Visualize a leader you would say acts like a “boss” — someone in a position of authority. When you envision this person in the office or with their team in a conversation, what are some of the defining behaviors or actions you notice?  

We’ve conducted this visualization exercise in different settings, and the responses are always remarkably similar. Generally, boss-oriented managers tend to create environments marked by:

Closed doors. Limited availability for staff. Demands. Commands. Few, if any, questions. Stern or short tone. Non-approachable. Little or no feedback. No news is good news. Micro-managing. Fault. Blame.  

Imagine the negative impact on performance and engagement if your employees work for a “boss.” Now contrast that with what we’ve heard about a manager who acts like more of a “coach” than a “boss.” Coach-oriented managers create an entirely different environment around them. Their workspace and manner tend to include: 

Approachability. Development-orientation. Partner-driven. Collaborative. Frequent performance conversations. Frequent one-on-one interactions. Questions. Growth mindset. Self-discovery. Feedback. Helpful and supportive tone/style. Accountability.   

The difference between boss and coach in both behavior and impact is stark. Recent research done by Gallup finds that today’s workforce responds better to expectations, exhibits higher performance, and stays more engaged when they know they’re being managed by someone invested in their development. 

The takeaway? If you want to get the most from your team and be an effective leader, it’s time to leave the stereotypical “boss” behaviors behind and learn to embody the “coach” mentality. Here’s how:

Being a coach-oriented leader requires three core elements: 

Ask Great Questions

Often leaders and managers fall into the traps of thinking, “I told them what I wanted them to do. They should know.” Or “I’m the manager. I need to have all the answers.”  That is exactly the wrong approach. If you truly want to inspire performance as a coach-oriented manager, have frequent one-on-one conversations, ask great questions, and explore the information that is shared with you. Within it will be cues to the level of understanding of expectations, what draws out motivation, and how you can help them succeed. Great questions often facilitate self-discovery for the performer, which is a powerful outcome for a manager.  

Listen to Individualize

Individualization is imperative to meet the needs of performers. To become a high-performance coach, you must get to know all you can about your team members. Find out what gets them excited or energized. Dig into how they like to be recognized. Identify the aspects of the role that are most meaningful to them. Learn about their unique talents and strengths. By listening to individualize, you will know how to manage each person to help them reach their potential and bring out their best performance.  

Take Meaningful Action

If you do the questioning and listening well, you will have plenty of useful information on which to act. Actions for the coach include supporting development planning, managing performance, providing feedback, holding team members accountable, providing recognition, removing organizational or other barriers, and offering stretch assignments – all with the intention of improved performance and development. By following through, honoring your commitments, and taking action, you show that you care about the performer.   

As leaders, we must first demonstrate these three elements in how we lead daily – in setting expectations, in continually coaching, and in holding people accountable.  We must also implement systems and processes that support these elements living as a part of the organizational culture. That could include embedding ongoing conversations within performance development, providing skill-building opportunities around the elements, and employing feedback loops to ensure the coach-oriented actions are being executed consistently throughout the organization.   

To test this concept within your firm or company answer the following questions yourself, then have one or two of your trusted leaders answer them:

  • What percentage of your current managers are “coach-oriented” vs. “boss-oriented?” What impact is this having on the company? How does that fit with your strategic goals and the culture you need for the future? 
  • How can you move more managers into the coach-oriented column? 
  • What steps are required for you to develop your next generation of managers into high-performance coaches? 
  • What can you do to elevate your own coaching behaviors and actions?

After your independent assessments, discuss your answers and potential actions you can take to get better. For our organizations to reach their potential, we must answer these questions candidly and take the steps necessary to shift from boss to coach in every aspect. We talk about these steps in-depth in our recent podcast interview. 

Remember: employees quit their bosses, not their jobs. It’s worth the effort to reflect on the style of leadership you bring to your organization and the impact it’s having.