Coaching (by/for/with) managers

A critical examination of the possible contribution of coaching or mentoring to leadership and management within a team or organisation

From May, 2013, submitted as part of my Postgraduate Certificate Coaching & Mentoring qualification


I will start by first exploring what these coaching/mentoring and leadership/management terms could mean: they often seem to be used interchangeably, which may or may not matter. I will then consider what management and leadership are for, and what some of the challenges are that exist within teams and organisations. I hope to show that coaching and mentoring con contribute positively, but will also outline some of the more challenging aspects of this subject.



Coaching and mentoring terms in one field, profession or indeed country may have different interpretations in another. What is considered coaching in one context is thought of as mentoring in another, but there is increasing acceptance that both may use the coach/mentor’s previous experiences, may involve giving advice, may work on goals set by the coachee/mentee or for them, and may address broad personal growth ambitions (Clutterbuck, 2008, p. 9). Both Clutterbuck (2008) and Garvey (2004) agree that, generally, coaching addresses performance and skill enhancement at some level, whilst mentoring may deal with broader issues such as career progress and development, and personal support and change.

Garvey (2004) sympathises with those of us starting out on an exploration of coaching and mentoring because of this confusion over the vocabulary, and the definition debate does seem to be popular (Edwards, 2003; Garvey, 2004; Jackson, 2005).

In Techniques for Coaching and Mentoring (2005, p. vii), Megginson and Clutterbuck describe their portfolio of techniques as being appropriate to both mentoring and coaching and “are not precious about definitions or pecking orders”, suggesting an impatience with the debate. Indeed, they refer to mentoring and coaching as being “sub-fields”, suggesting a broader, over-arching field, perhaps simply ‘helping’. Other writers have also questioned whether coaching is really any different from earlier forms of helping (Williams & Irving, 2001, cited in Jackson, 2005), that the distinctions between coaching and mentoring can be blurry (Edwards, 2003) and that, whilst sharing similar skills and processes, the arguments for difference are often related to outside factors such as whether it is paid or voluntary (Garvey, 2011).

This more relaxed approach seems at odds with Jackson (2005) who states that it is important to be clear how these terms are defined in order to better discuss their effectiveness. The driver for that view is the need to create a firm foundation for evaluative research, in order to better ‘sell’ the value to potential coaching purchasers uneasy about the nature and worth of coaching.

It could be argued, though, that Megginson and Clutterbuck, in referring to their collection of techniques and practices, are encouraging us – or permitting us – to make use of them in either setting. They consider them to be generally helpful and would not want practitioners to feel some are ‘off-limits’ if they happen to consider themselves to be on one particular side of this mentoring/coaching boundary. Jackson, however, is discussing the need for clarity of the over-arching framework, as distinct from those specific techniques.

My own preference is with the simpler method of considering it all a single, broad topic of ‘coaching/mentoring’, and to let the coach/mentor’s initial ‘ground rules’ discussion with the person being helped determine if more of the coaching processes and techniques are required that time, or the mentoring ones. (It feels a little like a parched wanderer in the desert being asked to choose if he wants water in a glass or a cup. Or a tumbler. Or a beaker. Just give it to him!)

Management/leadership in a team/organisation setting

Management has been defined as the “act of coordinating the efforts of people to accomplish desired goals” (Wikipedia, 2013). This dry definition skates over the difficulties inherent within this; the fact that people are complex and unpredictable, and have different needs and abilities. If management is simply that act of coordination, perhaps leadership is how we go about getting the best out of people?

One could describe a leader as simply being the head of an organisation or unit, the person ‘in charge’. Leadership, then, would be those activities that just these post holders engage in. Whilst true, this does not cover the wide range of people, activities, roles that need to be taken into account when considering this fully. Goulet et al (2012) asks us to consider this topic more fully by pairing the word ‘leader’ with ‘person’, ‘leading’ with ‘situation’ and ‘leadership’ with ‘system’. This separation of terms helps us to distinguish those leaders who conduct leadership as a function of their role and those that, whatever their position, have to interact in some way with others in the workplace. Their view of leadership, as “a process that involves the interactions and relationships between the leader and others” (Goulet et al, 2012, p. 48), allows a much broader range of people to be developed as a leader.

So perhaps a leader doesn’t necessarily have to be a manager, though managers really ought to be effective leaders? And are organisations making the most of the leaders they have? Brook (2013) suggests that “the truly excellent amongst us shouldn’t be passed up a chain, but lent about.”

What is management and leadership for, and how can coaching and mentoring contribute?

Getting the best out of your team

Part of the function of a leader and manager is to drive forward the vision, goals and purposes of the organisation, and to secure commitment to these from the teams they are responsible for or work with. This commitment can be secured and strengthened by taking successful action on the basis of the committed beliefs, though of course there is the danger of being over-committed to a bad decision. This can occur when people refuse to change their minds or accept new evidence or new information; when they fail to recognise change.

We say that it is only human to make mistakes, suggesting there is nothing inherently wrong with this. As Albert Einstein is quoted as saying “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new” (Goodreads, 2013). Problems arise, however, when we make the same mistakes more than once, when we fail to learn.

All staff need to be mindful of when they are blocking or distancing themselves from mistakes or difficulties, perhaps labouring under the impression that consistency and persistence is preferable to changing their minds. Not learning from mistakes is obviously to be avoided. This may not be so easy to achieve, however. There is the danger of getting stuck, having learnt the wrong thing and finding it difficult to unlearn.

Other pressures can contribute to this too. It may be that organisations themselves do a poor job of systematically understanding problems due to “the time pressures people are under and the fragmentation of management responsibilities” (Senge, 2006, p. 315). What is needed is a way of stepping back from the daily grind, to allow reflection and learning to take place.

The question of how learning capacities could be built into an organisation, rather than any ad hoc learning taking place only to fall away again, could be answered by embedding skills and techniques from coaching and mentoring. The challenge is to find new ways of leading and managing that can unblock people and encourage them to develop their capacity for reflection and learning through consideration of past mistakes and challenges. This is not simply a matter for the teams underneath an organisation’s leaders or managers, however. Argyris (1977), in his paper that introduces the concepts of single loop and double loop learning in organisations, states that the best way to generate this new way of thinking is to start from the top with the Chief Executive Officer and their immediate subordinates.

Organisations learn by detecting and correcting error, and Argyris encourages organisations to move away from defensive positions and attitudes — where employees feel they cannot be open about the mistakes or inefficiencies they may experience — to more open and accepting states. He proposes that identifying and acting upon valid information, in a free and informed way, will lead to internal commitment to the choice and consistent monitoring of its implementation.

My own experience can confirm this for me. I am a manager of a team and recently I had to lead them through a significant change in how they work. For some time, however, the exact details of how the change would affect them were unclear; there was much that I simply did not know. Initially I thought I ought to be silent on those details that were unclear and unconfirmed. I didn’t want to muddy the waters with ideas or proposals that would not be agreed or taken forward. I didn’t want to raise expectations, but equally I didn’t want to present myself as a leader that does not have all the answers. My reticence to discuss this did not have the calming effect I intended, but the opposite. It was only when I reflected upon this and examined my assumptions that I realised that I could have handled this much better; by being open about what I did not know, and being less defensive. Subsequently, discussing our concerns about the proposed change as a group, and involving the whole team in designing proposed options and strategies helped to bring us all back together, with renewed commitment to the tasks at hand.

The challenge for me, then, is to embed this openness within my team, and across the other teams I interact with. I hope I can encourage my team and others to take the time to reflect on their choices and assumptions, and not be afraid to make mistakes, so long as we learn from them all. If individuals within teams or organisations are encouraged and allowed to reflect and take responsibility for their own learning, and for improving their jobs and achieving goals, they should feel empowered and more committed to that team. Coaching and mentoring has a part to play in this. This model of empowerment and responsibility for one’s own learning and development can be neatly summarised by the slogans, “an individual is an expert in their own life and work” and “the solution lies within the learner”, held up to be “core values” of this way of working. (York St John University, 2012).

To look at the maxim “an individual is an expert in their own life and work” a little further, the notion that leaders and managers can trust their employees to ‘do the right thing’ has a foundation in McGregor’s work on motivation and the perception managers have on their employees; Theory X and Theory Y. He questioned some of the basic assumptions of how people act within organisations, and came up with these two opposing management attitudes. Kopelman et al (2008) summarise McGregor’s Theory Y by listing those assumptions that leaders and managers should have when leading, managing or interacting with the people that make up their organisation: they are not naturally lazy, they are more than capable of managing themselves and exercising self-control, and they can provide important ideas and suggestions that can have a positive impact on the organisation. Theory X would simply be the opposite assumptions. The proposition is that if Theory Y is accepted and implemented, if management practices such as setting out clear objectives and opening decision making to the wider teams are put in place, personal goals as well as organisational goals can be realised; alignment, increased commitment, and higher morale follows.

McGregor’s ideas could be summarised by saying that a manager’s assumptions about his or her staff are potentially self-fulfilling prophecies (Kopelman et al, 2008, p. 256). If a manager has a low opinion of his or her team, if they are viewed as basically lazy and untrustworthy, they will be treated as such. The team, sensing that attitude, will show little interest or motivation in their job. This will reinforce the manager’s view of them. If, however, the manager considers their team to be trustworthy and keen to learn and develop, the manager will attempt to create the conditions necessary to help with this, with the result of perhaps realising the team’s individual as well as organisational goals.

The assumptions that Theory Y makes about people in organisations and how they behave feel, to me, obvious, a truism. Is not the defensiveness of Theory X’s position obviously flawed? Is it not the case that organisations that hold to Theory X cannot help but develop ‘single loop learning’ cultures, and is this not obviously something to avoid? But McGregor’s book The Human Side of Organisations, from which these concepts come, was first published in 1960, and the ‘single loop’ defensiveness that Argyris warned organisations against was first set out in 1977, and yet there are self-evidently still plenty of ‘Theory X’ organisations out there, or we wouldn’t still be talking about this. This leads me to think that this binary X/Y, authoritarian/participative, bad/good model might be too simplistic. Perhaps it does not capture enough of the complexities and competing demands of organisations and managers that want to ‘do the right thing’ but are under various internal and external pressures and constraints. For instance, Lloyd (2007) warns against participative management that goes too far resulting in managers unable to make any decisions without getting input from their staff, thereby slowing down the process and stopping the organisation responding quickly. Perhaps a balance is required.

Facing uncertainty through learning and communication

It could be said that the only thing that stays constant in life is change, and this is especially so in the world of work in these economically challenging times. In this climate of change and uncertainty, leaders and managers – and employees generally – cannot afford to stay still, but instead need to adapt and explore new ways of working.

Unfortunately, the need for organisational environments that stimulate and promote learning is as great as the challenges in creating these environments. New ways of thinking and operating are required that may open up new capacity for continual development, innovation and learning, and yet existing management systems and structures may be at odds with this need for flexibility. Senge (2006) identifies elements such as: “management by measurement” that focuses on the short-time metrics and perhaps only measures those factors that are easy to quantify, missing out on what might really matter; “compliance-based cultures” whereby to get ahead one needs to please one’s superiors; “managing outcomes”, striving to meet targets; “uniformity”, seeing diversity as a problem to be solved; “right answers vs. wrong answers” whereby technical problem solving is emphasised (Senge, 2006, p. xii). These all contribute to a culture that may not easily accept the need for learning capabilities within its teams or be willing to provide the space and time for these to be developed.

York St John University (no date) is encouraging its managers to step up to the challenge of change and take responsibility for leading and making change successful. A range of leadership best practices have been recommended, ranging from developing exemplary people management skills and communication techniques, to leading from the front and working proactively in an uncertain world. One of the key recommendations, to get the very best out of a team, is to develop them through coaching. The booklet is silent on how this is to be achieved, but the the term is presented in the text alongside ‘training’ and ‘improving’, which suggests that the coaching being recommended in this instance is more of the training coaching type, as opposed to more developmental coaching. Training coaching would have more finite or concrete coaching objectives, be of a more directive coaching style and be typically shorter term. Development coaching would have more complex or emergent objectives, be less directive and would perhaps be over a longer term (Merrick, 2013).

Were a leader or manager to adopt a ‘training’ coaching approach with his or her team, this would no doubt help build up the necessary skills and resilience needed when faced with change and uncertainty. But I would suggest that, to deal with change as part of a “long term cultural shift” (York St John University, no date a, p. 9), a longer term, more developmental view on coaching would also be appropriate, underpinned by consideration of how change and uncertainty are communicated across the organisation. Whilst not wishing to down-play the importance of the contribution coaching can make, effective communication strategies have been shown to lead to increased productivity, improved efficiency and improved morale (Down C et al, 1988, cited in Clampitt, 2000, p. 44).

One of the discourses that can run through contexts in which coaching and mentoring can take place is the change discourse (Garvey, 2011, p. 53), whereby change is nearly always viewed as good by managers as it inherently leads to improved effectiveness and efficiency. This could lead the organisation to assume that people need to be able to adapt to change quickly and be flexible and creative, and perhaps the suggestion in Leading Change above (York St John University, no date), to consider coaching that I feel to be of the training end of the spectrum, is a natural consequence of these assumptions and discourse.

How else can coaching and mentoring contribute to leadership and management?

The arguments above, on the positive contribution coaching and mentoring can make to leadership and management, are predicated on the following two methods of delivery:

  • By the organisation developing coaching and mentoring philosophies, skills and techniques in their staff (that may or may not be leaders or managers), such that they are able to conduct coaching and mentoring sessions for other staff (that also may or may not be leaders or managers)
  • By the organisation developing coaching and mentoring philosophies, skills and techniques in their leaders and managers, such that they lead and manage their teams better, without necessarily using individual coaching or mentoring sessions.

I hope I have shown above how an organisation or team could benefit from the introduction of a coaching and mentoring programme. If staff at all levels have the time and space to step back and reflect, to have an opportunity to talk through their hopes and ideas, fears and concerns, with a view to learning from them and developing as people (not just as employees), then they and the organisation they are part of would be better able to meet the challenges they face. A training programme in the skills, techniques and theories of coaching and mentoring would obviously help the coach/mentor develop the tools to get the most out of these sessions — for the mentee, the mentor and the organisation.

It could be argued though, that such a training programme in coaching and mentoring and the wider debates around these topics could be of great benefit to an organisation’s leaders and managers without their going on to facilitate any formalised one-to-one coaching/mentoring sessions. Were a leader to learn more about the issues around these topics and develop skills in reflection, unblocking, communication, deep listening and so on, they would be better able to create a positive, motivating and trusting work environment for their own teams. The embedding of a coaching and mentoring culture would make a very positive contribution.

Orth et al (1987) consider a manager to have three distinct roles:

  • Manager – developing and communicating goals and objectives
  • Evaluator – evaluating performance against those goals
  • Coach – helping employees improve their capabilities and performance.

In trying to create the appropriate climate, though, a manager must take care to differentiate between the evaluator role and the coach role. If the former is making judgements on performance against agreed goals, the latter must temporarily suspend judgement and “listen empathetically, probe for concerns … and be ready to offer specific suggestions regarding training and self-development opportunities” (Orth et al, 1987, p. 68). Whilst I would perhaps de-emphasise the ‘offering specific suggestions’ aspect in favour of the less directing ‘the solution lies within the learner’ viewpoint, I still feel there is something in this ‘manager as mentor’ idea worth investigating.

Research has shown that the adoption of coaching behaviours by line managers can contribute to achieving organisational goals (Wheeler, 2011); coaching behaviours such as:

  • Providing information – being resourceful, removing roadblocks
  • Transferring ownership – showing confidence in team, empowering them to do well
  • Dialoguing – listening, asking for feedback, providing feedback, re-framing questions/changing perspectives, holding back/not providing answers.

Wheeler’s research (2011) finds that the adoption of such coaching behaviours can be effective though they are less likely to be adopted if line managers lack confidence in their own coaching abilities. This chimes with my earlier point about building up these coaching and mentoring skills and techniques across an organisation without necessarily using staff as mentors or coaches, in the more formal, structured sense of the terms.

Negative aspects of coaching/mentoring

There are other aspects of coaching and mentoring to consider when examining the overall contribution they could make to leadership and management in an organisation or team; advantages as well as disadvantages.


Possible issues might be around coachee/mentee expectations. They may want a higher grade coach, or “executive coach”, which could pose problems for peer mentoring schemes, or schemes whose mentor/coach pools encompass a wide variety of staff (for example, in a university setting, mentoring or coaching that crosses the academic staff / administrative staff border). Mentor credibility may be hard to establish, and potential mentees may worry that a particular mentor might not be able to give them all the answers.

I would like to assume that mentors would be happy to talk with anyone, even those who come from a different discipline or work-setting, as they would realise a) they are not there to provide answers but to help the learner uncover them for themselves, and b) there are benefits that that distance could bring, in terms of re-framing and changing perspectives. Perhaps, once coaching and mentoring sessions start, those initial concerns around expectations could be discussed, explored and worked through.


There may also be difficulties in balancing the agenda of the organisation with that of the coachee. There may be evidence of this happening within the York St John University booklet (no date), Leading Change, with its declaration that it wants to change the culture of the organisation and that managers should use coaching to help embed the university’s change agenda.

Questions on agenda ownership can be a particular feature with ‘manager as mentor’ schemes if the manager is unclear whether they or the coachee/mentee are in charge of setting the topics to discuss or areas to improve. Coachees may also find it hard to discuss the broad range of issues they might be facing with their manager (Vitae, no date). Indeed, their manager might be one of the problems!

It can be difficult too for a manager to relinquish control of their agenda. They may set an employee an objective and wish to coach them to complete that objective their way. I would refer again to the three distinct roles that Orth et al (1987) consider a manager to have, and would explore (perhaps through mentoring!) whether such a manager could distinguish for themselves their manager, evaluator and coach aspects.

Cross-departmental mentoring avoids the power issues of coaching your own team or wanting to deal with the line-manager’s agenda. A spin-off outcome of this is better cross-departmental communication.

And whilst I’m aware of research that declares “the impossibility of being a direct supervisor and an ethical mentor to the same person” (Moberg & Velasquez, 2004, p. 103), I hope my earlier points above go some way to explaining the positive contribution that being a coach/mentor for one’s own team can bring. It is interesting that Moberg & Velasquez consider this problematic “unless one has only one subordinate” (2004, p. 115), suggesting that one way to avoid the conflicts in being both partial and loyal to one’s mentor and impartial and fair to all one’s subordinates is to be a mentor to all one’s team, perhaps through the adoption of Wheeler’s coaching behaviours, above (Wheeler, 2011).


We learn with the help of others (Alred & Garvey, 2000), and mentoring is an important type of learning relationship. Learning is difficult, though, and could be thought of as a skill that needs to be practised daily to be receptive to new ideas and processes (McCracken, 2005). Whilst not suggesting that mentoring needs to occur daily, I believe that coaching and mentoring can help people learn how to learn, how to reflect upon their own experiences and build on them, and that this can benefit them as individuals and the organisation or team as a whole. I would also add that learning about coaching and mentoring can also help people learn and develop and become better managers and leaders. Plus, whilst it may be useful for an apprentice leader to find a mentor or coach (Allio, 2013, p.12), being a mentor itself is very effective in developing critical leadership skills (Bamford, 2011, p. 162).


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Author: Terry Madeley

Works with student data and enjoys reading about art, data, education and technology.

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