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Embracing manager-as-coach: leading in a rapidly changing world

Once upon a time, managers were promoted because they demonstrated the technical skills required by the team members they were to manage. Their primary role was to transfer the skills needed to complete known and discrete tasks and roles. They progressed because they had the answers to the questions, and they communicated through clear instructions, directions and feedback.

But now, with rapid change and complexity, nobody has all the answers. More often and more quickly, we are asked to perform new job tasks and functions, adopt new tools and practices and perform to changing standards. In response, organisations have to find an appropriate management style that focuses on giving support and guidance rather than instructions, on accelerating an employee’s ability to learn and innovate rather than consistently performing to set standards. Managers and leaders at every level need a different mindset from the one they may have internalised through traditional perceptions of leading and managing formed through study and work.

It really is a whole new world, and past management practices are no longer enough.

The Manager-as-Coach Model

Just imagine your work team is a competitive sports squad or an orchestra. Think about how you would lead them to perform at their best. What would you do?

Would you:

  • Clarify each person’s reason for being in the team?
  • Analyse individual performance and provide constructive feedback and training when needed?
  • Allocate roles to individual players based on their strengths and training to get the best outcome for the whole team?
  • Ensure the individuals are inspired and have what they need to perform at their very best?
  • Ensure that they have the physical and mental wellness to perform?
  • Build team spirit and relationships so players trust each other during the game?
  • Provide a plan (a score or a game plan) so individuals have clear direction and know how and when to act?
  • Guide and encourage the team while they’re performing?
  • Reward and applaud the team and individuals after the game or performance?

In essence, that’s the manager-as-coach model. Our team members are less like cogs in a machine and more like players in a sports team or an orchestra. Hence, the leader will focus on individuals and the team to build a cohesive whole out of disparate parts and achieve the desired outcome.

Our research indicates that managers who invest in building a new set of leadership skills — ones that promote performance, job satisfaction, resilience, and stress management — are more effective and successful in today's dynamic workplace.(1)

Why now?

Think about how the workplace has evolved since you first started working. For many of us older workers,  the change has been seismic, but even over the last decade, it has been significant. As organisations have become more competitive and complex, there has been a profound shift in how work is done. For example:

  • Our work tools are entirely new – social media, collaboration platforms, AI.
  • We have a workday rather than a workplace following the emergence of remote, WFA (working from anywhere) and hybrid working.
  • The focus in most workplaces is collaboration rather than competition and teams rather than individuals, allowing us to respond quickly to the market and keep up to date with customer expectations.
  • There are fewer levels in organisations and more versatile team structures to address issues as they arise.
  • Employee experience and well-being are critical for attracting and retaining staff in a volatile world.
  • Our colleagues are diverse. Different experiences, locations, and often up to four generations co-exist in one workplace.

A star employee now is one who:

  • Can quickly (and repeatedly) learn and adopt new technologies and practices.
  • Work with diverse others for insights, knowledge and outcomes.
  • Communicate complex information and ideas.
  • Be innovative while being productive.
  • Focus on the customer and deliver value consistently while working with colleagues to achieve the organisation’s strategic goals.
  • Respond with agility, resilience and grit as needed.

Manager vs Manager-as-Coach

The manager-as-coach aims to help their team do its best by building team spirit and designing performance based on individual strengths and the interplay between the team members while encouraging everyone to reach their full potential.

They act as a facilitator, helping their employees identify their solutions to problems and providing guidance and feedback as needed. This approach encourages individuals to take ownership of their work and develop the skills and confidence they need to succeed.

The differences between the traditional manager and manager-as-coach include:
Traditional ManagerManager-as-Coach
Has the answersAsks questions and explores
Focuses on short-term resultsFocuses on long-term growth
Directs employeesGuides and supports employees
Supervises progressMonitors progress
CorrectsGives constructive and positive feedback
Is reactiveIs proactive
Focuses on the work personaFocuses on the whole person

How?

Coaching can often seem more challenging than managing. Many managers see it as time-consuming, compared with just giving directions and answering questions. It can also feel uncomfortable to those who are used to a more directive approach, creating a fear that their authority is diminished. Coaching requires strong interpersonal skills and confidence. You need to be able to connect with a diverse range of people and give them the power to ask and challenge. That requires a good sense of self on the part of the manager.

The manager-as-coach needs strong communication skills and the ability to listen actively and empathetically (even if it challenges your authority). It’s also critical to respond constructively while creating a supportive and collaborative work environment that encourages employees to take risks and learn from their mistakes.

With good tips, tools and processes – and much practice – your role as a manager will be more rewarding. However, it is not the only approach. Sometimes, even a manager-as-coach still needs to be directive to provide the answer or make a solo decision.

So, the first challenge is to match the management style to the situation. For example, when is it appropriate to just tell the employee what to do rather than help them arrive at the answer themselves?

When you decide a conversation is appropriate, how do you frame it to be productive and proper? That is, how do you:

  1. Find the questions that matter to the team member?
  2. Encourage the team member to give voice to the actual things that concern them?
  3. Listen and respond to ensure the conversation is meaningful?
  4. Build concrete actions or outcomes from the conversation?

These tools will help you develop your manager-as-coach skills.

Manager-as-Coach: Framework for Development

For Me (The Individual)

  • What upsets me?
  • What soothes me?
  • What are my strengths?
  • What are my weaknesses?
  • What do I value?
  • What are my ambitions?
  • What makes me laugh?
  • What makes me sad?

For Us (The Team)

  • What makes us special?
  • What inspires us?
  • How can we each perform at our best?
  • How can we make sure everyone feels that they belong?
  • How can we ensure a sense of safety?
  • How can we manage feedback equitably?

For Us (The Organisation)

  • How can we live our organisation’s values?
  • How can we align to strategic goals?
  • How can we work productively across the organisation’s teams and divisions?
  • How can we innovate and adapt?
  • How can we attract and retain a high-performing workforce?
  • How can we use evidence and data productively?

Manager-as-Coach: Key Skills and Attributes

Conversation Skills
[Read: Question Tools for Authentic Conversations]

  • Ask the right questions.
  • Listen deeply.
  • Ask good questions.
  • Plan real action.

Collaboration Skills
[Learn more: Working Collaboratively]

  • Confidence – Autonomy, competency, sense of progress
  • Connectedness – belonging, trust, engagement
  • Manage yourself as a team leader.

Networking Skills

  • Types of networks –  personal, operational, strategic
  • Plan your network.
  • Maintain your network.
  • Tools and tips.

Strategic Mindset
[Explore: Strategic Mindset]

  • Open strategy.
  • Understanding the external environment.
  • Understanding the internal environment
  • Apply tools to reframe thinking and generate innovative but realistic goals.

Next steps

FLOW Conversation Cue Cards

Stimulate meaningful conversations with colleagues, team members and coachees.

Because conversations at work don’t always flow easily. 

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