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What does Manager as Coach actually mean?

Posted by: sabine-robinson


Maybe your organisation already encourages you as a manager to incorporate coaching your team members into your daily routine? Do you find it difficult to buy into this?

One of the most frequent objections from managers comes from being unsure what coaching really means and what is expected.

Although the story has been told many times before, the origin of the word coach is a good starting point to try and clarify things a little.

Coach in the sense of a closed horse-drawn carriage began to be widely used across Europe in the 16th century.

It originated in a small Hungarian village called Kocs where an unknown carriage maker had designed and built the most comfortable carriage known at that time. This was called koczi szeter (approx. wagon of Kocs) which was shortened to koczi.

As the invention of this new vehicle spread throughout Europe, the name was adapted to Kutsche in German, coche in French, and coach in English.

“That is all very interesting”, I hear you say, “but how does this relate to the term coach used in the business sense today?”

The commonly accepted theory is that coach as a means of getting people from one place to another began to be used metaphorically in education in 18th century England. It was initially a slang reference coined by students for the tutors who helped them reach their goal of passing their exams quickly and comfortably.

The idea to support people in our care in a way that enables them to reach their full potential is very much at the centre of what we understand by coaching today.

However, until the late 20th century coaching was limited to an application in sport. The coach being a skilled trainer who helped to further the development of athletes by using mainly instructional and directive teaching methods.

Coaching as part of the leadership toolkit

It wasn’t until 1974 when Timothy Gallwey, a tennis professional, published his seminal work The Inner Game of Tennis that coaching began to be recognised as a powerful leadership tool.

Gallwey was frustrated with the lack of positive results that traditional directive teaching methods elicited from his students. He realised that nurturing them to find their own solutions and make their own decision focused their attention, improved their learning and performance.

Gallwey’s approach builds on the premise that “the most challenging opponent is the one inside a player’s mind rather than the adversary on the other side of the net”. This resonated with the realm of management.

Helping a team member to recognise and overcome blockages has a positive effect on their engagement and performance. The focus shifted from receiving instructions for improvement from an external source to the importance of the individual learning to tackle internal obstacles.

And so the meaning of coaching changed fundamentally and transferred to the world of business. In the words of Gallwey: “Coaching is the art of creating an environment, through conversation and a way of being, that facilitates the process by which a person can move toward desired goals in a fulfilling manner.” (The Inner Game of Tennis, 2000, p. 177)

Manager as Coach

Through ongoing conversations, a Manager as Coach facilitates the personal growth of their team members. As a consequence, goals can be reached quicker and easier because the employee feels supported rather than instructed or, even worse, abandoned. Being allowed and encouraged to find their own solutions is empowering.

It can be a daunting prospect to be expected to incorporate coaching into your everyday work life. But it doesn’t have to feel this way. Naturally, the knowledge of everyday basic coaching tools is immensely helpful here, but the origin and history of the word coach provides a good starting point.

Being more coach-like can become a learned and inherent behaviour that starts with you initially stopping yourself from rushing to your employee’s aid and from instantly providing advice. Instead, try to sit back a little, facilitate a conversation, listen and support. Talking things through is sometimes all that is needed to metaphorically carry your team members to reach their desired destination or resolve an issue. It’s a solid start to the journey of becoming a Manager as Coach.

We would love to hear your thoughts on the metaphor and idea of coaching.