From Manager to Coach

by Peter B. Grazier

As business continues to expand the use of workteams, the need to enhance leadership skills to guide them becomes of paramount importance. Leadership of a highly involved, empowered workforce contrasts sharply with the command and control structures of hierarchical systems. In my almost 20 years working with these concepts, I don’t think that we have fully grasped even now the enormity of the transition.

In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, many supervisors and managers sat quietly by, watching to see if this powerful trend was yet another management fad that would soon pass. It didn’t. In fact, as technology propelled the business engine faster, the need for front-line people to assume more responsibility for day-to-day operations became a given.

Too many organizations, however, have not appreciated the enormity of this change and have attempted to inject involvement and empowerment concepts without properly preparing the leadership. Consequently, most change efforts fall short of their mark.

Negative Perceptions of New Work
Many managers and supervisors reared in the traditional system perceive involvement and empowerment as “coddling” workers and, perhaps more important, lessening control of the work. They also perceive it as “giving up” power and authority, a notion that creates significant discomfort.

These leaders also struggle with their role in the new system. The manager was promoted based upon skills and abilities relating to command and control. Now the needed skills are shifting dramatically in the new systems. Metaphorically, the manager was asked to “play the trumpet” during his career, but is now being asked to “play the piano.” The change is significant.

In the absence of other input, they see more negatives associated with this role change than positives. In 1984, then again in 1990, Dr. Janice Klein of the Harvard Business School and and Dr. Pamela Posey, formerly of the University of Vermont, studied front-line management perceptions of employee involvement and empowerment. In both studies, most saw these as positives for the company and front-line workers, but only one-third saw the concepts as positive for themselves. That says that two-thirds of the front-line management perceived more negatives.

First Steps to Changing Attitudes
Recognizing this, we need to take steps to help this group of important people break through the barriers to their full participation.

First, senior management should delegate new work to the next level, and each level should do the same. Delegation of work in an empowered workplace is not just from front-line supervision to worker, but at all levels. As middle managers see new, more important work coming their way, the fears associated with “job security” begin to subside.

Second, it is important to help front-line management see the real benefits of involvement and empowerment for themselves. In the trade, we call this the “What’s In It For Me” or “WIIFM” technique. It has been proven many times that moving involvement, empowerment and responsibility to the front lines begins to free up time for those above. So in my sessions with these leaders I simply ask the question “What would you do if you had an extra 2 hours in your workday?” Then I write everything they say on a flip chart. After about 10-12 items are listed, the resistance behavior begins to subside and new energy emerges. The list looks something like this:

  • As my people acquire more skills, I am fighting less day-to-day fires and can spend more time on planning (something they acknowledge is rare today).
  • I am able to spend more time on strategic direction, and have actually become involved in higher level sessions with our executives.
  • I now have more time to look at processes, new equipment we will need, future training for my people, and customers.
  • I can spend more time on the “people” issues and more time with my people.
  • I can spend more time on myself—my own development—take some off-site courses.
  • There is less bickering and nitpicking now, people seem to have their energies focused on more productive endeavors.
  • My people seem happier, more committed. I am taking home less problems and headaches.
  • I now get more ideas to improve the group/department, and the quality of the ideas is getting better.
  • New (?) Skills
    I keep having this argument with myself that most of the skills needed to coach today’s workteams are really no different than those any good leader would use. But then I realize that some of these concepts ARE different.

    Take employee involvement for example. In the past it was expected that the leader would do most if not all of the real thinking in the group or department. So when employee involvement began to grow, this required a significant change in how the leader approached decision making. Instead of making the decision, the leader needed to think first to ask his or her people if they had ideas.

    In reality, of course, there are leaders who have always done this. But generally, decision making was the role of the leader.

    So what is the new skill to be acquired here? Asking for feedback before the decision is made. Even the youngest, newest person in the group will bring valuable insights from a fresh perspective.

    How to Behave Like a Coach
    Do you know someone moving their leadership styles from managing to coaching? here are some thoughts to keep in mind. Don’t read these thoughts as a list of platitudes, but rather essential pieces of a high-performance leadership style.

  • Coaching recognizes the inherent potential of people – Coaching implies a respectful attitude toward others. The coach understands that the people being coached are valuable contributors to the team—full of talent, skills, and inherent creativity. This belief, then, guides behavior that supports and nourishes people, creating an environment that releases human potential rather than restricts it.
  • Coaching is collaborative – Coaching implies working with people to achieve a result rather than forcing one. Collaboration is at the heart of new business skills because it widens the sphere of intellect, bringing greater resources to the table of inquiry. Today’s coach understands this, and is always asking for feedback on issues.
  • Coaching is using the appropriate guidance – Coaches assess a team member’s readiness for a specific task and provide the appropriate leadership style. A novice team member requires clear and direct instruction on the task whereas a seasoned team member only an occasional nudge for growth.
  • Coaching is helping others to remain focused on the mission – Great coaches help their teams to always keep the end result in mind. A team focused is a team on a mission—a critical element of success.
  • Coaching is trust – Good coaches know that when trust is present, team members feel confident to be open, take risks, and perform at levels that might be restricted in an atmosphere of fear and doubt.
  • Coaching is empathy – Coaches pay attention to emotional needs. Life doesn’t end at the office or plant doors, and good coaches know that emotional health is a critical component of work performance. Coaches are not psychologists, but are alert to the signals of emotional distress. The ability to listen with empathy is not only a coaching skill but a human skill.
  • Coaching is growing people – A gardener understands that a seed has the potential for growth if the proper environment is present. A coach cultivates an environment of learning through encouragement, example, and support.
  • Coaching is building self-esteem – Coaches know that self-esteem is built through successive task accomplishment. Coaches help people to expand their boundaries at a rate that ensures success and minimizes failure.
  • For leaders to succeed, their people must succeed. So simple a statement, yet so seldom understood. The coaching paradigm, different from the managing one, embraces the development of people, and in so doing, enhances the probability of success for everyone.

    Leadership in the next millennium will understand and embrace this relationship.