It’s difficult to be a good manager if you’re not a good coach. Strong coaches unlock an individual’s potential by challenging and encouraging them, providing space to take risks and learn from mistakes, and setting an ever-higher bar for success. As such, they help people go from good to great, often in both their professional and personal lives. However, learning to be a good coach is not easy. In fact, it’s quite a challenge – a reality I have experienced firsthand.

Last year, I had the pleasure of participating in a study conducted by a professional coaching company: they were exploring how well individuals with an interest in coaching, but no prior training or experience, could coach after taking an online course. Armed with knowledge and materials from ten hours of training, I was sent on my way to complete multiple 4-month coaching engagements.

Coaching individuals with varying roles and degrees of experience was extremely valuable – I was able to gain an understanding of the foundational aspects of effective coaching and, alternatively, what could keep coaching from being successful.

Given that many of Vantage’s clients are people managers, these coaching takeaways are framed around the manager-employee coaching relationship. These insights can be utilized to optimize a coaching relationship with a current or future employee, best develop someone and help them reach their potential, and/or begin to develop coaching skills as an emerging leader – all to the benefit of the individual and the business.

Quality over Quantity

There’s a sweet spot when it comes to the right cadence of development conversations. In launching my coaching engagements, I quickly realized that my clients wanted to meet very regularly. At the outset, I was thrilled, thinking it was a good sign of what the engagement would entail.

However, as the weeks went on, I started to realize something: people need time to reflect and put in the necessary effort toward making real changes. When you meet with your employees too often, the meetings themselves become the effort toward change, instead of giving people time to put learnings into real action. Further, meeting too frequently for guidance can lead to employees becoming dependent on their manager or coach, which is not the recipe for success.

As a good people manager and coach, the goal should be to enable employees to confidently tackle their problems and overcome obstacles with guidance, but not constant interaction.

The Value of a Good Question

The best coaches shy away from asking yes/no questions. Close-ended questions can stifle conversation, discourage exploration, and effectively keep you from getting to the heart of an issue.

Instead of asking “Would you be upset if _____ happened?” ask “How would you handle it if _____ happened?” There are a lot of close-ended questions that can be turned into great open-ended questions if you take the time to think through the purpose of your conversation with your employee.

Questions should not be fluff or filler; they should be intentional and get at something meaningful. To help you get started, consider the Harvard Business Review article on questions that good coaches ask.

Avoid Becoming an Advice-Giver

Although incredibly tempting, the role of the coach is not to simply offer advice. This was an area that I struggled with because there were instances when one of my coachees would start the session off exasperated and on the verge of tears – and my instinctive impulse was to make it better for them, like I would for a friend. However, providing coaching looks a lot different than acting as a friend, and giving straightforward advice is discouraged, for multiple reasons.

As previously mentioned, the goal should be getting direct reports to a place where they are empowered to solve their own problems and answer their own questions. Giving them flat-out advice counteracts this integral aspect of coaching. Additionally, we tend to give advice based on our own experiences and knowledge that we have accumulated (our reality), and we cannot assume that our reality will apply to someone else’s.

Of course, I’m not suggesting you leave your employees high and dry when they ask for input on how to handle a particular situation. In fact, offering one carefully considered piece of advice per coaching meeting that adds value and is based on data or research insights can be incredibly useful. However, in general, instead of directly offering solutions, try reframing and redirecting the question back to the employee. Ask, “What potential solutions have you thought of so far?” and see where that leads you. If they haven’t thought of any, reframe again and ask, “What advice would you give to a friend if they were in your situation?” This question gives individuals the opportunity to look at things from more of an outside perspective and can help bring some clarity to a difficult situation.

Setting Boundaries

Clear boundaries keep the relationship focused on the right topics. If a manager is a good coach, it is not unlikely that her direct reports will come to her for insight, and it is easy to slip into the role of friend if you don’t set appropriate boundaries. One example of this would be refraining from sharing excessive information about your personal life with your direct reports.

The temptation to act in such a way that your direct reports see you as a friend is not uncommon, but letting the coaching relationship turn into a friendship can be detrimental to the employee’s development and the business. When direct reports become friends, it is more difficult to hold them accountable and ensure they are delivering the agreed-upon results, from both a personal developmental standpoint and the business side.

Instead of falling into friend territory yourself, seek to foster a friendly, familial culture in your organization. In this way, you are facilitating a supportive environment that encourages relationship-building among employees without compromising your boundaries as a manager.

Look for Patterns of Behavior

Identifying behavioral themes can be a powerful mechanism for motivating change. It’s likely that employees will bring different pressing issues to meetings that they are looking for help working through. However, over time you may start to see patterns in the kinds of issues that they bring to you.

If you are starting out with a development plan informed by an assessment (which we highly recommend), either individual or 360, you will have a head start in identifying your employee’s recurring pain points. Handling these pain points by coaching through specific issues may be helpful to your employee in the short term, but helping them build the skills to handle future issues without needing you as a sounding board is going to benefit them much more in the long run.

This is in line with the “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” philosophy that many of us are familiar with. To put it in context, let’s say you have an employee who needs to speak to large groups of people on a regular basis, but is extremely nervous every time and regularly brings it up in coaching meetings. Instead of addressing the public speaking nerves on a case-by-case basis, get to the heart of the issue and attempt to address that. Whether it’s a lack of courage or the fear of not coming across as competent, focusing on the source of the discomfort and getting to the core of the issue is going to be much more beneficial than handling individual situations as they arise.

Go Beyond the Surface Issue

Get to the root causes of issues. If your employee has something that is bothering them, actively go deeper than surface level with them to understand why. For example, if they are upset because they feel like a member of their team is micromanaging them, what is it about that act of micromanaging that is making them upset? Is it simply perceived as a nuisance, or might they feel a lack of autonomy?

In general, think critically about your coaching relationships with your employees. Make sure you don’t simply settle for your employee’s first answer to a question or your own first assumption about a situation. Ask questions that reflect an active listening style and allow you to go deeper. The best managers who coach leave no stone unturned.

Final Thoughts

Being a good coach and manager is an ongoing journey, something to continually work at and improve upon. While some of these techniques take more time to implement than others, one step that you can take immediately to improve your coaching skills centers on the concept of open-ended questions. Asking these will allow you to get to the heart of issues more quickly with your direct reports, giving you a better idea of how to support them in their development.

What is your method for coaching your employees? What approaches work for you? What challenges have you faced? Tell us in the comments below!


This post was authored by Caitlin McLysaght.