Posts Tagged ‘Coaching skills’

Managers can’t coach

Written by Matt Somers on . Posted in Thoughts from that Coaching Bloke

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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.

How to achieve your New Year’s resolutions

Written by Matt Somers on . Posted in Thoughts from that Coaching Bloke

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By this time next year....

By this time next year....

In my experience there are two main reasons why New Year’s resolutions fail:

  • Aiming too high
  • Not taking action

Let’s look at them in turn

Aiming too high

Let’s take a fairly typical example of Mike who wants to lose weight and improve his health.

At the moment Mike’s lifestyle has him doing an office job with 90 minutes of commuting each way. Breakfast consists of toast and toothpaste, lunch hasn’t happened since his boss declared that “lunch is for wimps” and his evening meal is most usually something from the Bengal Lancer on the way home as he is usually in so late.

Mike’s exercise regime is limited to lifting cushions off the sofa looking for the TV remote.

One day, during his Christmas break from work, Mike is at his laptop checking his emails when he decides that in the New Year he is going to make some changes.

He decides that from now on he is going to get up at 5am, jog to the gym, put in an hour on the weights, then jog home again for a breakfast of berries and a homemade smoothie which he intends to concoct the night before.

Mike actually manages this once; on his first Monday back at work after the holidays. Just as he is about to leave for the day, his boss asks him to get in early for an important meeting on the Tuesday. Mike knows that he will not have the time for his jog and gym in the morning and so is really downhearted. He cheers himself up with a dinner of chicken tikka massala and egg fried rice. The 5am start never happens again.

If I were coaching Mike I’d have him setting much more realistic aims to begin with. Perhaps 10minutes or so of gentle exercise to begin with. Maybe making sure one meal a day is a healthy one for now. I’d want him to be able to introduce his new habits in a way that his lifestyle couldn’t highjack and from which he can build.

There was absolutely nothing wrong with Mike’s resolve to do all that stuff at 5am, but he can’t go straight to that point; he needs a series of goals that lead to it. Achieving goals is hugely motivating for most people and it is likely that making small accomplishments will give Mike the encouragement he needs to make the major changes.


Not taking action

Remember this old chestnut?

Three monkeys are sitting on a log when one decides to leave. How many monkeys are left?

The answer is three because we’re only told that one monkey decided to leave not that he actually got up and left.

This builds nicely from my previous point about realistic aims and suggests that we need resolutions that are easy to take action upon and get started.

There is nothing like taking action to help us achieve our aims and intentions.

Do something; do anything to make a start.

Things feel much more motivating once we’re moving. It’s much easier to change tack, to be flexible and to adapt once we’re already underway.

My two favourite coaching questions are:

  • What exactly are you going to do?
  • When exactly are you going to do it?

For New Year resolutions it’s nice to add another:

  • How will you reward yourself once you’ve done it?

Want to run a Marathon next year? Go and buy the trainers now.

Want to lose weight? Go and get the outfit you’d most like to be able to fit into.

Want to change jobs. Get on your computer and update your CV. Now!, No, Now!!

I could go on, but I guess you get the point. Take that first step, difficult thought it may be or you’ll have the same New Year’s resolutions this time next year.

Nothing wrong with a bit of healthy competition?

Written by Matt Somers on . Posted in Coaching Skills for Managers

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Marks, set, go!

Marks, set, go!

Recently I have had to review a long-held belief.

Ever since I was a boy I’ve believed in competition and trying to win. I would shout at the television if I thought that footballers or tennis players weren’t trying hard enough and I became disillusioned when the various school sports teams I played in endured a losing streak.

Later as an adult I carried this attitude into games I played with my nephews or my daughter believing that “letting them win” was the ultimate way of patronising them and that nothing would be sweeter for them than knowing they’d genuinely beaten an adult at something.

In my early working life I was regularly persuaded that “healthy competition” was the way to motivate individuals and teams to hit their targets and so on, and this is where my thinking became challenged.

Work is not like sport or games. Many people at work are not the remotest bit interested in competition, preferring instead to provide a quality product or  really good service to their customers. When regional sales teams compete against each other who really wins in the end? When individuals in teams compete against each other how does this affect team development in the long term. How can we possibly ever ‘win’ when the game never ends?

In my view the only way we are to prevail in the current climate is to become brilliant at learning. There is so much change these days (and it’s only going to get more and quicker) that only by continually learning (and unlearning) can we hope to contend. Unfortunately, competition can be a great impediment to learning.

Recently I heard a youth team coach from the English Football Association bemoaning the fact that English kids don’t learn the game properly in the way they do in say, Spain or Germany because there is too much focus on winning (or more accurately not losing). Accompanied by parents and so on yelling from the side lines, our kids learn to cope with pressure by playing safe and never being creative or taking a risk.

The same thing can happen at work in the face of inappropriate competition. Staff member turns on staff member, team turns on team and we forget who the real competition is.

The other problem is that too much focus on competition has us always evaluating performance in relative terms, ie we must be doing well because we’re better than them. But what if we measure performance is absolute terms ie how good could we become if we truly fulfilled our potential?

Surely in the end the real competition is with ourselves?
What do you think? Leave me a comment