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Managerial Coaching: Cultivating Learning and Leadership in Organizational Life

In today’s highly volatile and uncertain world, organizations must become more adaptive in order to survive and thrive.  This requires that continuous learning become a core function throughout the organization (Senge, 1990).  There are three important shifts that need to take place if organizations are going to be successful in becoming a learning organization.  These are:

  1. A shift in the location of learning:  the responsibility for facilitating learning is no longer centralized in HR, and moves out into the periphery, in the various units and teams where work gets done.  
  2. A shift in roles:  in locating the learning where the work is requires managers to assume more responsibility for facilitating this learning.  In order to accomplish this, managers are adding coaching to their repertoire of responsibilities and skills.
  3. A shift in leadership:  by distributing learning throughout the organization, and by incorporating coaching into the manager’s work, leadership shifts from being predominantly positional and managerial, to becoming more shared and collaborative.  

While these three shifts are important for organizations to incorporate learning as a core function, they also create new kinds of challenges to be navigated.  Below I describe some key challenges, specifically about adding coaching to a manager’s role and responsibilities, followed by what research suggests on how to navigate them.

The Challenges in Managerial Coaching

Adding coaching to the manager’s repertoire of responsibility has been shown to be a key strategy for distributing learning and leadership throughout the organization and in creating a more shared and collaborative leadership culture (Anderson, 2013).  Yet, research shows that managerial coaching itself generates significant additional challenges (McCarthy, & Milner, 2013).

Two Kinds of Power

By adding coaching to their role and responsibility, a manager becomes a learning partner to his or her subordinates as well as their supervisor.  As a coach, a manager collaborates with his or her subordinates to identify developmental goals, explore different strategies to fulfill them, and to help foster learning in the midst of everyday action.  As a supervisor, a manager makes decisions and gives direction to these same subordinates on how to carry out various work activities and tasks, evaluates performance, and allocates resources, etc.  Each role involves exercising two distinct kinds of social power.  As a supervisor, the manager exercises positional authority.  As a coach, the manager exercises personal influence.  While these two kinds of power can complement one another, moving back and forth can be hard for both manager and subordinate (Fatien & Otter, 2015).

The Stress of Toggling Between Coach and Supervisor

To move between the exercise of positional authority as supervisor and the exercise of personal influence as coach can generate ambivalence and uncertainty in both the manger and her or his subordinates.  For example, when being coached by a manager, a person may be reluctant to share certain struggles he or she may have in order to protect from not appearing incompetent or lacking confidence.  On the part of the manager, she or he may also feel reluctant to make certain kinds of difficult decisions so as to not undermine the emerging partnerships with persons the manager also coaches.  Moreover, a manager can experience some ambiguity and confusion knowing when to exercise positional authority and when to exercise personal influence.  Such toggling back and forth from supervisor and coach can stretch both parties in ways that can initially bring additional stress to the working environment.

The Need for an Expanded Range of Skills

For coaching to be effective, certain skills are needed that are different from the skills needed for other kinds of managerial responsibilities (Beattie, Kim, Hagen, Egan, Ellinger & Hamlin, 2014).  For example, coaching skills are highly interpersonal, and reflect a good degree of emotional and social intelligence.  Whereas the skills needed for the administrative and financial responsibilities are more analytic and hierarchical in nature.  Consequently the skills to coach may not have been as developed as they need to be and managers may not have the time, resources, or motivation to develop them.

Effectively Navigating The Challenges

To navigate the challenges that arise when adding coaching to the manager’s repertoire of responsibilities, the research in managerial coaching has identified a few key strategies (McCarthy, & Milner, 2013; McComb, 2012).  

  1. Organizations should identify those managers who are particularly motivated to add coaching to their existing role and responsibility and to learn the skills needed for coaching.
  2. Organizations should provide managers with the necessary support and resources. This includes providing formal education and training in coaching knowledge and skills.  It also includes continuous learning in the midst of action, such as through coaching and mentoring to help managers address the ambiguous power dynamics, and the added stress that comes from toggling back and forth between supervisor and coach.
  3. To attend to the challenges this toggling can bring to subordinates, the manager should make this part of the initial coaching conversation, as well as giving it periodic attention along the way.  By having a direct and transparent conversation with subordinates about the potential ambiguity and confusion that adding coaching can create, it normalizes the new challenge and can lessen the anxiety associated with a new kind of relationship.  Such transparent conversation engenders confidence in the manager as a facilitator of the learning process, and establishes the kind of partnership that makes coaching more effective.
  4. Given the challenges for adding coaching to the manager’s role and responsibilities, the manager should get coaching from an external, internal or peer coach.  To learn from and through experience is probably the best way to navigate the emerging challenges and to achieve success.

By successfully navigating the challenges brought about by adding coaching to the manager’s roles and responsibilities, it also brings about a new kind of culture to the organization.

Growing a Leadership Culture

According to research in managerial coaching, something happens to the culture when organizations effectively implement managerial coaching.  As one researcher put it, “organizations that decide to pursue . . . managerial coaching . . . may get more than they expect” (Anderson, 2013, p. 18).  She is not just referring to the various challenges that come with managerial coaching such as those described above, but also by what happens when managers cultivate the skills to better navigate the new challenges.  Expanded emotional intelligence can pay dividends throughout the organization.  By providing resources and support to a manager’s development as a coach, the organization grows a culture conducive to becoming a learning organization, which works alongside the strategy of managerial coaching to create this kind of organization.  This is the work of organizational leadership.  In this way, coaching, learning and leadership work together to create organizations that are more able to adapt and survive in today’s dynamic and uncertain world.  This attention to the interdependent relationship of coaching, learning and leadership is the focus of the new Coaching and Facilitation concentration in our M.A. in Leadership program.

  • What has been your experience incorporating coaching into your work as a manager?
  • What would help you to develop this capacity and navigate some of the challenges that accompany it?
  • What in your organization has helped or hindered this expansion of skills?

Please share your thoughts on adding coaching into your work. What experience do you have?  What might be your challenges in doing so?  What would you need in order to be successful?

References

Anderson, V. (2013). A Trojan horse? The implications of managerial coaching for leadership theory, Human Resource Development International, 16(3), 251–266. doi:10.1080/13678868.2013.771868

Beattie, R. S., Kim, S., Hagen, M. S., Egan, T. M., Ellinger, A. D., & Hamlin, R. G. (2014). Managerial coaching: A review of the empirical literature and development of a model to guide future practice. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 16(2), 184–201.

Fatien, P. & Otter, K. (2015). Wearing multiple hats? Challenges for managers-as-coaches and their organizations.  International Leadership Journal, 7(3), 24-35

Hamlin, R. G., Ellinger, A. D., & Beattie, R. S. (2006). Coaching at the heart of managerial effectiveness: A cross-cultural study of managerial behaviors. Human Resource Development International, 9(3), 305–331.

Ladyshewsky, R. K. (2010). The manager as coach as a driver of organizational development. Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 31(4), 292–306.

McCarthy, G., & Milner, J. (2013). Managerial coaching: Challenges,opportunities and training. Journal of Management Development, 32(7), 768-779.

McComb, C. (2012). Developing coaching culture: Are your managers motivated coaches? (Part 1), Industrial and Commercial Training, 44(2), 90–93, doi:10.1108/00197851211202920.

Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Doubleday/Currency.

Image Credits: Learnthis.ca

About Ken Otter, Ph.D.

Ken Otter, Ph.D.
Ken is Associate Professor of Leadership Studies and Co-director of the Leadership Center at Saint Mary's College. Areas of scholarship include: global leadership development, leadership coaching education, multi-stakeholder collaboration, collective creativity, and the application of lifespan and wisdom development in organizational life.

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