment, a coaching style often works better than a directing style.

In summary, coaching is a powerful means to have a positive impact on the performance and engagement of your team.

The barriers and how to overcome them – in their own words

In the Google training programme, managers do two video practices of coaching which they submit to their facilitator for feedback, they get feedback from their coachees, and they attend two live workshops to do more practice. We discuss some of the barriers to coaching and how to make it work in practice.

What follows is a summary of the most common concerns managers had and how their perspectives shifted through the experience of the programme.

“I don’t have time to coach”

There is a perception that coaching takes longer than telling someone what to do. During the programme, managers experience first-hand how much you can achieve in a 10-15 minute coaching session.  Coachees were also surprised at how much can be achieved and commented that:

  • The 10 minutes of coaching was more valuable than their previous long discussions
  • A quick brainstorming session was super-helpful

They also discover other benefits of spending that time coaching.

• People take responsibility and are more committed to their actions
• Coaching builds their confidence in their ability to solve problems – they learn and grow.
• It develops the talent pool for future positions

I often quote Lao Tzu, “give a person to fish and you feed them for a day; teach a person to fish and you feed them for life”. This is what you are doing when you coach.  Google managers commented that:

  • It was important for people to think for themselves
  • Coaching gives autonomy and makes it more likely that people will take action
  • People were energised after the coaching session

In the long run it saves you time if people have the confidence and competence to address more issues without your involvement.

“I don’t know when to coach and when to direct”

During the workshops, we discuss the spectrum of possible behaviours between “directing” people on what to do, through giving advice and suggestions, to “coaching” through asking open questions.

Each time a member of staff comes to you with a problem, you choose – consciously or not – where you want to be on that spectrum. There are some situations – in a crisis or emergency, or with new team members – when you might need to direct; in other situations – such as with complex problems or where there is not one obvious answer – coaching is more effective.

During a discussion, you can move along the spectrum. You might start at the coaching end and later move to share ideas or give advice, or even give instruction. But your coachee will have had the opportunity to consider the issue and possible solutions in more depth – they will have learned. What is important is that you as the manager have the self-awareness and self-control to decide which style will work best for the situation. Managers recognised that:

  • It is a deliberate choice to move to a coaching style
  • Active listening is difficult and takes willpower

We also discuss whether a coaching session needs to be set up explicitly, perhaps as part of a 121 or whether it can occur on an impromptu basis. My suggestion is usually whatever works best for you and your team. Personally, I think of coaching as something you do whenever someone comes to you with a problem.

“They expect me to tell them what to do”

This is a tough one – it reflects the traditional view that if you are a manager, you should know everything about the jobs of the people working for you. This is completely unrealistic. It is also inefficient. The job of a manager is to capture the collective intelligence of the team, not know everything themselves.

However, it can be tricky when someone comes to you and explicitly asks for your advice – you may feel you are letting them down or not living up to your role if you don’t tell them what to do. There are ways around this – you can simply say something like “Hmm, sounds like an interesting problem, let’s explore it together”, and then start with some open questions.

Google managers acknowledged that:

  • They had to suppress the urge to jump to solving the problem for their coachees
  • When they tell people what to do, they are in their comfort zone
  • They had to accept the challenge to their self-esteem of not knowing the answer themselves
  • Asking the coachees questions helps them to think it through

Coachees also commented on the value of being asked questions rather than being given solutions.  It gave them the opportunity to:

  • Reconsider the problem and explore various solutions
  • Think outside the box, work out what’s been going wrong, and what can be done differently

“They might come up with the wrong answer”

I am not sure there is ever a completely wrong answer to a problem, though there may be better answers. Again, as a manager you have a choice of whether you allow the person to implement their ideas, or whether you advise (or tell) them to act differently. Remember that a coaching session is a conversation – and at times you may add your own guidance. As an external coach, I sometimes offer suggestions.  Taking a coaching approach creates space to have a discussion.  It is also important to narrow the issue and the goal down to what can be influenced.

“I don’t feel comfortable asking questions”

Managers new to coaching may find the discipline of asking mainly open questions uncomfortable. This is where practice, and following a structure like the GROW model (Whitmore), helps a lot.  In practice, the Google managers found that:

  • The GROW model is helpful for structuring and focusing the conversation
  • It helps to deconstruct a problem
  • Asking open questions has a powerful impact

And while the manager may feel uncomfortable, the person being coached rarely finds it a problem to be asked open questions. Coachees commented that:

  • It gave them the opportunity to organise their thoughts
  • It gave them room to think and reflect
  • Speaking about the issue made it much more tangible and therefore solvable
  • The questions helped them to proactively find the solution

If you had doubts about the value of coaching to your organisation, I hope that this powerful testimony from the managers and their teams who participated in the programme will dispel them.  You can be both manager and coach!

Look out for my next blog, where I will cover the GROW model, provide some generic questions, discuss the main pitfalls for managers when using it, and how to overcome them.

See my latest book, Motivation: The Ultimate Guide to Leading Your Team, for more tips and tools to on how to coach and give feedback to build the self-belief and the competence of your team members.