Managers can’t coach

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A manager and a coach?
A manager and a coach?

I’ve been running coaching skills for managers courses for more than 10 years and I fervently believe that managers can (and must) provide coaching for their staff.

Others argue that whilst managers may provide an experience akin to coaching, it is no substitute for the ‘real’ coaching supplied by external suppliers.

This argument may be impossible to resolve and it’s actually quite possible to live with both points of view, I first wrote the following article as part of my MSC dissertation. I repeat it here to help you shape your own ideas which will be useful if you’re considering introducing coaching in your organisation.

Let’s consider firstly the skills, knowledge and attitudes that are needed.

It is clear that coaching is a popular development intervention and, given its close relationship to other interventions, notably mentoring, one which organisations ought readily to be able to incorporate in their training and development strategies. But what are the exact skills required to be able to coach well and are these skills ones which can be learned by line managers or must organisations ‘buy’ the requisite skills by recruiting external coaches?

There appears to be no specific statement of the requisite knowledge, skills and competencies in the coaching literature, but a number of writers have sought to identify what it is that makes successful coaches effective. For example, a group of part time students were asked to identify the characteristics of an effective coach; managers who have inspired them to be effective in their jobs.

Their answers suggest that the effective coach is the manager who:

  • Treats each individual as a person in their own right, uniquely different from other employees with whom he or she deals at work
  • Sets a good example, is an appropriate role model
  • Encourages and supports people, especially when things are not going well
  • Gives praise when it is due, but deals with poor performance in a straightforward and understanding manner
  • Performs his or her own job conscientiously and competently
  • Does not ‘pull rank’ or rely on power derived from the hierarchy
  • Keeps people well informed
  • Takes ‘time out’ from their own duties to provide regular coaching input

Whilst these points provide a useful checklist of what it takes to be an effective coach, they do not provide a sense of the skills and abilities which would need to be developed.

In Coaching for Performance, John Whitmore provides a summary of the qualities the ideal coach would possess:


  • Patience
  • Detached
  • Supportive
  • Interested
  • Good Listener
  • Perceptive
  • Aware
  • Self aware
  • Attentive
  • Retentive
  • Technical expertise
  • Knowledge
  • Experience
  • Credibility
  • Authoritative


Whitmore claims to be less in agreement with the last five itemsn and challenges whether a coach needs to have experience or technical knowledge in the area in which he or she is coaching. He goes on to state that the answer to that question is no, providing the coach is truly acting as the detached awareness raiser with an absolute belief in the potential of the coachee and the value of self responsibility.

Cunningham (1998) agrees and explains that he has coached managers in areas such as finance or information technology where he has no particular expertise. Instead he suggests that the key is to ask pertinent questions and to listen carefully in order to help managers set sensible learning goals and to assist them in finding the resources required to meet those goals.

Others take a different view and Bentley (1995) for example states emphatically that the coach must be able to ‘model’ what he or she requires the coachee to do. ‘The whole coaching approach is for someone who is trusted, with knowledge and experience to help someone less experienced but with skills and talent, to develop.’

However others speculate whether the issue of the coach’s expertise is dependent on whether the coaching is directive or non directive.

According to Hyatt (1999), non directive coaches help the coachee explore a situation, identify some options and select a way forward, the coachee takes full ownership of the solution and the actions required. Directive coaching has its place, but is limited by the knowledge of the coach and the responsibility for the solution is seldom successfully transferred to the coachee.

It is my view that any notion of directive coaching moves too far towards instruction and teaching type interventions which are to be avoided for the effect of coaching alone to be evaluated. Therefore the assumption is made that the effective coach does not necessarily have to have expertise in the area being coached. Rather, he or she will use advanced questioning skills to help the coachee develop their own, unique insight. Put more crudely, the effective coach takes the positive philosophical stance that ‘the brain that has the problem is the brain with the solution’.

Throughout the literature the pervading paradigm is that coaching is undertaken by ‘managers’ to ‘staff’. Thus it is anchored to the hierarchy and largely assumes a superior/subordinate relationship. However, it is questionable as to whether this situation is one likely to bring about the greatest results.

‘Can a manager be a coach at all?’ asks Whitmore (1996). He goes on to answer that yes, a manager can, but coaching demands the highest qualities of any manager: empathy, integrity and detachment, as well as a willingness to adopt a fundamentally different approach to staff.

However he also goes on to suggest that there are circumstances in which bringing in a highly skilled independent coach or facilitator will have several advantages.

Uncertainty about trust and confidentiality and an unwillingness to tackle issues that may concern performance or tenure make it difficult for very senior staff to turn to colleagues for help.

Pay (1995) agrees that coaching activity, when it is done, is undertaken by line managers but that such activity is at best patchy and at worst, hardly evident at all.

He suggests that many managers pay only lip service to it, while others openly resist it. Furthermore, he states that often the only managers who actively undertake staff coaching are newly appointed managers (until they realise they do not earn points for it) and ‘plateaued managers’

Whilst this view is perhaps unduly harsh, it can be seen that the trend towards leaner, performance-driven organisations does seem to make it increasingly difficult for managers to coach and may actually discourage them from doing so.

Pay also draws attention to the fact that a manager’s capability to coach ought to be considered at the same time as his or her willingness.

‘The behavioural style and values of some managers also makes them ‘natural coaches’ while others seem not to be at all suited to a coaching role. The difference in results they produce suggests that while some managers should coach, others should actually be discouraged from doing so.’


Looking back on this article, it’s clear that the argument has moved on but that the principles remain the same.

If a member of staff were to be coached by a manager and an external coach, they would undertake a quite different experience. I would expect the external coaching to be deeper, more impactful and likely more truthful given that the external coach is free from any involvement in the situations being discussed.

However anything is better than nothing and I have seen many mangers achieve great results through the careful application of some basic coaching techniques. Their staff also report on preferring to be managed this way. The skills and qualities needed for effective coaching can be developed and modelled by any manager and should not been seen as the preserve of external suppliers only.

Matt Somers

Matt Somers

Matt Somers is the UK’s leading trainer of managers as coaches. His coaching skills training programmes, books, articles and seminars have helped thousands of managers achieve outstanding results through their people.

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