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Most Managers Don’t Know How to Coach
People. But They Can Learn.
by Julia Milner & Trenton Milner
August 16, 2018
pbombaert/Getty Images
Summary. Are you successful at Coaching your employees? Many executives
are unable to correctly answer this question because they think they’re
coaching when they’re just telling their employees what to do. This behaviour
is often reinforced by their peers & is hardly an effective way to motivate
people & help them grow. Instead, research suggests, Coaching leaders in
how to be Coaches can pay dividends, but only if you start by defining
“Coaching” & give ample room for self-reflection & feedback.
Are you successful at Coaching your employees? In our years studying & working
with companies on this topic, we’ve observed that when many executives say “yes,”
they’re ill-equipped to answer the question. Why? For one thing, managers tend
to think they’re Coaching when they’re just telling their employees what to do.
According to Sir John Whitmore, a leading figure in Executive Coaching, the
definition of Coaching is “unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own
performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.” When done right,
Coaching can also help with employee engagement; it is often more motivating to
bring your expertise to a situation than to be told what to do.
Recently, my colleagues & I conducted a study that shows that most managers don’t
understand what Coaching really — & that also sheds light on how to fix the
problem. The good news is that managers can improve their Coaching skills in a
short amount of time (15 hours), but they do have to invest in learning how to Coach
in the first place. This research project is still in progress, but we wanted to offer a
glimpse into our methodology & initial findings.
First, we asked a group of participants to Coach another person on the topic of time
management, without further explanation. In total, 98 people who were enrolled in a
course on leadership training participated, with a variety of backgrounds & jobs.
One-third of the participants were female & two-thirds were male; on average, they
were 32 years old & had eight years of work & 3.8 years of leadership experience.
The Coaching conversations lasted five minutes & were videotaped. Later, these
tapes were evaluated by other participants in the Coaching course through an online
peer review system. We also asked 18 coaching experts to evaluate the
conversations. All these experts had a master’s degree or graduate certificate in
Coaching, with an average of 23.2 years of work experience & 7.4 years of Coaching
experience.
Participants then received face-to-face training in two groups of 50, with breakouts in
smaller groups for practice, feedback, & reflection around different Coaching skills.
At the end, we videotaped another round of short Coaching conversations, which
were again evaluated by both peers & Coaching experts. In total, we collected &
analysed more than 900 recorded evaluations of Coaching conversations (pre-
training & post-training), which were accompanied by surveys asking participants
about their attitudes & experiences with leadership Coaching before & after the
training.
The biggest takeaway was the fact that, when initially asked to Coach, many
managers instead demonstrated a form of consulting. Essentially, they simply
provided the other person with advice or a solution. We regularly heard comments
like, “First you do this” or “Why don’t you do this?”
This kind of micromanaging-as-coaching was initially reinforced as good Coaching
practice by other research participants as well. In the first Coaching exercise in our
study, the evaluations peers gave one another were significantly higher than the
evaluations from experts.
Our research looked specifically at how you can train people to be better
Coaches. We focused on analysing the following nine leadership Coaching skills,
based on the existing literature & our own practical experiences of leadership
Coaching:
• listening
• questioning
• giving feedback
• assisting with goal setting
• showing empathy
• letting the Coachee arrive at their own solution
• recognising & pointing out strengths
• providing structure
• encouraging a solution-focused approach
Using the combined Coaching experts’ assessments as the baseline for the
managers’ abilities, we identified the best, worst, & most improved components of
Coaching. The skill the participants were the best at before training was listening,
which was rated “average” by our experts. After the training, the experts’ rating
increased 32.9%, resulting in listening being labelled “average-to-good.”
The skills the participants struggled with the most before the training were
“recognizing & pointing out strengths” & “letting the Coachee arrive at their own
solution.” On the former, participants were rated “poor” pre-training, & their rating
improved to “average” after the training was completed. Clearly, this is an area
managers need more time to practice, & it’s something they likely need to be trained
on differently as well. Interestingly, the most improved aspect of Coaching was
“letting Coachees arrive at their own solution.” This concept saw an average
increase in proficiency of 54.1%, which moved it from a “poor” rating to “slightly
above average.”
More generally, multiple assessments of participants by experts before & after the
training course resulted in a 40.2% increase in overall Coaching ability ratings across
all nine categories, on average. Given that this was a very short training course this
is a remarkable improvement.
What can organisations learn from our research? First, any approach to Coaching
should begin by clearly defining what it is & how it differs from other types of
manager behaviour. This shift in mindset lays a foundation for training & gives
managers a clear set of expectations.
The next step is to let managers practice Coaching in a safe environment before
letting them work with their teams. The good news, as evidenced by our research, is
that you don’t necessarily need to invest in months of training to see a difference.
You do, however, need to invest in some form of training. Even a short course
targeted at the right skills can markedly improve managers’ Coaching skills.
Regardless of the program you choose, make sure it includes time for participants to
reflect on their Coaching abilities. In our study, managers rated their Coaching ability
three times: once after we asked them to Coach someone cold, once after they were
given additional training, & once looking back at their original Coaching session.
After the training, managers decreased their initial assessment of themselves by
28.8%, from “slightly good” to “slightly poor.” This change was corroborated by
managers’ peers, who reduced their assessment by 18.4%, from “slightly good” to
“neither good nor bad,” when looking back at their original observations of others. In
other words, if managers have more knowledge & training, they can provide a better
self-assessment of their skills. Organisations should allocate time for managers to
reflect on their skills & review what they have done. What’s working, & what they
could do better?
Our research also supports the idea of receiving feedback from Coaching experts in
order to improve. The risk of letting only nonexperts help might reinforce & normalize
ineffective behaviours throughout an organisation. Specifically, Coaching experts
could give feedback on how well the Coaching skills were applied, & if any Coaching
opportunities have been missed. This monitoring could take the form of regular peer
Coaching, where managers in an organization come together to practice Coaching
with each other, or to discuss common problems & solutions they have encountered
when Coaching others, all in the presence of a Coaching expert. Here managers
have two advantages: First, they can practice their Coaching in a safe environment.
Second, coaches can discuss challenges they have experienced & how to overcome
them.
If you take away only one thing here, it’s that Coaching is a skill that needs to be
learned & honed over time. Fortunately, even a small amount of training can help.
Not only does a lack of training leave managers unprepared, but it may also
effectively result in a policy of managers’ reinforcing poor Coaching practices among
themselves. This can result in wasted time, money, & energy.
HBR Guide to Coaching Employees Ebook + Tools
Read more on Career coaching or related topic Management skills
• JM
Julia Milner is a Professor in Leadership & the Academic Director of the
Global MBA program at EDHEC Business School in France & an Honorary
Professorial Fellow with the Sydney Business School in Australia. She has
recently been selected as one of the World’s Top 40 under 40 Business
Professors by Poets & Quants. Her research focuses on leadership, high
performance cultures, & technology usage.
• TM
Trenton Milner is the General Manager of the International Centre for
Leadership Coaching focusing on leadership development programs. He is a
management consultant with a diverse background & over 20 years’
experience managing large training projects across different cultures. His
research focus is strategy, finance, entrepreneurship, & leadership.

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Most managers don't know how to Coach people, but they can learn

  • 1. Most Managers Don’t Know How to Coach People. But They Can Learn. by Julia Milner & Trenton Milner August 16, 2018 pbombaert/Getty Images Summary. Are you successful at Coaching your employees? Many executives are unable to correctly answer this question because they think they’re coaching when they’re just telling their employees what to do. This behaviour is often reinforced by their peers & is hardly an effective way to motivate people & help them grow. Instead, research suggests, Coaching leaders in how to be Coaches can pay dividends, but only if you start by defining “Coaching” & give ample room for self-reflection & feedback. Are you successful at Coaching your employees? In our years studying & working with companies on this topic, we’ve observed that when many executives say “yes,” they’re ill-equipped to answer the question. Why? For one thing, managers tend to think they’re Coaching when they’re just telling their employees what to do. According to Sir John Whitmore, a leading figure in Executive Coaching, the definition of Coaching is “unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.” When done right, Coaching can also help with employee engagement; it is often more motivating to bring your expertise to a situation than to be told what to do. Recently, my colleagues & I conducted a study that shows that most managers don’t understand what Coaching really — & that also sheds light on how to fix the problem. The good news is that managers can improve their Coaching skills in a short amount of time (15 hours), but they do have to invest in learning how to Coach
  • 2. in the first place. This research project is still in progress, but we wanted to offer a glimpse into our methodology & initial findings. First, we asked a group of participants to Coach another person on the topic of time management, without further explanation. In total, 98 people who were enrolled in a course on leadership training participated, with a variety of backgrounds & jobs. One-third of the participants were female & two-thirds were male; on average, they were 32 years old & had eight years of work & 3.8 years of leadership experience. The Coaching conversations lasted five minutes & were videotaped. Later, these tapes were evaluated by other participants in the Coaching course through an online peer review system. We also asked 18 coaching experts to evaluate the conversations. All these experts had a master’s degree or graduate certificate in Coaching, with an average of 23.2 years of work experience & 7.4 years of Coaching experience. Participants then received face-to-face training in two groups of 50, with breakouts in smaller groups for practice, feedback, & reflection around different Coaching skills. At the end, we videotaped another round of short Coaching conversations, which were again evaluated by both peers & Coaching experts. In total, we collected & analysed more than 900 recorded evaluations of Coaching conversations (pre- training & post-training), which were accompanied by surveys asking participants about their attitudes & experiences with leadership Coaching before & after the training. The biggest takeaway was the fact that, when initially asked to Coach, many managers instead demonstrated a form of consulting. Essentially, they simply provided the other person with advice or a solution. We regularly heard comments like, “First you do this” or “Why don’t you do this?” This kind of micromanaging-as-coaching was initially reinforced as good Coaching practice by other research participants as well. In the first Coaching exercise in our study, the evaluations peers gave one another were significantly higher than the evaluations from experts. Our research looked specifically at how you can train people to be better Coaches. We focused on analysing the following nine leadership Coaching skills, based on the existing literature & our own practical experiences of leadership Coaching: • listening • questioning • giving feedback • assisting with goal setting • showing empathy • letting the Coachee arrive at their own solution • recognising & pointing out strengths • providing structure • encouraging a solution-focused approach
  • 3. Using the combined Coaching experts’ assessments as the baseline for the managers’ abilities, we identified the best, worst, & most improved components of Coaching. The skill the participants were the best at before training was listening, which was rated “average” by our experts. After the training, the experts’ rating increased 32.9%, resulting in listening being labelled “average-to-good.” The skills the participants struggled with the most before the training were “recognizing & pointing out strengths” & “letting the Coachee arrive at their own solution.” On the former, participants were rated “poor” pre-training, & their rating improved to “average” after the training was completed. Clearly, this is an area managers need more time to practice, & it’s something they likely need to be trained on differently as well. Interestingly, the most improved aspect of Coaching was “letting Coachees arrive at their own solution.” This concept saw an average increase in proficiency of 54.1%, which moved it from a “poor” rating to “slightly above average.” More generally, multiple assessments of participants by experts before & after the training course resulted in a 40.2% increase in overall Coaching ability ratings across all nine categories, on average. Given that this was a very short training course this is a remarkable improvement. What can organisations learn from our research? First, any approach to Coaching should begin by clearly defining what it is & how it differs from other types of manager behaviour. This shift in mindset lays a foundation for training & gives managers a clear set of expectations. The next step is to let managers practice Coaching in a safe environment before letting them work with their teams. The good news, as evidenced by our research, is that you don’t necessarily need to invest in months of training to see a difference. You do, however, need to invest in some form of training. Even a short course targeted at the right skills can markedly improve managers’ Coaching skills. Regardless of the program you choose, make sure it includes time for participants to reflect on their Coaching abilities. In our study, managers rated their Coaching ability three times: once after we asked them to Coach someone cold, once after they were given additional training, & once looking back at their original Coaching session. After the training, managers decreased their initial assessment of themselves by 28.8%, from “slightly good” to “slightly poor.” This change was corroborated by managers’ peers, who reduced their assessment by 18.4%, from “slightly good” to “neither good nor bad,” when looking back at their original observations of others. In other words, if managers have more knowledge & training, they can provide a better self-assessment of their skills. Organisations should allocate time for managers to reflect on their skills & review what they have done. What’s working, & what they could do better? Our research also supports the idea of receiving feedback from Coaching experts in order to improve. The risk of letting only nonexperts help might reinforce & normalize ineffective behaviours throughout an organisation. Specifically, Coaching experts could give feedback on how well the Coaching skills were applied, & if any Coaching opportunities have been missed. This monitoring could take the form of regular peer
  • 4. Coaching, where managers in an organization come together to practice Coaching with each other, or to discuss common problems & solutions they have encountered when Coaching others, all in the presence of a Coaching expert. Here managers have two advantages: First, they can practice their Coaching in a safe environment. Second, coaches can discuss challenges they have experienced & how to overcome them. If you take away only one thing here, it’s that Coaching is a skill that needs to be learned & honed over time. Fortunately, even a small amount of training can help. Not only does a lack of training leave managers unprepared, but it may also effectively result in a policy of managers’ reinforcing poor Coaching practices among themselves. This can result in wasted time, money, & energy. HBR Guide to Coaching Employees Ebook + Tools Read more on Career coaching or related topic Management skills • JM Julia Milner is a Professor in Leadership & the Academic Director of the Global MBA program at EDHEC Business School in France & an Honorary Professorial Fellow with the Sydney Business School in Australia. She has recently been selected as one of the World’s Top 40 under 40 Business Professors by Poets & Quants. Her research focuses on leadership, high performance cultures, & technology usage. • TM Trenton Milner is the General Manager of the International Centre for Leadership Coaching focusing on leadership development programs. He is a management consultant with a diverse background & over 20 years’ experience managing large training projects across different cultures. His research focus is strategy, finance, entrepreneurship, & leadership.