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Culture Change

Manage as a Coach

Chris Harrison

February 21, 2024

Once upon a time, most people began successful careers by developing expertise in a technical, functional or professional domain. Doing your job well meant having the right answers. If you could prove yourself, you’d climb the ladder and eventually move into managing other people.


As a manager, you knew what needed to be done, so now you taught others how to do it and evaluated their performance. Your goal was to direct and develop employees to understand how the business worked and be able to reproduce its previous successes.


That’s less the case today. Rapid, constant change is now the norm. So what worked in the past is no longer a guide to what will succeed in the future. Today’s managers simply can’t have all the right answers. To cope with this new reality, some companies are moving away from traditional management toward something different. A new way of working, in which managers give guidance rather than instructions, and employees are given a chance to contribute their ideas. In this role, the manager is becoming more of a coach.


But managers who are accustomed to tackling performance problems by telling people what to do, often find a coaching approach feels too soft. It makes them psychologically uncomfortable by depriving them of their most familiar management tool: asserting authority. So they resist coaching and, left to their own devices, they may not even give it a try. “I’m too busy,” they’ll say, or “The people I’m saddled with just aren’t coachable.” In coaching conversation they may know they’re supposed to ‘ask and listen’ not ‘tell and sell’. But deep down they’ve already made up their minds about the right way forward. So their effort to coach typically consists of trying to get an agreement on what they’ve already decided. That’s not real coaching and, not surprisingly, it doesn’t play out well.


At The Brand Inside, we’ve learned the value of inviting knowledgeable senior people to coach culture-change teams. In the selection process, attitude trumps aptitude: we look for naturally curious people. We equip them to ask simple, powerful questions that open up conversations. Then we deploy them outside their current knowledge area. In that way, they have little expert knowledge to leverage so they have to approach the challenge as a ‘naïve expert’. Their focus is now on exploring ways to help employees, as talented people, tackle change tasks and achieve success.


The best practitioners of managing as a coach come to master both parts of the process. They can both impart knowledge and help others discover new ways of doing things.