Manager as Coach

In order to understand the role of manager as coach, it is first vital to understand the difference between coaching and … well, everything else. I often find that people confuse coaching with other things such as dictating, micro-managing, performance managing, mentoring, teaching, and other things that I can’t quite name. The interesting thing is that coaching is completely different than all these things. When we talk about coaching from the coaching people in professional settings perspective it should not be confused with coaching people in a professional sports setting. In professional sports, the coach has all the power and tell the players the plays of the game and what they will practice in order to grow in their expertise. He may issue types of reprimands or punishments to reinforce the lessons he wants his players to learn. He also encourages the players and displays lots of care and pride for them.


Professional coaching – coaching in a professional setting – is very different. In this setting, the coach is a neutral party neither having more power or less power than the client. Rather there is an agreement that both the coach and client give power to the coaching relationship and coaching agreement. The coach does not teach, give solutions, or tell stories about how they would approach the problem if it were them. Instead, the coach asks relevant, open-ended questions that push the thinking of the client to boundaries they haven’t encountered in order to trigger new ways of thinking and ideas about how they would like to move forward. The topic of the coaching is completely in the hands of the client and they are the only person who has the power to make decisions. Accountability by the professional coach is more like holding a mirror up to the client to help them observe what they said they wanted to do and what actually happened in order to learn and come to new awareness. The professional coach doesn’t have the authority to issue orders, make demands, or reprimands. They also are ethically bound to keep in confidence the contents of the coaching session.

If this is true, how in the world can managers act as a coach to their staff? I would say the answer to that is, “Very carefully.” Or at least, don’t say you are coaching when you are actually managing, mentoring, doing performance management, or something else. Keep coaching in the coaching lane to avoid confusion.

  1. Boundaries – In order to have a successful coaching relationship with a subordinate (or anyone else) it is important to establish boundaries for the coaching relationship. This is called the coaching contract or working agreement. Don’t leave things up to assumptions as most people don’t do this well. The contract does not have to be written but it should be specific.
  • Generally it should cover such things as:
    • What types of topics will be considered as coaching and never leave the coaching session – which means they also can’t be considered as part of performance management and are confidential to the relationship
    • What types of topics will be considered manager/subordinate and will be subject to non-confidentiality including reporting to others, using in performance management, etc.
    • How will we be explicit about when we are coaching and when we are doing something else
    • An agreement that when/if it becomes impossible to remain impartial there will be open discussion and a termination of the coaching part of the relationship
  1. Clarification of Roles – This helps the relationship to have clarity around who is responsible for actions and non-actions. It also helps keep both the coach and the client in their own lane. Examples of some of these clarifications are:
    • The client owns the agenda of the coaching unless otherwise agreed
    • The client owns the determination of actions to be taken after the session
    • The client maintains the power to be open, honest, and vulnerable without fear of reprimand or repercussions resulting
    • The client should not assume that the coaching relationship suggests that there is a relationship beyond professional outside of the coaching sessions and professional conduct towards the manager is still expected at all times. No preferential treatment should be expected.
    • Items revealed in the coaching session should not be considered in performance decisions even when the information could lead to leniency.
    • The coach’s role is not to give advice, therapy, or counselling.
    • The coach’s role is to ask questions, make observations, and hold a mirror for the client to see in order to better make decisions and take actions.
  2. Self-Control – The hardest part of the manager coaching is the actual coaching. It takes time and self-restraint to be able to stop giving orders and advice. It is hard to leave our own experience and expertise at the door when we think we can clearly see the answer to someone else’s problem. If we can’t do this, then we should consider ourselves mentors and work with people from the place of their existing talents and skills adding ours to the mix to empower them to grow. There’s nothing wrong with this – It’s just not coaching.
  3. Coaching skills – Learning coaching skills is important if you want to coach your staff. You already know how to be a manager so look at this as an opportunity to learn some new skills.