The Manager as Coach

“A coach transports a valued
person from where they are to
where they want to be.”
Manager coaching a staff member

What is ‘Coaching’?

Coaching is defined in the dictionary as; “the act of training staff in business (or athletes in a sport).”

That is a broad description, so it’s common for professional organisations to add extra details to explain what precisely they feel good quality coaching involves.

There’s a lack of agreement about precise definitions, but some (more or less) agreed principles are that Coaching is:

  • Goal orientated (there is a specific focus, work related, for the desired improvement).
  • Short term (when done by managers the focus is usually on making an improvement within minutes, days, or occasionally
  • Typically conducted on a ‘one to one’ basis (though ‘group coaching’ is possible).
  • Tailored to meet the needs of the individual Coachee.
  • Most interventions used by the Coach are open questions which are aimed at stimulating the self-awareness and personal responsibility of the Coachee.

We can sum workplace coaching up like this:
Coaching is one to one, personalised development in the context of improving performance in the workplace.

How did Coaching in the workplace evolve?

Arguably, coaching has been occurring as long as there have been people helping each other to improve their skills. However, the term ‘coaching’ comes from Oxford University in the early 1800’s and refers to the practice of private tutors meeting with students to help prepare them for exams, or to help ‘carry them through an exam’; like a coach (or carriage) and horses takes (or carries) someone to where they want to be. By the mid 1800’s the term also began to be used to describe training in sports as well as education. 1937 sees the first reference to workplace coaching in an academic paper (Gorby). In the 1980s, the use of coaching and mentoring became a more common practice by managers (Crompton, 2012; Evered & Selman, 1989),but it’s in the 1990’s and 2000’s that Coaching as a formal discipline starts to boom.

The Manager as Coach

If they are going to be effective, a manager will need to use several communication styles as they go about their work. This will include giving instructions, consulting (i.e., asking employees what they think), negotiating, abdicating (just letting people get on with a task as they see fit), offering employees advice and, very importantly, coaching.

Coaching can occur with managers engaging employees in either, ‘sit-down’ coaching sessions or informal, ‘on-the-run’ coaching. But either way, taking the time to say to an employee, “let’s just take a moment and reflect on what you’re doing and how we might improve on that approach”, is vital if employees are to be developed to their full potential.

Of course, having coaching conversations are more time consuming than just telling an employee what they are doing wrong (i.e. giving them advice) but the development impact of helping people think through the issues for themselves is huge.

Coaching vs Mentoring vs Counselling

Coaching, mentoring, and counselling are three related and overlapping activities, and (confusingly) the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. When choosing what to do in each situation it’s useful to make a distinction between them, so…

Coaching (as we know) is one to one, personalised development in the context of improving performance in the workplace.

Mentoring is assigning a senior member of staff to assist a junior staff member with their career development.

Counselling is guidance to help people resolve social and personal problems. It is often conducted by a medical professional, but managers can also engage in counselling activities. For example, if someone has clinical depression then counselling with a trained therapist would be the preferred option, but if an employee was experiencing (say) ‘a lack of motivation’ then their manager might well be the one to help them.

How to run a Coaching Conversation

There are two commonly used coaching models for Managers doing routine coaching as part of their everyday work…they are the GROW model and OSCAR. Both can be completed in a session lasting 3 minutes or less, (where a relativity small topic is being addressed) or they can be used as part of a much longer conversation.

Using them well (like any management process e.g., interviewing, problem solving, giving feedback) requires the use of a range of communication skills, such as active listening, empathy, assertiveness etc., but the frameworks themselves are simple enough to apply.

GROW Model Coaching. This approach was made famous by a book by Max Landsberg, called the Tao of Coaching, first published in 1996, and it is probably the most commonly taught coaching methodology. This is the process that is most likely to be used by line managers to coach their staff, ‘on the job.’ There are several different versions of the GROW model, but a standard definition would be to ask the Coachee to consider 4 topics in sequence. Namely:

  1. Goal (What specifically do you want to achieve?)
  2. Reality (What’s happening right now? What obstacles do you face in
    reaching the goal?)
  3. Options (What choices are available for moving forward?)
  4. What’s Next or Way Forward (Pick an option(s) and develop an action
    plan, implement, and review results.)

OSCAR Model. The OSCAR coaching model was originally described by Karen Whittleworth and Andrew Gilbert in 2002. The aim of the authors was to develop a model that built upon and enhanced the GROW model, The OSCAR acronym stands for:

  1. Outcome (What is the goal of the session?)
  2. Situation (What is the Coachee’s current situation?)
  3. Choices (What options are available for moving forward and what are
    the likely consequences of each of those choices?)
  4. Actions (What are the next steps?)
  5. Review (Implement the actions and review the results.)

How to start a Coaching Conversation

Sometimes an employee will ask (directly or indirectly) for coaching support from the manager and then the coaching can flow quite naturally from that request. For example, they might say, “Can I bounce some ideas off you?” or even, “Can you help me with X please?”

On other occasions, however, the manager will be the one initiating the coaching, so it’s worth thinking about how to elegantly segue into a coaching conversation.

Sometimes the conversation will flow such that you can just naturally start the GROW process e.g., they say “X” and you say “Mmm OK, so what specifically are you trying to achieve when you tackle X?”
However, at other times it is necessary to formally initiate a coaching conversation. This involves a two-stage process…

  1. If time allows it’s nice to start with a couple of minutes small talk, just to create a relaxed atmosphere. As the manager and the employee generally know each other well this shouldn’t be hard to do.
  2. The next step is to ‘signal’ or ‘flag’ that you want to start a coaching conversation e.g., by saying something like…

You know, I have been thinking that it might be helpful if we had a talk about… (how you might handle the upcoming appraisal meetings). How does that sound to you?

I noticed that you seemed a bit uncomfortable when we were talking through (the annual pay rises for your team), would it be useful to chat about how you tell them about what’s been agreed?

So, you’ve got a big event next week (giving a presentation to the Board), would you like some help planning it?

Then, (assuming they say yes) you can flow into the GROW model questions e.g., “OK, so what specifically are you looking to achieve?”

Overcoming a reluctance to being coached

Mostly people are open to a coaching conversation – the aim is after all to help them improve their capabilities, and employees are generally motivated by learning new skills. Sometimes however employees resist coaching and then it is important to think through how to handle that resistance.

As with all problem solving, we start with root cause analysis; so, the first question to ask is, “why doesn’t the employee want to be coached?” Common answers to that question include:

  • They feel too stressed/over-worked to even consider the possibility of developing themselves. In which case it’s important to think about how to create some ‘space’ in their calendar to allow for their own development.
  • They don’t trust the manager and think that the offer of coaching is some kind of ‘trick’. This is a very awkward situation to deal with, but essentially it involves empathising with the employee and maybe trying humour, storytelling, and self-disclosure to create a more positive atmosphere.
  • They think that they are doing fine as they are and don’t need to change what they are doing. This then becomes a question of showing them how they will, in fact, gain from the coaching. It is about explaining how coaching can help them achieve their goals, develop their skills, and enhance their career prospects.

Putting it all together

Coaching drives higher levels of performance; 80% of people who receive coaching report increased self-confidence, and over 70% benefit from improved work performance, relationships, and more effective communication skills. (Source: ICF 2009.) Coaching also improves employee motivation and reduces staff turnover. Consequently, coaching is a key managerial skill and one that needs to be prioritised with the employee/manager relationship. Fortunately, there are simple, easy to implement models (like GROW) that mean that managers can coach almost anytime, anyplace, and anywhere and get outstanding results.

So what’s next?

Examine your past for how you have used coaching as part of your managerial toolbox? What has gone well and what could be improved?


Try reading this HBR Article on How to Handle Coaching Challenges
(April 2015)


Watch this 3-minute-long video on how to carry out GROW model coaching


Consider signing up your managers to our 4-hour-long, in-company, Feedback & Grow Model Coaching Workshop, run either as a face-to-face session, or as a Virtual Training Event.


Or, if you have a team of people to develop (your middle managers maybe?) why not take a look at how to develop key skills via peer group coaching using the Action Learning Methodology.


Or give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or email us at and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.

So, to conclude we end with a quote from John Wooden (American
basketball coach)…

“A coach is someone who can give a
correction without causing resentment.”