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Why Project Managers Should Coach

~ By Darren Cockburn

Businessman pulling a coaching card out of his sleeve

Coaching is a highly effective management tool and yet, I have met only a small number of project managers who adopt a coaching style when supporting their staff.

The unfortunate truth is that many project managers do not understand coaching and have received little or no formal training. The benefits of coaching in a management context are significant:

  • Coaching encourages members of staff to think for themselves, which is empowering. A spin-off benefit for the project manager is that if the member of staff finds their own way with minimal advice they will not need to ask the same question next time, which will save time and increase performance. It is a great investment.
  • Coaching enables diversity by allowing staff to achieve outcomes in their own ways, which is often more effective than a known route recommended by their project manager.
  • Coaching allows underlying competency issues to surface. For example, you may ask somebody on your project team questions and expect them to find solutions to a problem. If they fail to answer a reasonable question you have the option of asking yourself why. Do they need more experience or some personal development to enable them to find the answers?

I find that most project managers who are effective coaches are often compromised when under pressure - when running late for meetings or up against deadlines, for example. In these situations, many managers will default to telling or advising rather than asking questions. They will use language like "Do this…do that" or "Let me tell you how you should manage this issue." Once the pressure lifts the managers may well fall back into a more constructive coaching style, knowing that in the long run using coaching rather than direct advice will benefit both themselves and the member of staff.

It is all a matter of balance and coaching can be counterproductive if over used. I have heard stories about people who are new to coaching and overly keen to practise on people making this mistake. If coaching is the only method used during conversations, it does start to become frustrating for the person being coached, which can be counterproductive. The good news is that the more you practice adopting a coaching style as a project manager the easier it is to know when it is appropriate, how to integrate it into conversations and with whom. I consider myself to be a great coach but I find it a challenge not to default to "tell" rather than "ask" when I am under pressure.

Smart project managers are conscious of their approach, ask for feedback and recognise that they will always be on a journey of learning when it comes to influencing people. Feedback is a gift and it helps managers learn how others feel about the way that they relate to them. Project managers can ask their staff about the balance of questions compared to advice and get some insight into how they are doing.

Project managers acting as coaches can also use their skills to work effectively with teams. I have attended project meetings where a team looked to me to provide some direction in the face of a major issue. In most cases, I did not have the answer. I would scratch my head, look confused for a few seconds and then remind myself about the power of coaching. I would then switch into group coaching mode and ask questions like:

  • There must be a way of working through this issue. Does anybody have any ideas?
  • Does anybody know somebody who might have the answer?
  • What would have to be true in order for us to achieve this milestone date?
  • How can we work together to get the desired outcome?

Questions like these are enormously worthwhile because they encourage team members to think through problems. Coaching should not be viewed as a panacea when it comes to project management as it must always be used in conjunction with other techniques. It is a powerful tool that builds relationships, empowers people, encourages thinking (that can't be a bad thing) and ultimately helps the manager to achieve results. I would recommend coaching to any project manager.


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