Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view

Through a new study, Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view re­veals the best and worst com­po­nents of coach­ing in a busi­ness man­age­ment en­vi­ron­ment.


Man­agers think they’re good at coach­ing. They’re not.

RE YOU SUC­CESS­FUL AT COACH­ING YOUR EM­PLOY­EES? In our years study­ing and work­ing with com­pa­nies on this topic, we’ve ob­served that when many ex­ec­u­tives say “yes,” they’re an­swer­ing the ques­tion in­cor­rectly. Why? For one, man­agers tend to think they’re coach­ing when they’re ac­tu­ally just telling their em­ploy­ees what to do—and this be­hav­ior is of­ten re­in­forced by their peers. This is hardly an ef­fec­tive way to mo­ti­vate peo­ple and help them grow, and, in fact, can re­sult in wasted time, money, and en­ergy.

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 own ex­per­tise to a sit­u­a­tion than to be told what to do.

Re­cently, my col­leagues and I con­ducted a study that shows that most man­agers don’t un­der­stand what coach­ing re­ally is. Yet that also sheds light on how to fix the prob­lem. This re­search project is still in progress, but we wanted to of­fer a glimpse into our method­ol­ogy and ini­tial find­ings.

First, we asked a group of par­tic­i­pants to coach an­other per­son on the topic of time man­age­ment, with­out giv­ing them fur­ther de­tails. In to­tal, 98 peo­ple who were en­rolled in an MBA course on lead­er­ship train­ing, with a va­ri­ety of back­grounds and jobs, par­tic­i­pated. One-third of the par­tic­i­pants were fe­male and twothirds male; on av­er­age, they were 32 years old and had eight years of work and 3.8 years of lead­er­ship ex­pe­ri­ence. The coach­ing con­ver­sa­tions lasted five min­utes and 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 of th­ese ex­perts had a master’s de­gree or grad­u­ate cer­tifi­cate in coach­ing, with an av­er­age of 23.2 years of work ex­pe­ri­ence and 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, and re­flec­tion around dif­fer­ent coach­ing skills. At the end, we video­taped an­other round of short coach­ing con­ver­sa­tions, which were again eval­u­ated by both peers and coach­ing ex­perts. In to­tal, we col­lected and an­a­lyzed more than 900 recorded eval­u­a­tions of coach­ing con­ver­sa­tions (pre-train­ing and post-train­ing), which were ac­com­pa­nied by sur­veys ask­ing par­tic­i­pants about their at­ti­tudes and ex­pe­ri­ences with lead­er­ship coach­ing be­fore and 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 re­in­forced as good prac­tice by other re­search par­tic­i­pants. In the first coach­ing ex­er­cise in our study, the eval­u­a­tions peers gave one an­other were sig­nif­i­cantly higher than the eval­u­a­tions from ex­perts. In an or­ga­ni­za­tional set­ting, you can imagine how a group of ex­ec­u­tives, hav­ing con­vinced one an­other of their su­pe­rior skills, could in­sti­tu­tion­al­ize preach­ing-as-coach­ing.

Our re­search also looked at how you can train peo­ple to be bet­ter coaches. We fo­cused on an­a­lyz­ing the fol­low­ing nine lead­er­ship coach­ing skills, based on the ex­ist­ing lit­er­a­ture and 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

• rec­og­niz­ing and 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, and most im­proved com­po­nents of coach­ing. The skill the par­tic­i­pants were 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 skills be­ing la­beled “av­er­age-to-good.”


The skills the par­tic­i­pants strug­gled with the most be­fore the train­ing were “rec­og­niz­ing and point­ing out strengths” and “let­ting the coachee ar­rive at their own so­lu­tion.” On the for­mer, par­tic­i­pants were rated “poor” pre-train­ing, and their rat­ing crept up to merely “av­er­age” af­ter train­ing. Clearly, this is an area that man­agers need more time to prac­tice and work on, and 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 a “slightly above av­er­age” one.

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.

More gen­er­ally, mul­ti­ple as­sess­ments of par­tic­i­pants by ex­perts be­fore and af­ter the train­ing course re­sulted in a 40.2% av­er­age in­crease in over­all coach­ing abil­ity rat­ings across all nine cat­e­gories.

What can or­ga­ni­za­tions learn from our re­search? First, any ap­proach to coach­ing should be­gin by clearly defin­ing what coach­ing is and how it dif­fers from other types of man­ager be­hav­ior. This shift in mind­set lays a foun­da­tion for train­ing and gives man­agers a clear set of ex­pec­ta­tions.

The next step is to let man­agers prac­tice coach­ing in a safe en­v­i­ron-

ment 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 af- ter we asked them to coach some­one cold, once af­ter they were given ad­di­tional train­ing, and 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 and train­ing, they are able to pro­vide a bet­ter self-assess­ment of their skills. As such, or­ga­ni­za­tions should al­lo­cate time for man­agers to re­flect on their skills and re­view what they have done. What’s work­ing, and 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 non-ex­perts help might re­in­force and nor­mal­ize in­ef­fec­tive be­hav­iors through­out an or­ga­ni­za­tion. Specif­i­cally, coach­ing ex­perts could give feed­back on how well the coach­ing skills were ap­plied and 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 and so­lu­tions they have en­coun­tered when coach­ing oth­ers, all in the pres­ence of a coach­ing ex­pert. Here, man­agers have two ad­van­tages: firstly, they can prac­tice their coach­ing in a safe en­vi­ron­ment. Se­condly, coaches can dis­cuss chal­lenges they have ex­pe­ri­enced and how to over­come them.

If you take away only one thing from our re­search, it’s that coach­ing is a skill that needs to be learned and honed over time. Not only does a lack of train­ing leave man­agers un­pre­pared to un­der­take coach­ing, but it may also re­sult in a pol­icy of man­agers re­in­forc­ing poor coach­ing prac­tices among them­selves.

What can or­ga­ni­za­tions learn from our re­search? First, any ap­proach to coach­ing should be­gin by clearly defin­ing what coach­ing is and how it dif­fers from other types of man­ager be­hav­ior.

*Ju­lia Mil­ner is a Pro­fes­sor in Lead­er­ship and the Aca­demic Direc­tor of the Global MBA pro­gram at the EDHEC Busi­ness School in France and an Hon­orary Pro­fes­so­rial Fel­low with the Syd­ney Busi­ness School in Aus­tralia. Trenton Mil­ner is the Gen­eral Man­ager of the In­ter­na­tional Cen­tre for Lead­er­ship Coach­ing fo­cus­ing on lead­er­ship de­vel­op­ment pro­grams.

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