A number of developments have led to an increased complexity of the contemporary line managers’ task. Globalisation has resulted in the increase of virtual teams where managers have direct reports based in multiple locations - often with different cultural backgrounds. Equally, managers of co-located teams work across cultures due to an increasingly mobile and diverse workforce. In parallel, the expectation of the line manager to act as a coach to their team members has become prevalent and many job descriptions mention coaching skills as a key requirement. Apart from the informal use of coaching as a management style, many organisations implement formal ‘Manager-as-Coach’ programmes. 

Global organisations that implement Manager-as-Coach programmes need to consider the special context these are set in: a challenging triangle consisting of the three dimensions ‘Manager-as-Coach relationship’, ‘coaching across cultures’ and ‘coaching virtually’. All three of these dimensions have to be mastered for a successful coaching outcome. Usually line managers are expected to master this task with very little appropriate support. The following questions spring to mind when considering the special requirements of this context: What are the coaching skills required for coaching direct reports remotely across cultures? How is the coaching best undertaken in terms of technology? What are the pitfalls to consider? 

Although some research on managing virtual cross-cultural teams, virtual coaching and the Manager-as-Coach exists separately, line managing with a coaching style in a virtual and cross-cultural setting hasn’t been addressed specifically. In this 3-article series findings on potential issues and best practice from existing research and practitioner literature are combined to shed light on the coaches’ skills requirements. Further, recommendations how organisation that plan a formal Manager-as-Coach model can support line managers of dispersed multi-cultural teams are made.

What makes an effective Manager-as-Coach? 

Research has shown that line managers adopting coaching behaviours instead of an exclusively directive management style can contribute to increased performance, staff development, retention and achievement of organisational goals. According to the CIPD UK Learning and Development Survey (2015), the Manager-as-Coach model is ranked as one of the top three most effective learning and development interventions and is now widely used in the UK. 

Indeed many job advertisements list ‘coaching team members’ as responsibilities. In practice organisations use their managers as coaches with varying degrees of formality. At one end of the spectrum there will be managed schemes with formal coach training, supervision and the provision of coaching frameworks, at the other end there is the expectation that ‘coaching team members’ is part of the line manager’s job description without any specific support or set expectations how this should take place. 

Coaching author Jenny Rogers (2012) suggested that except for the performance responsibility for the coachee, line manager coaching has much in common with executive coaching (which is usually delivered by external coaches). However, the special nature of the Manager-as-Coach relationship means that the coaching often takes place informally. Therefore managerial coaches need actually more than the core coaching skills set used by external coaches as their relationship with their coachee (who is also their direct report) is much more complex, particularly if they are not co-located. 

Ladyshewsky (2010) proposes that managerial coaches need to consider the following factors to help direct reports engage in the coaching process:  

  • building trust
  • emotional intelligence
  • communication skills
  • the manager’s conceptions of power and authority
  • understanding the role of values
  • framing of the performance management process

The aspect of virtual coaching and working through virtual technology will be discussed in a later article. However at this point it appears relevant to explore the impact of the practical fact that manager and employee in virtual teams are not co-located. What does this mean for the required coaching skills and behaviours of both the Manager-as-Coach and the employee being coached? Virtual teams often have routines of formal communication such as telephone or web based conference calls both internally and externally for example with customers, suppliers or partners. But informal time such as having lunch, ‘water-cooler’conversations, asking quick questions and travelling together to external meetings are lost or less likely as the coaching pair typically spends little time in the same location face-to-face. This means managers have less opportunities to observe their employees’ performance and to give feedback as part of informal interactions. The coaching is less likely to be triggered by informal events such as when the employee asks a question. This means a higher pro-activity of both the coach and coachee is required to trigger informal coaching situations.  

While coaching skills is often the focus of Manager-as-Coach training, a focus exclusively on skills is not sufficient for a manager’s successful transition from a traditional managerial model to a learning facilitator role. Ellinger and Bostrom (2002) point out that Managers-as-Coaches need to change and sustain their belief about their role and capability, about the learning process and about the learners as these beliefs influence how they behave. This means any coach training needs to raise self-awareness to allow managers to analyse their beliefs, as confirmed by the findings of the following studies.

A study by Heslin et al. (2006) based on implicit person theories (IPT) showed that whether coaches believe human attributes are innate (entity theory) or can be developed (incremental theory), impacts on their motivation to help others and the coachees’ evaluation of the coaching. These beliefs can be influenced incrementally by self-persuasion that coaching training could facilitate. This is relevant in two ways: by increasing managerial coaches’ beliefs about their own development potential as a coach as well as their beliefs about their coachees’ potential (Heslin et al. 2006). Hence an impactful side benefit for organisations investing in Managers-as-Coaches is helping managers to remove limiting assumptions about their own development and therefore developing their potential not just as coaches, but also as leaders generally. 

A further study reviewed managers’ motivation to coach in the context of sales management based on Vrooms expectancy theory (Pousa and Mathieu, 2010). It found that short-term organisational goals could result in more directive management behaviours. Organisations with long-term goals and behaviour-based performance measures for sales managers were found to be more conducive to sales managers using coaching behaviours. Ellinger et al., (2008) found that ‘using an autocratic, directive, controlling or dictatorial style, ineffective communication and dissemination of information, and inappropriate behaviours and approaches when working with employees’ (such as not spending enough time with employees) are key ineffective behaviours. 

A key requirement for the coach appears to be the ability to switch between a coaching and a more directive managing mindset (Ellinger et al., 2010). Coachees have reported frustration with being coached when they needed urgent advice. The sign of a mature coaching culture in an organisation is to respect that employees can decide for themselves whether they need direct advice, but the situation could be used as input for the coaching (Clutterbuck and Megginson, 2005). This indicates the need for the coaching pair to focus on their relationship as it evolves; for example by framing how the coaching relationship is embedded into the existing work relationship. Otherwise the coaching could have a negative impact on the day-to-day working relationship, as in the example of being denied fast help through advice in a crisis.  

In summary, organisations looking to develop the coaching capability of their line managers would benefit from taking a broad approach and the following practical aspects need to be considered:

Manager-as-Coach Training

A focus on skills is not sufficient and managerial coach development should also address self awareness raising of the coaches believes, motivations, effective and ineffective behaviours, and values. Proven support mechanisms from mainstream coaching such as supervision and reflective practice could be employed to support this as an ongoing process to complement coach training programmes. 

The coaching relationship

A particular characteristic of the managerial coaching context across cultures and by virtual means is that manager and coach already have an established relationship, that of line manager and direct report. Therefore creating trust and a safe space for the coaching within this relationship is important, for example to set boundaries for confidentiality and to set expectations with the coachee that transitions between coaching and other management styles can occur. If the existing relationship has tensions it can be challenging to achieve a situation that is conducive to coaching, but on the other hand the focus on coaching could be an opportunity to overcome difficulties.  

Building a trusting relationship has been widely reported as a key factor in enabling positive coaching outcomes in the practitioner literature and is supported by findings from neuroscience research (Brown & Brown, 2012). Further, Maznevski et al. (2006) found that empowerment is one of the characteristics of effective virtual teams and a key role of the virtual team leader is to enable empowerment through the use of coaching. However, despite the many apparent benefits of the Manager-as-Coach model, the paradox has been raised of how it can enable empowerment since it is a coaching relationship with unequal power distribution from the outset (Ferrar, 2006). Due to the complexity of the remote Manager-as-Coach context, establishing the coaching relationship needs extra care. ‘Contracting’ at the start of a coaching relationship is an established good practice in coaching. It usually covers the practicalities as well as the mutual expectations, ethics and boundaries of the coaching. Manager-as-Coaches need to pay particular attention to this phase in the coaching relationship to ensure potential conflicts caused by the dual relationship are considered not just at the start but throughout. The flexibility to switch between coaching and more directive managerial styles, and managing the balance between formal and informal coaching is required.

Definition of the Manager-as-Coach

Many global organisations operate a matrix organisational structure where employees have several reporting lines. Besides the formal line manager who has performance management responsibilities there can be additional so called ‘dotted reporting lines’. For example an employee could report to a local manager on one aspect of their role and to a regional manager for another responsibility. Therefore the roll out of formal Manager-as-Coach schemes needs to be considered with the matrix context in mind.  

This article has explored some of the benefits and complexities related to managerial coaching in organisations. Therefore it is imperative that organisations have a conscious and planned approach to line managers acting as coaches for their direct reports so all stakeholders are clear about expectations. Further, Managers-as-Coaches need to be trained and supported appropriately to enable a positive coaching outcome. Coach development needs to be built on the core themes of best practice: contracting, establishing a trustful coaching relationship and a broad focus on developing the coach capability. It has become apparent that it is not only skills that need to be considered but also self-awareness of mental models, beliefs, behaviours and values need to inform the development programmes for Managers-as-Coaches.

For more specific information on how managers can coach successfully remotely and across cultures see:

Article 2: Coaching across cultures

Article 3: Coaching virtually

For references see the full version of this article


By Claudia Filsinger, an Executive Coach with the Executive Coaching Consultancy and lecturer in Business, Management and Coaching at Oxford Brookes University Business School. 


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