Are You a Manager, a Coach, or Both?

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by Matt Auron

It always strikes me how quickly the people I coach forget the power they have as managers and executives. Managers have the power to change the world. They literally hold people’s lives in their hands. It’s not just hyperbole.

I’ll illustrate what I mean through a bit of my story—one that likely mirrors yours. This concept is in some ways obvious and simple, and in other ways extremely difficult. The message is not “be a nice boss”. The message is “be a good boss”. Pushing people to be better, being fierce in your focus and resolve, demanding execution? All great things. Especially when underneath is a big heart and a focus on the “headcount” in front of you as another human.

We all know that fulfilled people, set on fire with passion, can have an incredible impact. We now know that being a good boss is like being a coach—you maximize the talent of those around you. The notion of WWII era command and control has been integrated into a foundation of management that is rooted in human potential. Being a manager is full of meaning and spirit. We forget, much of the time, just how big of an influence we have on others. This is truly noble work.

I remember moving across the country and after a few months of shuffling with new managers, I got who I now use as the archetype for my “bad boss” when I deliver management and leadership training. This boss told me I wasn’t worth the money they were paying me. That I wasn’t a good fit. That I wasn’t really bonding or gelling with the team. That I was weird.

Ouch, right? I’m a tough enough guy, but back then I was brand new to a big city and had taken a risk to move somewhere I knew no one.

She wasn’t a bad person, really, and in many ways probably just saw me as a bad fit. Let’s leave that alone for the moment. What did happen, day in and day out as I was impacted by her, was a deep and intense sense of fear, insecurity, and anxiety. I would take that home with me each day, a somewhat broken man. My then girlfriend (now wife) would have to put me back together as I struggled to keep my head above water.

I went to all sorts of dark places: getting fired, having to return home across the country with my tail between my legs, being out on the street with no money, etc. It got worse, I felt worse, I made everyone around me miserable. My girlfriend (now wife) began to take some of my depression on. The ripple extended to her. We would eat silently sometimes staring out the window. I could go on…

Many of us have had these experiences—the bad boss. Just thinking about that person probably brings you right back. Your face might even flush, emotions rising in you, your amygdala working in overdrive. How many years ago was that, exactly? And what kind of parent/spouse/partner/friend were you in these moments? You get the point. We send a ripple far beyond what we know—and especially through those whose lives we hold considerable control over.

The opposite, of course, is also true. I can cite Dave Hoerman at DaVita as an incredible influence and a gentle guide in my work life—he believed in me, guided me, and put me back together when I was fried and burnt out. He championed me and was a great mentor and friend. I left interactions and meetings with him feeling good—sometimes a bit harried at the volume or speed of work, but good, and generally excited. He would regularly acknowledge me, publicly and privately, for all sorts of small and big wins. I never wanted to let him down. Dave was a good boss. I can go back and mine examples of how to coach people, using how he impacted me to positively impact others. The ripple extends.

Most of the people I coach lose sight of this from time to time. Most of them want to be good bosses. But work happens, deadlines loom, pressures mount. Being a good boss generally means following a simple set of guidelines, a code of sorts. There is ample flexibility, and it is grounded in getting things done, but the 21st-century evolution understands and includes the notion that being a good boss means being a coach—developing other people, maximizing who they are, and making them better versions of themselves. Here’s a quick guide for how to do this:

The Good Boss Rules

  1. Find and cultivate team meaning through a shared sense of vision and purpose. Meaning drives greatness.
  2. Acknowledge wins—small and large. This builds a fire in people.
  3. Part of your job is to be emotionally and socially intelligent. Practice this.
  4. Coach people—help them grow and find their own answers.
  5. Be fierce. Be compassionate.
  6. Listen openly and intently.
  7. Be clear on what you expect.
  8. Get feedback about how others perceive you on a regular basis. Perception is a reality when you lead.
  9. Align your management processes with your goals and purpose. Simplify them. Enable others to act.
  10. Know your values. Know your organization’s values. Make decisions from this place.