Coach Like a Boss: How Great Managers Get the Best out of Their People

“Average managers play checkers, while great managers play chess.”

—Marcus Buckingham


Managers don’t always get the credit they deserve.


So much so, that in 2002, Google tried to eliminate managers from their company hierarchy. The result was confusion, lower morale, and less productivity. Turns out managers actually do matter—a lot.


Google, to its credit, pivoted. They didn’t just reinstate management; they also began to study what makes a manager great. And the number one trait they discovered?


A good manager is a good coach.


Chess Pieces, Not Checkers


The quote above is a great analogy. Buckingham was referring to the average manager’s tendency to see employees as interchangeable, just as the pieces in a game of checkers all do the same thing.


In chess, however, each piece has a different role. The player who understands each piece and how it can work best with the others wins. A great manager sees each employee as an individual with specific talents and limitations, brings out their best, and empowers them to contribute.


At heart, this is what coaching is all about: supporting people to achieve more, for themselves and for their team.


Following are three ways you can bring a coaching mindset to your management position:


  1. Focus on Strengths


If you’ve spent months trying to get one employee to accept more challenges and another to settle into a consistent routine, it may be time to stop. The same thing goes for trying to get the introverts to engage at live networking events while corralling your social butterflies into spending more time on their spreadsheets.


It may seem counterintuitive, but there’s a limit to how much an intrinsic weakness can be improved on in most cases. In most cases, focusing time and attention on your employees’ strengths is a better use of your energy. Finding opportunities for your employees to play to their strengths allows them to shine while reducing friction and improving productivity.


Of course, you still have to manage their weaknesses. That might mean shuffling around their duties, partnering them with someone who is strong where they aren’t, or simply giving them enough guidance to be able to function and leaving it at that.


  1. Leave No Employee Behind


Great managers pay attention to the whole team, not just the “squeaky wheels.” Sure, it might feel like you need to put extra effort into the low performers because they risk dragging down the whole team, though once you start focusing on their strengths, that shouldn’t be as much of a problem (see above).


It may also be tempting to spend extra time mentoring the high performers. After all, they’re the ones who show the most promise and, let’s face it, are most likely to make you look good.


But what about those employees who are just trucking along, doing a decent if not outstanding job? They need your attention, too. Regular meetings with them give you a chance to understand their strengths and limitations so you can use them more effectively. Just as importantly, it assures them that you’re interested in their development and that they’re valued members of the team.


That’s not to say you can or should spend equal amounts of time on each employee. But by communicating regularly with each person and making sure they feel seen and heard, you have a good chance of turning your “decent” performers into great performers.


  1. Ask, Don’t Tell


A good coach doesn’t fix things for people. They help people fix things for themselves.


It can be tempting to dole out advice, especially when an employee asks you directly for help. But before you slip into boss mode, get into coach-mode. Ask open-ended questions—“What have you tried already?” “Why do you think the last thing you tried didn’t work?”—and see if you can coax your employee into coming up with a solution, or set of possible solutions, themselves.


This is much harder for most people than it sounds, especially when deadlines loom or emotions are running high. Be conscious of your desire to fix the problem immediately, come up with some go-to questions beforehand, and always give yourself a few seconds to think before speaking. It’s an investment that will pay off over time.


To sum it up:

  • Enable your employees to play to their strengths.
  • Give each one your undivided attention on a regular basis.
  • Help them develop a problem-solving mindset.


These three tactics alone will help you build a stronger team while also giving your employees opportunities to grow as individuals.


Do you have a story about coaching your employees or being coached by a boss? Or questions about applying these techniques in real life? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


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