Skip to main content

Why managers need to coach, not manage, in a fast-growing business

Stop for a moment and think. Call to mind a manager in your business. Someone who you promoted but isn’t performing as you’d hoped. I bet that you promoted them because they were a great sole contributor. Your best salesperson or developer, maybe? Am I right?

This is so common. We see it all the time in the businesses that we coach. People are promoted to management for being great at their areas of specialisation. But that doesn’t make them good managers. Often the skills they need are entirely different from the ones they’ve acquired in the past.

This matters. Poor management will result in dipping staff morale, sliding engagement, low levels of productivity and, ultimately, stagnation. All these spell disaster to any plans you might have for scaling your business. 

So what should you do? Our advice is to build a culture of coaching rather than command and control.    

    Innate ability

    In the example I gave in my intro, your poor performing manager has got to where they are through innate ability. And here’s the thing about that. It’s unconscious. There’s some excellent research done into tennis coaching. They asked the coach to describe how to do an efficient spin lob. Then they videoed the coach as they demonstrated their lob. What they described and what they did were completely different. 

    People who are innately good at something often have no sense of why they’re good at it. So they can’t train or tell others to be like them. Once they become a manager and are promoted away from that area of expertise, they find themselves with new challenges. And if there’s no framework to guide them, they can get easily frustrated. They’ve gone from a role that gave them joy and satisfaction to one that seems like a thankless slog.

    The importance of a framework and clear expectations

    Many organisations find themselves with a culture of command and control. They realise they want to move towards a coaching model. To do this, they need a framework and clear expectations. All managers need to understand that they should operate within these.

    I’ve coached some talented people who haven’t grasped some fundamentals in the past. I remember a lightbulb moment with a particular senior manager who was struggling a couple of years ago. She was burned out, stressed and working ridiculously long hours. I told her, ‘I think you think your job is to get your team’s work done’. She looked at me as if I was stupid. ‘Er, yes. What else could it be?’ she said. I replied, ‘Your job as a manager is to make yourself redundant.’ And it was like a weight had lifted off her shoulders. 

    Make it clear to your managers that their primary role is to develop their team to get their work done. Do this well enough, and it will enable the manager to move on to something else. If your business is growing fast, there could be the opportunity to become a director or VP, but only if they can elevate themselves from what they’re doing today.

    This is the expectation that you should set. And every manager should be trained in how to coach.

    Coaching rather than commanding

    1:1 meetings

    As businesses grow and become more complex, managers are more likely to be asked for decisions when they don’t possess all the facts. It is in these situations that coaching becomes so valuable. 

    It reminds me of my conversation with Gareth Chick for our Melting Pot podcast. He trains newly minted SVPs at Google. Part of this training is asking questions to which they don’t know the answer. It’s the first time in their careers that they’re no longer domain experts of their teams. So whilst coaching their team, they won’t know how to do the work themselves. 

    It’s the same in ‘Turn This Ship Around’, a book by L David Marquet. The author ended up as a commander of a nuclear submarine. He’d been trained to do every job on the ship. But not the ship he ended up on. At the last minute, his orders changed, and because of his lack of familiarity, he was forced to coach rather than command with excellent results.

    The nature of coaching

    Here’s the thing. People will get up in the morning and assume everyone is like them. When they delegate a task or tell someone to do something, they will assume that the person will do it in precisely the same way as they would. Coaching means you don’t care how the person does it, as long as they reach the right outcome. 

    A personality profiling tool such as Gallup Strengths can come in handy here. We use this and Patrick Lencioni’s ‘Working Genius’ all the time with our clients. Every person will have a unique profile that may not overlap with anyone else. I will have my strengths; you will have yours. But now, there’s a framework and language that will guide me. I can coach you to play to your strengths and get the outcome we both want. And it doesn’t matter how you do this.

    This is very different from telling people what to do. It’s particularly easy for command and control to become the culture in small companies. The founder CEO is the bottleneck with all the answers. As the company grows, the management team has a culture of asking the boss about everything. This can infantilise people. They stop thinking for themselves and leave their common sense at home.

    Coaching takes regular practice.

    To be in a coaching culture will take deliberate practice from the top downwards. It needs to be modelled by the CEO and rolled out through the Executive Team down to lower layers of management.

    I tell my clients to read Michael Bungay Stanier’s book, ‘The Coaching Habit – Say Less, Ask More and Change the Way You Lead Forever’. This will tell you everything you need to know about building a culture of coaching. Also, listen to the two podcasts I recorded with him here and here. I use Michael’s work as a template for my own coaching conversations with clients. The key is asking open questions – ‘What’s on your mind? And what else? And what else?’ Ask where the challenge is and explore this in detail. Finish by identifying the part of the coaching conversation that has been most useful.  

    Michael’s follow-up book ‘The Advice Trap’ is also helpful. Fundamentally, if you advise someone, you’re not coaching them. This is frequently in my head when I’m coaching clients. I try hard not to give advice. I may say, ‘Would you like me to tell you what I think?’ Then I’m flagging that what I’m about to say is advice. Or I might say, ‘In your position, this is what I might do’. 

    Embedding coaching into culture.

    One thing I recommend is putting in place a peer coaching programme. This will help you spot people that could be your future managers. I’ve dedicated a whole blog to this in the past, as it’s so effective. 

    Ask every team member if they’d like a coach and, if so, who? Not their immediate boss but someone elsewhere in the business. Very quickly, you’ll start to see the influence map in your organisation. You’ll also develop people’s coaching skills before they are promoted to management. 

    I’m a great one for building the neural networks of businesses. I’ve prioritised this in the organisations where I’ve been MD.  By introducing a peer coaching programme, you’ll see new pathways being forged and relationships being strengthened. It can be so powerful for social cohesion in your business. 

    Overcome the challenges stopping you from reaching your full potential. Learn more about...

    Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his new book, ‘Mind Your F**king Business’ here.

      Fantastic! Give us your details and we'll call you back

        Enquiry | Scaling Up Master Business Course