What happens when managers become coaches?

This is a guest article by Marion Hewitt, a coach and trainer who works with individuals and businesses to empower everyone to become their best selves. She draws on over 20 years’ experience in HR and training. Find out more about Marion on her website.

Traditionally managers manage. As a generalization, they give answers, direction, and support to get a job completed.

Managers have to deal with multiple demands and a list of deadlines. When someone asks a question, it is often easier to just answer it. This is quick and clear, takes it off our to-do list, and meets our innate desire to help. However, this leadership style also removes the need for the person to think and find solutions for themselves.

So, what happens when managers step back and consider a coaching approach to people management?

Executive coaching pioneer Sir John Whitmore defines coaching as “unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”

The benefits of a coaching approach to management

With coaching, there is a belief that the person has the resources to find the best answers for themselves. If the answer is one they have found for themselves, they are more likely to be motivated and committed to deliver or achieve it.

In my experience of working with managers, becoming more of a coach brings a multitude of benefits to them:

  • The personal satisfaction of seeing their team develop
  • Improved team engagement, motivation, and overall performance
  • More time to get on with their own role as the team members work with greater autonomy – which in return leads to higher intrinsic motivation
  • It’s easier – you don’t feel the responsibility of always needing to have the answers

Coaching enables team members to clearly identify where they want to get to and discover ways to get there. This may be about a set objective, a career or personal goal, or a way to work differently in response to feedback received.

A 2018 joint study by the Human Capital Institute and the International Coaching Federation found that a strong coaching culture correlated with most of the indicators of a high performing organization. For example, internal mobility, employee engagement, and even customer satisfaction seem to benefit from a coaching approach.

So how can you start to develop a coaching approach?

Moving to a coaching approach happens one conversation at a time.

The key skills for effective coaching are great listening and powerful questioning. It is also important to build a good rapport – the intangible sense of connection with someone. Having this will create a safe environment to be open and honest in answering questions.

A lot of what we do is based on habits. A great starting point is to become aware of our habits and how they might not always lead to the best way of working – for both ourselves and our colleagues.

Therefore, the first thing you need to do is stop.

When team members ask you something, take a moment to really listen to the question – not just the words but the underlying message.

  • Are they actually needing an answer from you?
  • Are they seeking permission or approval?
  • Have they tried to think for themselves?
  • Have they considered options and would value your expertise?

Reflect on this. Take a moment. Then follow these three simple steps.

1. Identify the outcome you both want from the conversation

Pausing to consider what the desired outcome is will enable you to decide the most appropriate response for the specific situation and not follow a habitual response of just answering.

Ask yourself:

  • Is it an urgent deadline-driven question?
  • Do they need information that only you can supply?
  • Is it a developmental opportunity for the person?

2. Decide which response will give this outcome

How you choose to answer will be specific to each situation. Without realizing, you will use additional information to help you decide. For example, if employees are new to the job, there are likely to be gaps in their knowledge. If they are experienced, they are more likely to have some facts they could draw upon to inform an answer.

Therefore, you might:

  • Just answer and move forward. This is appropriate if it is urgent or information that only you can access.
  • Adopt a coaching approach. This will help them work out the answer themselves. It doesn’t need to be in the moment; you could respond by arranging to discuss it at a later time. You could also use this response if you feel they are asking a question because they lack confidence or they don’t feel empowered to decide for themselves. Using a coaching approach to understand the reason for this could help build their confidence for the future.

3. Take time to reflect afterward – even when time is short

Learning is not just about doing something differently but also about reflecting afterward as to how that has worked. Carve out some time – ideally right after the conversation when it is still clear in your mind – to think about the following questions:

  • Did I respond in the best way?
    • For me?
    • For the employee?
    • For overall performance?
  • What could I do differently and better next time?

It sounds like a tedious thing, but a few minutes of reflecting on the effectiveness of your approach and asking your team members about their experience will go a long way. And if you really don’t have time to reflect after the conversation, do it in preparation for your next 1:1 meeting with the team member.


I am not saying that you can always use a coaching approach. As a manager, you might tell, inform, advise, guide, or coach, depending on the situation and the person’s experience.

But I am confident if you develop coaching skills and use them more often, over time your team will develop skills to help find their best solution and will come to you with different questions – valuing the input of your experience and expertise. This gives you more time to focus on what you need to achieve and deliver, so the outcome is a win for both parties.