More engagement? Replacing Managers with Coaches?

As a business owner, do you ever feel like you’re treading water? Or worse, actually losing ground? Some of that might be due to challenges in the marketplace, but more than likely it’s an impact of not having the right people on your team… or to put it another way, not having a team that’s fully engaged.

For more than 20 years, the Gallup organization has been surveying employees of businesses big and small to determine how ‘engaged’ they are with their employer. And for more than 20 years, those numbers have painted a pretty grim picture:

  • Approximately 1/3 of employees are actively engaged – doing whatever they can to make the company succeed.
  • Almost 20% of employees are actively disengaged (meaning they are working against the company).
  • The rest of the employees are pretty much just showing up and doing what they have to do to keep their job.

The numbers have fluctuated a bit over the years – in the last 10 years they started to show improvement, but since Covid the engaged numbers are declining and the actively disengaged numbers are climbing.

As you might imagine, businesses with higher engagement tend to perform better (estimated 20% improvement in productivity) and have much higher employee retention. Which drives real financial benefits to the bottom line.

It’s an important thing to focus on, but what can you do to improve the numbers?

How to Improve Engagement? Replace Managers with Coaches?

An article in Fortune magazine earlier this summer got some buzz by profiling a company that replaced all of their managers with coaches as a direct strategy to improve employee engagement. The company is Time Etc. a virtual assistant provider in the US. According to the CEO (who wrote the article), the idea came from the novel approach of asking their employees what they needed from their managers. The responses primarily focused on things like feedback, goal setting, personal and professional development opportunities and autonomy. Which sounded more like things coaches do rather than traditional managers.

From the article:

“Our coaches have one, very clear, job to do: to help our employees be as productive as possible and, in doing so, achieve more. They offer close mentoring and feedback, encourage employees to identify how they work best, and make sure they are offered training and support to develop professionally.”

Time Etc. CEO Barnaby Lashbrooke

The outcome so far? Performance on key goals improved by 20%, less turnover, fewer sick days and employees are much happier. It’s hard to argue with that kind of success… at least for this company.

Should you replace your managers with coaches?

Improving employee engagement is definitely a worthwhile goal – arguably it’s one of the most impactful things a business could do in terms of improvements. But that doesn’t mean that this approach of replacing managers with coaches is the right move for everyone. I can see at least a couple of problems with this approach:

Problem #1 – there’s a lot of impact and expense with getting rid of your managers… and then being able to hire competent coaches in their place. *Note – I’m assuming that the article is literally suggesting that the old managers were fired and new coaches were hired. That may not be the case – but if so, that’s a pretty big, expensive leap.

Problem #2 – Coaching is great, but good managers also bring a lot of important skills and traits to a business. A great manager will direct their team, helping them coordinate, communicate and prioritize the work that needs to be done. If you have a team of purely independent workers (like a team of independent Virtual Assistants) then you may not need most of those management traits. But if you have a team that has to work together and work with others, then management… and leadership are going to be very important.

A more viable alternative? Managers that Coach…!

For a lot of business owners, a more viable and practical approach to this idea would be to work with your managers on incorporating a coaching leadership style into their day to day efforts. The idea would be to generate a focus of developing team members as a top priority (right up there with getting the work done). This takes time and energy, but it also leads to a more productive, creative and happier team.

One practical way to incorporate this idea is to leverage the practical framework from the book The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier. Overall the framework starts with the need for managers to recognize that they have to change their mindset from always answering questions to starting to ask questions.

Beyond that, as a leader, one of your key goals should be developing your team members – finding ways to make them better.  Effective coaching is one of the best ways to do that. In the business world, leaders and managers are typically taught (and excel) at giving advice and giving answers. And while there will always be a place for that, effective coaching requires you to focus on asking more questions and letting others find their own way. It’s a skill that’s surprisingly difficult to pick-up, even though it requires less effort and thought once you really become good at it.

The book focuses on 7 questions that managers can use to start coaching their team members. To do this effectively you need to mindset shift mentioned above and you need to invest the time to have regular, focused 1 on 1 discussions… and you need to be comfortable letting your employees find their own answers.

What do you think? Does it make sense to replace managers with coaches in your world? Or would you be better off having your current managers incorporate a coaching leadership style into what they do? Or is all of this unnecessary? We’d love to hear your thoughts – leave a comment below.

Shawn Kinkade Kansas City Business Coach

1 thought on “More engagement? Replacing Managers with Coaches?”

  1. Cynthia Kyriazis says:

    I read this Fortune post also and had a couple thoughts. Maybe have the coaches teach willing managers how to coach to improve their ‘asking and listening’ skills and help them develop their empathy/compassion skills….while still driving organization’s goals. Learning to coach effectively takes commitment, time, and practice and none of it can be short-changed.

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