Coaching is not a mysterious art practiced only by certified professionals. It’s a technique that
anyone can use. If you’re a manager, it can be especially useful. Coaching your reports, rather
than just telling them what to do, is beneficial in several ways.

But first, what is coaching? At its core, coaching is the art of asking good questions to help
someone solve a problem. These questions can get them thinking differently – and often more
creatively – than when problem-solving on their own. This is because the coach doesn’t share
the same blinders, both general and situational, as the coachee (the person being coached) and
thus can direct inquiry to places the coachee might not think to go. The coach’s work
experience – as manager, service professional or technical expert – can help determine what
questions are worth asking, ensuring a contextual fit.

If you’re a manager, coaching can help both you and your reports. How?

It takes the pressure off you. When your reports reach out with a problem, ask yourself if they
might be able to find a solution. If you have a ready answer to a reasonable question, you
should probably just offer it. But if you don’t, consider that it’s not always your duty to find it.
With a little encouragement and some smart questions, your reports might be able to make the
discovery themselves. Give it a go and watch them to do the thinking!

Coaching is also a great way to support your reports’ professional development. Helping them
think things through, and not simply giving them answers, sends a strong message: don’t rely
on me for every solution. While you’re still there to provide guidance, you’ll notice that your
reports, in anticipation of being coached, will often have done some research of their own
before coming to you for assistance. Your habit of coaching thus fosters their preparedness and

Finally, coaching can make performance feedback more valuable and less confrontational. This
is good for both of you. It should be managed in two stages:

  1. Instead of beginning with a list of praises and constructive criticisms, start by asking
    your report how he’s been doing in his role. By inviting him to self-assess, you help him
    take ownership of any challenges he brings up. Without your lifting a finger, he might
    mention some that you already have in mind, perhaps adding a couple that hadn’t
    occurred to you! The purpose here is not to let him crucify himself, but to prevent your biases from
    blinding you to how he sees things and to give him a chance to provide context. And
    since he is flagging his own performance issues, this makes the conversation less initially
    confrontational – he’s breaking the “bad news,” not you. This softens your role as judge. Softens but not eliminates. Naturally, your report may miss or try to sidestep areas where his work has been less than stellar, and it remains your job to broach these after he shares his self-perceptions.

  2. After you and your report have identified areas where his performance can improve, you can give him the lead on how to improve it. Use open-ended questions – questions which don’t terminate in “yes” or “no” or have an obviously correct answer. For example, you might ask: “What steps could you take to ensure that your 1:1s are run more efficiently?” Even if you have strong recommendations to make, it’s best to learn first what he would do. Naturally, if he misses the mark, you’ll offer advice. But he may surprise you with steps you hadn’t thought of. And if his proposals match your recommendations, they’ll have deeper buy-in simply because he proposed them.

Coaching is best done when you aren’t in a time crunch. Your report should feel free to pause
and self-reflect, and this can happen only when there’s no pressure to deliver right away. It’s
also preferable to coach individuals in one-on-one meetings and not in a group, as the group
setting can make them feel like they’re being publicly examined. Similarly, if you know the
answer to a question and your report knows (or strongly suspects) that you know, don’t coach
them around it. Coaching should be a genuine invitation to explore, not a kind of quizzing or

Some coaching tips

Below are three additional tips to help you coach more effectively.

Coaching may often feel natural for both you and your report, in which case you needn’t call
attention to the fact that you’re doing it. However, some reports may react awkwardly or
hesitantly if you start coaching them without explanation. If you sense that this is likely to
happen, first tell them what coaching is, how it works and that you intend to use it as a way of
helping them. Then ask them if they’re open to it. This last step is crucial because if they’re very
skeptical or threatened by it, it won’t work.

Don’t ask many questions in rapid succession. This can overwhelm your report and splinter the
conversation. Slow down; ask questions one at a time and explore each response before
moving on to the next question.

Occasionally your questions will produce a moment of silence – sometimes a long moment. This
usually means that your report is surprised, confused, or thinking deeply, and it may disconcert
you – as if your connection has broken. In fact, it has broken – briefly. Your report has
withdrawn or defocused from you to better marshal his resources and regain his footing. Resist
the temptation to forcibly reestablish contact by tossing him an answer, posing another
question, or describing what you think is going on. Just wait and see what bubbles up.
Eventually he’ll return and you may be delighted with what he brings back to the conversation.