David Rock

Turning Managers into Coaches – A New Trend in Organisations

by David Rock

A global company recently showed me their new performance management system. Every manager now had a detailed set of competencies defining their role, clearly defined goals and performance measures, and a quarterly performance review program. It was all web based, so management in the US could, at the touch of a button or two, find out exactly how badly their people were performing anywhere in the world at any time. At this point the company realised they had gone as far as they could in identifying performance - now they had to do something about it. The logical conclusion they came to was they needed to turn their managers into coaches.

Many organisations and government departments have been having this same realisation lately. The interest in coaching as a skill set for managers, as a tool for organisational success, or even as a key part of organisational culture, has been increasing dramatically in the last several years. A survey of 280 leading UK companies found 93% of managers believe that coaching should be available to all employees, regardless of seniority.

One factor in this increased interest is the success of external coaches working at senior levels in organisations. Estimates are that over 4,000 executives and professionals have undergone professional coaching in Australia since it's emergence in the mid 90's. Executives are seeing the benefits of coaching for themselves and saying 'hey, if only all our people were as inspired and focused as I am.' Rather than trying to hire teams of coaches at high hourly rates, they are building internal coaching teams. These teams are surprisingly diverse and often include HR people, but also certain managers and executives with the right competencies.

Another factor in the growth of this field is the general state of management skills in Australia. It is still standard practice for managers to be promoted for their technical skills rather than their ability to lead and inspire their people. In company surveys, workers are consistently complaining about 4 key issues: They don't know what is expected of them, they don't get the quality of feedback they need, they don't feel appreciated, and they're not getting support to develop in their career. These are all key coaching skills, skills that are not generally taught in the business schools.

The other big factor is the nature of work and the work environment. Workplaces are demanding ever higher performance. Companies are hiring bright, motivated and committed people. These people are being paid to think for themselves, to innovate. The challenge is that thinkers need a new type of manager. They need resources not roadblocks, sources of inspiration not sources of frustration. Theodore Zeldin, a leading global philosopher, said recently 'Finding colleagues who, like lovers and friends, are inspiring rather than boring or dominating is increasingly a priority'.

So coaching is certainly gaining momentum in the corporate arena. It's being talked about from the boardroom and HR department to the factory floor. However turning managers into coaches is no easy feat. There can be extensive challenges to deal with. You may be dealing with people who are very comfortable with a directive style, who may see no reason to change. People who have technical brilliance but minimal sensitivity to people issues. People who have long standing habits in how they communicate, delegate, direct and advise. A recent study by the Mount Eliza Institute points to the challenges in this area. They found ‘coaching staff' in the top 5 challenges for management today.

Some forward thinking companies today are starting to tackle the challenge. A leading international airline recently undertook extensive staff surveys and found that increasing manager's coaching skills addressed many of the key issues in their workplace. They have commenced a program training 40 of their senior managers in one division to be internal coaches. The program, run over two months, is proving a success, but not without it's challenges. Coaching sometimes becomes a low priority, squeezed between ever more hectic workloads.

If you are looking to bring in an initiative of this type, here are some of the issues that need to be taken into careful account.

Designing an initiative

It's important to begin with a clear idea of the outcomes you want to achieve. The most common reasons people establish a coaching initiative are to improve individual performance or to help managers with their people skills. Other reasons could be to foster greater work life balance, to change an organisation's culture or to help a team deal with major change. It's important first of all to be clear about the outcomes you want to achieve and how these tie in with your organisation's culture and goals.

Then there are three main ways you can approach the issue. The first one is to develop a team of formal internal coaches, who coach as part of their role or even their whole focus. This is starting to catch on with organisations that have had external coaches for a while, seen the benefits, and want to bring the whole coaching culture into their organisation.

A second alternative is to train managers in coaching skills, without appointing them as formal coaches. One of the down sides to this approach is how easy it is for people to fall back into old habits if they are not required to coach as part of their role. However there are a range of very good programs in the market that can deliver training at various levels.

A third alternative is to train a large percentage of the whole organisation in the basic coaching skills and techniques through incorporating coaching frameworks into your internal induction and training programs. In this case, for example, instead of training new recruits in your systems in three days you might use a short training program then an ongoing coaching platform delivered by an internal team.

All these avenues have varying costs and benefits. The best initiative is likely to be a combination of all three approaches, ideally using similar coaching methodologies and frameworks. From experience of delivering many of these programs there are several key issues that you need to consider when rolling out an initiative, I will explore just a couple of these.

First of all, shifting a managers style can be a big mission and takes real commitment on behalf of both the manager and the organisation. Getting both parties to commit to enough time and resources to make the initiative a success is one of the big challenges. Learning to coach is a bit like learning a new language. It doesn't happen in a one day short course. Programs delivering a combination of several forms of learning over several months are popular.

It's also important to take into account the ego in the workplace. This sometimes means separating out layers of management into their own programs where they are more likely to try out risky new skills on their peers than with direct reports.

The most important issue is the simple one. Will the program actually teach your managers to coach, or just give them some knowledge about coaching? You can learn to discuss the qualities of French versus Italian quite quickly, but being a fluent speaker is not something you can fake. The key things to look for are how clear the coaching models are, if other managers find the models truly useful, and the on going application of skills for real learning. Of course underneath it all, it's important that the trainer themselves is an excellent coach, in order to model the skills to be taught.

Sourcing a supplier

While it may seem like every second person is a coach, the market is actually still quite small in Australia. There are three main bodies of Intellectual Property out there; work originating in the USA, which sometimes tends to be 'new-age' focused; models coming out of the UK often built around a generic model called the 'GROW' model; and models that have been developed by local organisations. Some surprisingly strong Intellectual Property has been developed in and for the Australian market over the last few years. The quality in the industry is still at the niche player level with the big 4 consulting firms still looking at how to get involved in this area to some degree.

It is important to shop around, as there are several quite different approaches to coaching, from the very new age to the very business-minded. It's important to choose a methodology that sits comfortably with your organisation's core values.

You will tend to get a better product if you source a group that trains coaches for their main business versus a training company that has added this to their training menu. The strong groups include the Coaching Psychology Unit of the University of Sydney, The Stephenson Partnership, Results Coaching Systems and The Source International. These groups all have tried and tested training products, yet all with a different approach to the challenge of turning managers into coaches.

I speak with organisations every week on these issues and hear the same things over and over. Managers are being let down by their people skills. Workers are demanding a positive working environment that fosters their growth and development and are voting with their feet when it's not there. Good people are leaving companies in droves to work offshore, set up their own business, or worse, going to better-managed competition.

A large firm recently told me they were losing 30% of their supervisors a year. What's the cost of this kind of instability in a company? Though coaching might be an expensive proposition at times, the cost of not getting involved with coaching is starting to look a lot more significant.

Copyright © David Rock

About the Author
David Rock

David Rock is one of the leading professionals in the coaching movement in Australia. He is the author of Personal Best (Simon & Schuster 2001), a professional speaker, coach and trainer. As CEO of Results Coaching Systems, David has built a range of coaching models that are used by thousands of professionals and executives every year across Australia, Asia, the USA and the UK. David can be contacted by email at or visit and

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