Summary of: The Leader as Coach

by Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular From the November–December 2019 HBR

Once upon a time, most people began successful careers by developing expertise in a technical, functional, or professional domain. Doing your job well meant having the right answers. If you could prove yourself that way, you’d rise up the ladder and eventually move into people management—at which point you had to ensure that your subordinates had those same answers.

As a manager, you knew what needed to be done, you taught others how to do it, and you evaluated their performance. Command and control was the name of the game, and your goal was to direct and develop employees who understood how the practice worked and were able to reproduce its previous successes.

Not today. Rapid, constant, and disruptive change is now the norm, and what succeeded in the past is no longer a guide to what will succeed in the future. Twenty-first-century managers simply don’t (and can’t!) have all the right answers. To cope with this new reality, practices are moving away from traditional command-and-control practices and toward something very different: a model in which managers give support and guidance rather than instructions, and employees learn how to adapt to constantly changing environments in ways that unleash fresh energy, innovation, and commitment.

The role of the manager, in short, is becoming that of a coach.

We should note that when we talk about coaching, we mean something broader than just the efforts of consultants who are hired to help executives build their personal and professional skills. The coaching we’re talking about—the kind that creates a true learning practice—It’s work that all managers should engage in with all their people all the time, in ways that help define the practice’s culture and advance its goals.

An effective manager-as-coach asks questions instead of providing answers, supports employees instead of judging them, and facilitates their development instead of dictating what must be done.

This conception of coaching represents an evolution. Coaching is no longer just a benevolent form of sharing what you know with somebody less experienced or less senior. It’s also a way of asking questions to spark insights in the other person. As Sir John Whitmore, a leading figure in the field, defined it, skilled coaching involves “unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance.” The best practitioners have mastered both parts of the process—imparting knowledge and helping others discover it themselves—and they can artfully do both in different situations.

You’re Not as Good as You Think

For leaders who are accustomed to tackling performance problems by telling people what to do, a coaching approach often feels too “soft.” What’s more, it can make them psychologically uncomfortable, because it deprives them of their most familiar management tool: asserting their authority. In Daniel Goleman’s classic study of leadership styles, published in this magazine in 2000, leaders ranked coaching as their least-favourite style, saying they simply didn’t have time for the slow and tedious work of teaching people and helping them grow.

When presented with a scenario, 9 out of 10 executives decide they want to help their direct report do better. But when they’re asked to role-play a coaching conversation with him, they demonstrate much room for improvement. They know what they’re supposed to do: “ask and listen,” not “tell and do.” But that doesn’t come naturally, because deep down they’ve already made up their minds about the right way forward, usually before they even begin talking to the employee. So, their efforts to coach typically consist of just trying to get agreement on what they’ve already decided. That’s not real coaching—and not surprisingly, it doesn’t play out well.

With the right tools and support, almost anybody can become a better coach/leader.

Here’s roughly how these conversations unfold. The managers begin with an open-ended question, such as “How do you think things are going?” This invariably elicits an answer very different from what they expected. So, they reformulate the question, but this, too, fails to evoke the desired response. With some frustration, they start asking leading questions, such as “Don’t you think your skills would be a better fit in a different role?” This makes the direct report defensive, and he becomes even less likely to give the hoped-for answer. Eventually, feeling that the conversation is going nowhere, the managers switch into “tell” mode to get their conclusion across. At the end of the exercise, no one has learned anything about the situation or themselves.

Sound familiar? This kind of “coaching/review” is all too common, and it holds practices back in their attempts to become learning organizations. The good news, though, is that with the right tools and support, a sound method, and lots of practice and feedback, almost anybody can become a better coach/leader.

Different Ways of Helping

To get managers thinking about the nature of coaching, and specifically how to do it better, we like to present them with the 2×2 matrix below. It’s a simple but useful tool. One axis shows the information, advice, or expertise that a coach/manager puts in to the relationship with the person being coached; the other shows the motivational energy that a coach/manager pulls out by unlocking that person’s own insights and solutions.

At the upper left, in quadrant 1, is directive coaching, which takes place primarily through “telling.” Mentoring falls into this category. Everybody knows what to expect here: A manager with years of accumulated knowledge willingly shares it with a junior team member, and that person listens carefully. This approach has a lot to recommend it, but it has some downsides too. It consists of stating what to do and how to do it and tends to depress the energy level and motivation of the staff member being coached. It also assumes that the manager knows things that the recipient of the coaching does not—not always a safe assumption in a complex and constantly changing work environment.

That said, coaching is not always the answer. There may be times when all team members are productively getting on with their work, and the right approach to managing them is to leave them alone. This approach, which we call laissez-faire, appears in quadrant 2.

At the bottom right, in quadrant 3, is non-directive coaching, which is built on listening, questioning, and withholding judgment. Managers here work to draw wisdom, insight, and creativity out of the people they’re coaching, with the goal of helping them learn to resolve problems and cope with challenging situations on their own. It’s an approach that can be highly energizing for those being coached, but it doesn’t come naturally to most managers, who tend to be more comfortable in “tell” mode.

At the top right, in quadrant 4, is situational coaching, which represents the sweet spot in our framework. All managers in a learning practice should aspire to become expert at situational coaching—which, as its name suggests, involves striking a fine balance between directive and non-directive styles according to the specific needs of the moment. From our work with experienced managers, we’ve concluded that practicing non-directive coaching a lot on its own, until it becomes almost second nature, and only then start to balance that newly strengthened ability with periods of helpful directive coaching.

The GROW Model

One of the best ways to get better at non-directive coaching is to try conversing using the GROW model, devised in the 1980s by Sir John Whitmore and others. GROW involves four action steps, the first letters of which give the model its name. It’s easy to grasp conceptually, but it’s harder to practice than you might imagine, because it requires training yourself to think in new ways about what your role and value are as a leader.

The four action steps are these:


When you begin discussing a topic with someone you’re coaching, establish exactly what he wants to accomplish right now. Not what the goals are for the project or the job or the role in the practice, but what the hope is to get out of this particular exchange. People don’t do this organically in most conversations, and they often need help with it. A good way to start is to ask something like “What do you want when you walk out the door that you don’t have now?”


With the goal of your conversation established, ask questions rooted in what, when, where, and who, each of which forces people to come down out of the clouds and focus on specific facts. This makes the conversation real and constructive. You’ll notice that we didn’t include why. That’s because asking why demands that people explore reasons and motivations rather than facts.

During this stage, a good reality-focused question to ask is “What are the key things we need to know?” Attend carefully to how people respond. Are they missing something important? Are they talking about operational issues but forgetting the human side of the equation? Or the reverse? When you ask people to slow down and think in this way, they often lose themselves in contemplation—and then a light comes on, and off they go. This step is critical because it stops people from overlooking pertinent variables and leaping to conclusions. Your job here is just to raise the right questions and then get out of the way.


When people come to you for coaching, they often feel stuck. “There’s nothing I can do,” they might tell you. Or “I have only one real option.” Or “I’m torn between A and B.”

At this point your task is to help them think more broadly and more deeply. To broaden the conversation, sometimes it’s enough to ask something as simple as “If you had a magic wand, what would you do?” You’d be surprised how freeing many people find that question to be—and how quickly they then start thinking in fresh, productive ways. Once they’ve broadened their perspective and discovered new options, your job is to prompt them to deepen their thinking, perhaps by encouraging them to explore the upside, the downside, and the risks of each option.


This step also doesn’t usually happen organically in conversations, so again most people will need help with it. The step has two parts, each involving a different sense of the word will.

In the first part you ask, “What will you do?” This encourages the person you’re coaching to review the specific action plan that has emerged from your conversation. If the conversation has gone well, she’ll have a clear sense of what that plan is. If she doesn’t, you’ll need to cycle back through the earlier steps of the GROW process and help her define how she’ll attack the problem.

Situational coaching involves balancing directive and non-directive styles.

The second part involves asking people about their will to act. “On a scale of one to 10,” you might ask, “how likely is it that you will do this?” If they respond with an eight or higher, they’re probably motivated enough to follow through. If the answer is seven or less, they probably won’t. In that case you’ll again need to cycle back through the earlier steps of the process, in an effort to arrive at a solution they are more likely to act on.

Coaching as part of Your Practice Culture

So far, we’ve focused on coaching as a managerial skill. But to transform your practice into a genuine learning team, you need to do more than teach individual leaders and managers how to coach better. You also need to make coaching a part of practice culture. And to succeed at that, you must effect a transformation that involves additional steps. Get in touch if you want to learn more.


We live in a world of change. Successful managers must increasingly supplement their technical expertise with a general capacity for learning—and they must develop that capacity in the people they supervise. No longer can managers simply command and control. Nor will they succeed by rewarding team members mainly for executing flawlessly on things they already know how to do. Instead, with full practice support, they need to reinvent themselves as coaches whose job it is to draw energy, creativity, and learning out of the people with whom they work.

A version of this article appeared in the November–December 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review.

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