Coaching: The Essential Skill That's the Hallmark of All Exceptional Managers


Coaching is something that all managers need to do — whether they like it or not. 

In fact, you can make a great case that the ability to coach is one of the key requirements that any decent manager needs to have. After all, if you can't teach your employees how to do something better, well, how are they ever going to improve?

But as the Harvard Business Review recently pointed out, a great many executives and managers think they are a lot better coaches than they actually are. 

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman analyzed data on more than 3,700 leaders who assessed their own coaching skills "and had the courage, afterward, to have others give them assessments as well." They also analyzed those who overrated their coaching skills and compared the results with those who’d underrated."

7 coaching qualities that many leaders overestimate

What the pair found shouldn't be all that surprising: a good quarter of the leaders that they sampled — 24 percent — had overrated their coaching skills. "Just as many adults believe they are far above average in their driving skills or in possessing common sense, Zenger and Folkman wrote, "this group believed they were above-average coaches."

The fact that so many leaders are not really all that good at coaching wasn't a big surprise, but what jumped out at me from this HBR article was that the data that the authors analyzed "identified seven (7) characteristics of those who overestimated their abilities most frequently." In other words, they listedthe qualities that popped out from leaders who aren't all that great as coaches yet believe that they are.

This is an interesting list of qualities. See what you think, and keep in mind what the authors asked — "Do any of these apply to you?"

  1. They're poor listeners. From HBR: "Few people describe themselves as poor listeners. True effectiveness of a listener relies on the perceptions of others. ... An important test of being an effective listener is what your response is to feedback from others. If you get defensive and resist the feedback, you will not be perceived as an effective listener."
  2. Not a role model. From HBR: Effective coaches are trusted and viewed as role models. The best coaches create an open, trusting environment by initiating positive interactions with others."
  3. Not collaborative. From HBR: "Effective coaches look for opportunities to cooperate and collaborate with others. ... Less-effective coaches look for opportunities to make themselves or their teams look good in front of others."
  4. Don’t develop others. From HBR: "Great coaches help others develop new skills and prepare them for future opportunities. The reality is that helping another person develop new skills takes time and personal effort."
  5. Fail to provide feedback. From HBR: "The best coaches are willing to give clear, honest, pointed feedback about what people need to do to improve performance. And they do it in a positive, enabling way."
  6. Lack integrity. From HBR: Great coaches do the right thing. ... They do what is right regardless of personal consequences. Others know they will keep confidences. Ineffective coaches talk behind people’s backs."
  7. Don’t encourage diversity. From HBR: "Great coaches respect others and values differences regardless of age, gender, or race. They do this not because of laws or rules in the organization but because they truly value and appreciate the advantages that diversity brings."

A key skill that separates exceptional leaders

My take: Great leaders are almost always great coaches, too, yet coaching is rarely a skill you read much about when experts write about what it takes to be a great leader (or manager). In fact, one could make a great case that it is THE key skill that separates truly exceptional leaders from those who just talk about what it takes to be great leading people in the workplace. 

The authors of the HBR article make this same point too: 

Coaching skills are a great asset to any leader. Becoming a great coach begins with aspiring to be a good one. If you have attended some training, that’s a good start. But don’t stop there. Assess your specific coaching skills — and have your team assess them too. If your skills are good, you will find ways to make them even better. And if you need to improve, the way to start is to identify those blind spots."