Managers as Coaches

While training a group of managers on Performance Coaching, one of them abruptly interrupted, saying: “I wouldn’t want my manager to be my coach!” The rest of the group burst into laughter. Obviously, others in the room knew that the manager he was talking about was far from a role-model coach. We then discussed the role of managers as coaches for their direct reports. The conversation questioned several assumptions I have taken for granted and helped me deepen my understanding of how a manager can be an effective coach.

The Coaching Zone

In order to be an effective coach, it is important to understand different coaching approaches and the person’s performance level. Depending on a person’s performance, the manager can take a directive, facilitative, or mentoring approach to coaching. We label these coaching approaches as:

  1. BIC Coaching for Unacceptable Performance
  2. GROW Coaching for Acceptable Performance
  3. Mentoring for Great Performance

It is important to understand where the person is in the “Coaching Zone” and what approach to use for each situation. Effective managers recognize that different situations require different types of coaching.

Overview of the Three Coaching Approaches

1. BIC Coaching for Unacceptable Performance

The tendency is for managers to get involved only when an employee is performing poorly. Often, that leaves little room for coaching before it becomes “corrective action.” Coaching someone below the line of acceptable performance follows a directive approach to get “Back in Control” (BIC).

In this scenario, we can’t afford the time (nor is it appropriate) to go into a lengthy coaching process. For example, think about the approach a police officer would take to correct behavior when stopping a speeding driver on the highway. Similar work situations require a directive coaching approach. The following are some examples of situations requiring BIC Coaching:

  • Excessive personal time off, tardiness
  • Insubordination, disrespectful conduct
  • Unsafe operation, illegal practices
  • Unacceptable performance overtime
  • Substance abuse, fraud, theft

These situations call for corrective action. We need to address the unacceptable conduct in a timely and definitive way. It is best to act firmly, yet positively. Getting upset will weaken the coaching effectiveness. There is no need for emotional frustration when correcting unacceptable behavior. Expressing disappointment can also be manipulative.

BIC is also an acronym we use to describe the steps of this coaching process:

  • Behavior: Describe the behavior specifically.
  • Impact: Describe the impact the behavior has had.
  • Commit: Commit the person to change the behavior.

2. GROW Coaching for Acceptable Performance

When performance meets expectations, but could be better, coaching leverages an employee’s own initiative to reach a better result. In these situations, we recommend using GROW coaching. The framework provides a four-step process:

  1. GOAL: Start by agreeing on the goal. This can be a specific topic or objective for the discussion, or a performance objective. Make sure it is SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-dimensioned).
  2. REALITY: Get grounded on what is happening now, the current reality. Invite an objective assessment of the situation without dwelling on the past. Keep it brief!
  3. OPTIONS: Jointly explore options. Ask questions that help the other person realize their options. Allow them to choose the option they like most.
  4. WAY FORWARD: Finally, discuss specific actions going forward. Anticipate possible challenges and discuss ways to overcome them. Check for their commitment to their plan of action.

3. Mentoring – Coaching Great Performance

When an employee’s performance is exceptional, and there is a desire to become even better, mentoring is the best approach. Mentoring is a form of coaching that leverages the talent and experience of the mentor to provide a role model. Not all managers are qualified to mentor others. A mentor needs to be respected as a credible example by the person being mentored.

Mentoring relies on the talent and experience of the mentor (coach) to provide a role model. The mentor’s example and feedback provides critical insights to the other person’s development. Employees identified as possessing high potential in the organization are usually given the opportunity to associate with respected leaders in order to learn from the best.

Mentoring works best when the matching is mutually voluntary and is for a defined period of time. Mentors and those being coached may continue informal mentoring past the initial commitment. Mentors should be prepared to challenge the person’s assumptions and help them grow beyond their comfort zone through stretch goals, developmental assignments, and/or additional education.

In this sense, mentors take on a leadership role, influencing the person’s behavior without exercising formal authority over them. Ideally, managers could act as mentors of their direct reports, but often, they may not be qualified as a role model or example in the direct report’s development areas.

Finding Opportunities to Coach

As a manager, you probably see yourself constantly interacting with others on things that need to get done. Realize that while you are managing, you are not necessarily coaching. An effective coach takes a developmental approach to everyday work situations. The focus is not solely on getting things done, but on transferring knowledge, developing expertise, and identifying best practices. As a manager, you may want to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I seeing opportunities to coach?
  • Do I take advantage of coaching moments?
  • Given my work group, where in the Coaching Zone should I focus?
  • Which is my preferred coaching style?
  • Do I use the right style in the appropriate situations?
  • How can I expand my range of coaching skills?


As I have taught these coaching skills to managers over the years, I have seen coaching become one of the most valuable skills a manager can have in today’s workforce. “Old School” management techniques that use manipulation, threats, and embarrassment to influence employee behavior are no longer effective – or tolerated. These simple coaching techniques will have a great impact on employee development and performance. Every manager can and should become an effective coach.