Managers As Coaches Is No Longer Optional

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Aug 21, 2019

These days we keep hearing about the disengaged workforce and the struggle to retain talent. Coupled with that, millennials are a growing segment of employees (by 2025 they will represent 75% of the global workforce) who are more demanding when it comes to job satisfaction. They are looking for meaningful work, flexibility and autonomy, and connection and mentoring.

While some may roll their eyes, the truth is, it’s bringing about a much needed change in company culture and the way we have thought traditionally thought about employees. For the longest time we functioned from a top down approach that primarily benefited the employer. Job seekers were in the weaker position, waiting on companies to give them a much coveted “job for life,”

But nowadays the gig economy is booming, and entrepreneurship is flourishing. Many people decided to create their own success, no longer satisfied with what companies had to offer. This has forced employers to rethink how they position themselves, as well as what opportunities for career development they offer.

A shift towards people enablement

As part of this, we have seen HR move towards the adoption of people enablement shifting from a hierarchical, non-agile approach, to empowering individuals and teams to develop and improve faster.

This means HR and the C-suite need to see employees – their people – as their strongest and most valuable asset. One that is immensely resourceful and can bring a lot to the business if they are invested in.

On a company-wide level, this means HR’s role is shifting from a process-driven one, to becoming more of a strategic adviser to the C-suite on how to create a holistic and long-lasting employee experience. This also means that the onus of career development is being removed from HR and placed in employees’ hands.

To support this vision, managers will play an important role in becoming agents of change within their organizations, developing coaching skills to enable and support individual growth.

Managers’ role

In the hierarchical model of the past, managers followed a top-down approach. They were tasked with telling individuals what to do and leading teams to success, but little focus was put on career development. A look at the Cambridge dictionary definition of manager reveals this dry, business approach:

Noun: someone whose job is to control or organize someone or something, esp. a business

Add to that the traditional performance review process – a formality designed to support compensation discussions – and it becomes clear that managers were not expected to support professional development; this was HR’s role. At best, someone with more experience might have “taught you” how to do your job, which is not very empowering.

If HR is going to drive People Enablement, this means teaching managers a whole new set of skills, including coaching techniques.

Why coaching techniques?

The premise of coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance, rather than handing them solutions. When it comes to managers, this means they need to develop an approach to leading that combines a performance orientation with a responsibility for developing their team members to their fullest potential.

When done right, applying coaching skills in the workplace also supports greater employee engagement. According to a survey by HCI and the International Coach Federation, organizations with strong coaching cultures benefit from more highly engaged employees (62% in strong coaching cultures compared to 50% in other organizations).

It is often more motivating when you’re empowered to bring your expertise to a situation, rather than to be told what to do. However in a study undertaken by Professor Julia Milner of EDHEC,  research shows that most managers don’t understand what coaching is, yet alone know how to use these skills.

Management skills to master

How can companies and HR, better support managers to become coaches at work? The key is to focus on training certain leadership skills, enabling managers to bring coaching techniques into their role. According to Professor Milner’s research, there are nine leadership skills managers need to master:

  1. Listening
  2. Questioning
  3. Giving feedback
  4. Assisting with goal setting
  5. Showing empathy
  6. Letting the coachee arrive at their own solution
  7. Recognizing and pointing out strengths
  8. Providing structure
  9. Encouraging a solution-focused approach

One approach would be to send managers to take foundational coaching courses, or have a portion of their training allowance allocated to that. But not all of the skills above need to be taught under the specific umbrella of “coaching,” HR can also support with internal programs.

For example, if HR is developing a culture of feedback within the organization this is a perfect opportunity to make managers champions. Start by teaching them how to give feedback so they feel better equipped to have those conversations with their direct reports.

A culture of feedback also supports a culture of recognition. Ensure all employees are encouraged to share praise with one another, with managers once again acting as champions and role-models to others. These simple tactics should help increase the trust between managers & their direct reports, opening the path for conversations around professional development and supporting a transition into more of a coaching style of leadership.


Ultimately the key is a shift in mindset that needs to be driven by the C-suite, led by HR, and brought to life by managers. We need to believe that putting people first is the only sustainable way to grow business, and ensure companies stay relevant. And that by doing so we will be able to re-engage the contemporary workforce, empowering them to find renewed purpose in their roles and careers.

HR’s responsibility is to place increasing focus on the development of soft and people skills in the workplace. Ensure first-time managers have the proper training in place, recruit people with the soft-skills who will be able to drive this style of leadership, and re-consider who gets promoted into leadership roles based on their people skills, not just on competencies in their specific field of work.

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