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What is the difference between managing and coaching?

Mark Uhlenberg Published on 06 November 2014

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Editor’s note: This article is the third in a series about coaching dairy leaders. The first article appeared in the April 1, 2014 Progressive Dairyman.



Leadership and leading people in any organization is about performance. How you measure, talk about and ultimately achieve that performance is significant. Every leader has a style, and every organization has a culture. These either work or not.

If people don’t like the style of leadership or the culture in a business, they leave when the choice presents itself. Competition for high-quality employees and managers is increasing. This is making leadership a vital asset to retaining and developing your greatest asset: your people.

Coaching and managing are two distinct skill sets for leaders. They are also two very distinct styles and different ways of being a leader. Neither is inherently the right or wrong approach, and it is very situational. It depends greatly on what and how you can lead people to greater performance.

The first part of this article will look at defining the similarities and differences between coaching and managing. Then we will explore when to coach or manage. Lastly, we will briefly examine a fundamental concept that drives success for every leader: commitment.

What do managing and coaching have in common?
Performance is at the core to any managing or coaching interaction. Even my most progressive client can find room for more clarity on communicating performance needs to his or her people. Driving performance and change through coaching and management of employees requires a fair amount of rigor on the part of the leader to communicate frequently, define clear goals and set proper expectations.


Leaders don’t neglect this on purpose; they often don’t know the importance because they haven’t investigated their own goals rigorously. At least to the extent needed first before they attempt to manage or coach others to performance that will achieve their goals.

We all are looking for “the answer” for performance problems. Should you manage or should you coach for performance? It depends. My clients don’t like these vague “coach answers,” and I can’t blame them, but coaches aren’t charged to “tell.”

Coaching and managing are not in conflict when it comes to influencing performance but are a distinct set of skills for leaders to focus on in driving the success of their business. Leadership is about action and influence, and you need both of these skill sets in your leadership toolbox.

However, my answer of “It depends,” is part and parcel to the difference in coaching or managing. Sometimes we don’t do either and end up with a culture that has little clarity for performance, and everyone just makes up his or her own way.

Or we overmanage people and they never learn to think for themselves or make decisions on their own. They can end up feeling undervalued and frustrated because they don’t have any autonomy. Like I said: “It depends.” My goal as a coach is to support leaders who know when they need to coach and when to manage.

When do I coach, and when do I manage?
Things shift and change, and strategically there are times when some things need more focus than others. If you have “manager” in your job title, you need to have both managing and coaching skill sets. Let’s look at some simple examples of possible conversations. The performance goal in this example is simple: being on time for work.


(Directive/Managing/Telling) Manager: “Jennifer, I’ve noticed you’ve been showing up 15 to 30 minutes late for your shift over the last week. I need you to be on time because it affects everyone else, slows our entire day down and causes everyone else to stay longer from the prior shift. Please be on time from now on or I will have to put you on an improvement plan.”

(Facilitative, Coaching, Asking) Manager: “Jennifer, what has the last two weeks been like for you? What is getting in your way or stopping you from getting here on time? Showing up on time for work can really create possibilities for a better day for everyone, you included. Let’s take a look at this together.”

Which conversation is the best one? It depends: Is this the first time Jennifer has been late? Do you have some other information that may inform your approach? That could be personal challenges you know about but can’t get involved in.

Great leaders and managers can shift back and forth between managing and coaching even within the same conversation. The common factor is you are seeking the same goal: showing up on time for work. You can be managing for a goal and at the same time coaching someone to greater goals. That conversation might look like the following:

Manager: “Jennifer, I’ve noticed you’ve been showing up 15 to 30 minutes late for your shift over the last week. I need you to be on time because it slows our entire day down. When you show up late, what else does that impact?”

Jennifer: “It causes everyone else to stay longer from the prior shift, and they’ve been nice, but I can tell they are getting upset.”

Manager: “That’s right; I’ve gotten those complaints. We work as a team here. It is something we value, and it builds trust. Please be on time from now on. Do you have any questions about my request?”

This conversation could go a lot of different ways at the end, but notice how the manager kept showing up on time, the culture and what he or she wanted from Jennifer at the center of the conversation and could move back and forth. The manager may have gotten to the real reason or not why Jennifer was increasingly showing up late.

Defining commitment and why it is core to coaching and leading people
Imagine this for your own business. One scenario is a place that everyone knows what the goals are for their department or the business. The goals could be articulated in all different kinds of metrics.

They may be shared in the context of profitability or widgets per hour, but everyone knows their number or what’s expected. Next, imagine that they all know “why” that’s important to the business and they relate to it in a way that makes sense to them.

How it matters to their success and the business’ success. This leads to the last part: Imagine now that they are absolutely 100 percent clear on what the expectations are for their performance.

I don’t need to define the second scenario. All you have to do is imagine something opposite or less than the first one. All too often, we are having regular conversations about things that just don’t drive results.

At the same time, all too often we are not having conversations about things that could drive more results. Coaching and managing is about a commitment to actively engage in helping your employees and leaders understand why we need to perform and achieve.

When we don’t actively engage and communicate, what are we committed to? Common to all successful leaders is the clear distinction of what commitment means. Commitment is simple and challenging.

We are or are not committed to something or someone. And that runs against our common sense and culture more often than not. I describe commitment to my clients as simply the following: Once we decide or say we are committed to something, we cross over to another place as a leader.

It is simply, “I’ll do whatever it takes.” This commitment conversation is the basis for how leaders create greater performance and results for themselves and others.

Living out your commitments is difficult under the best of circumstances. That’s why it is so empowering to have a leader/manager who is clear and consistent about what he or she expects. Many leaders may not even be aware of exactly what they are committed to as managers. That’s where a coaching conversation can help bring more clarity and focus to individuals.

Let’s go back to Jennifer, the tardy employee. A manager/coach may ask her, “When you show up late every day, what are you committed to?” Odds are Jennifer won’t know the answer up-front, but you may have just opened up a possibility for her to transform as an employee and leader.

The coach/manager paradigm has been interesting to study over the last 20-plus years. Coaching is not necessarily a new way of being for many managers. That’s been their style all along whether they called it coaching or not.

What is new is trying to harness the power of leaders who can expertly shift and apply the skills needed to drive performance. Coaching is still a relatively new way of thinking about leading, and much is being said and taught about coaching as a skill set.

Managing as a skill set has just as much upside if you are focusing growing those skills. Again, I see much of the conversation often missing the mark. Don’t let the pendulum swing too far one way or another. I’ve been on both sides in many different roles.

I’ve had managers, managed teams of people, trained managers and coaches, and now spend my career coaching the coaches and managers of people and systems. In these roles, I’ve come to believe that it has to always come back to keeping performance at the center of the conversation. Doing this makes sure we all stay focused on our goals.

This article has not uncovered all the distinctions between managing and coaching. The goal or commitment was to share my fundamental points of view about the manage/coach paradigm and start a conversation.

It is our fundamental understanding of what our commitments are over time and in the moment that informs what we need to do and who we need to be for those depending on us a leader. When performance moves off to the side we can lose focus and jeopardize our businesses and the careers of those within them. PD

Mark Uhlenberg is president of The Heartwood Group LLC. He can be reached by email.

Illustration by Kristen Phillips.