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Managers as Coaches: Filling the Leadership Pipeline

Managers can be an organization’s greatest asset for nurturing entrants into the leadership pipeline.  Unfortunately, this opportunity is not being realized as a recent survey by Right Management highlighted. The survey found that 68 percent of managers failed to engage in their employees’ career development and only 17 percent of employees felt their managers had an active interest in their professional development.

It may be that the impending “crisis” of lack of qualified people to fill leadership roles has more to do with internal structures and expectations rather than a dearth of willing and qualified talent.  It seems that companies may be getting in their own way when it comes to nurturing the next generation of leaders. Fortunately this can be easily remedied with a change of focus and providing the right tools to the right people.

As mentioned earlier, managers are key players in succession planning. Certainly there are managers who are ready to be promoted themselves, but the bulk of leadership turnover occurs with mid-level positions and managers are key to identifying, mentoring and grooming potential candidates to be ready for such positions when they arise.  While managers are the natural gateway for an organization’s talent pipeline, without direction and support from the executive team they are limited in what they can accomplish.

Once clear expectations are spelled out, the most important empowerment tool is training managers to be coaches. Coaching is more than just giving pep-talks and it often requires training as effective coaching skills are less intuitive than what most managers are accustomed to.

What Makes a Manager a Coach?

Think of coaching as taking management skills to their next level. There may be some overlap in what was taught in management training, but more often than not, these skills are not something that most managers weave into their daily interactions with direct reports. Coaching skills include:

Listen—Really Listen: Managers communicate with their direct reports all day long, but communicating doesn’t always equate to listening. Active listening is a developed skill that involves being attentive to the emotion, intention,  and underlying issues that are being expressed. Engaged managers will be better able to identify the desires and goals of their employees so they can help them develop skills that will further their careers. Listening deeply requires suspension of all other urgencies so that you can give full attention to what is being communicated.

Don’t Tell-Ask: The switch from manager to coach requires more asking and less telling. Asking open-ended questions that allow employees the chance to brain-storm and think creatively will yield some interesting insight. Coaches succeed by helping employees articulate their aspirations and identify what challenges are in their way. Providing guidance in these types of conversations allows the employee to have ownership over their professional goals and remain motivated.

Providing Opportunities for Growth—When employees are invested in and provided opportunities for growth, they are more likely to stick around longer. Getting to know your employees’ interests, talents, and passions will help you identify those moments that their talents can be exercised beyond their job description. Projects such as starting up a recycling program, office party, or intra-department newsletter are all ideas for engaging your employees beyond their normal duties.

Investing in existing employees by providing opportunities for growth is a win-win. These employees are less of a gamble for filling positions as they already have a working history with your organization.  Empowering current managers with coaching skills not only enhances the day-to-day operations, it also reduces lost productivity due to unfilled vacancies.  Rather than fret over the leadership gap within your organization, look internally to fill the talent pipeline. Your managers are your best bet for identifying, mentoring, and grooming existing employees to be ready to fill positions as they come available.