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Jun 2016

You don’t need to be a natural leader to manage like a coach

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Shaping the future of learning

Bruce Tulgan, founder of RainmakerThinking is a renowned author and adviser to business leaders all over the world. Here, in response to us shouting about the importance of coaching to new manager training, he tells us why to be an effective coach, managers don’t need to holler ‘Rah! Rah!’ – and why it is something that can be learned.

We’ve been exploring the learning-doing gap in management training, and trying to find out why so many investments in training for new managers fail to cross the divide. As a result, we’ve developed ManagementPlus – a blended approach for new managers that has coaching at its heart. Managers get coached by their managers - but can everyone be a good coach? Leadership expert and author, Bruce Tulgan, tells us they can and how.

Coach? But I’m not a natural leader…

Many managers tell me, “I’m not a natural leader. I’m an —.” (You fill in the blank: accountant, engineer, doctor, etc.) They say, “I don’t really enjoy managing. It involves a lot of difficult conversations.” What these managers are really saying is that they don’t know how to talk to their employees about the work in an effective way.

Only the rarest of managers has that special brand of charisma, contagious passion, and infectious enthusiasm that inspires and motivates people. What about the rest of us? You may not be able to learn how to develop charisma, but you can learn to talk about the work in a straightforward and effective manner. You can learn to say the right words to your employees at the right time in the right way.

Obviously, some people have more natural talent than others when it comes to coaching. But talking like a coach is something that can be learned. Should you imitate that performance coach from your past? Yes. Try it out. It’s a great place to start. Over time, you’ll develop your own style.

You don’t have to holler, “Rah! Rah!”

Sometimes managers worry that if they try to talk like a coach, they just won’t seem genuine, that they’ll sound contrived. As one senior manager in a software firm put it, “There’s no way I’m going around the office hollering, ‘Rah! Rah!’ I’m just not the coaching type.”

But performance coaching has very little to do with hollering, “Rah! Rah!” around the office. It’s simply a technique. And here’s the really good news: In order to be effective, coaching simply cannot be contrived. It must be totally genuine. Often it is so genuine that you don’t even realize you are doing it. 

That’s how I responded to this software manager. Then I asked him to recall some of his best management interactions over the years. As he began describing some of his management high points, a smile slowly crossed his face. What do you know? His descriptions sounded a lot like performance coaching: “I was really thinking about the person as an individual. Where was he coming from? I was trying really hard to focus on the performance, not the person. I was choosing my words so carefully. I wanted to make it very clear exactly what I already knew about the situation and what I didn’t know. I was asking questions, but mostly pushing toward some concrete next steps. We were right in the middle of this project, so I made really sure to spell out exactly what he had done right and exactly what was done wrong. Then we worked out a detailed plan of next steps and I kept following up to check in on those next steps, one by one, until they were done.”

That is exactly how a performance coach talks:

  • Tune in to the individual you are coaching
  • Focus on specific instances of individual performance
  • Describe the employee’s performance honestly and vividly
  • Develop concrete next steps

Early on in our work with managers, we learned that some managers are simply masterful at coaching, but most were not so great at it. Yet whether managers were good or bad at it, it became clear that when it comes to managing people, so much of the real action takes place during these coaching conversations.

Don’t wheel it in as a ‘fix’ for performance problems 

The problem is that most managers only coach employees when they encounter a recurring performance problem, such as missed deadlines or poor work quality, or a behavior issue, such as a bad attitude toward customers or coworkers. When it starts to look like a problem isn’t going away, that’s when the manager decides to bring the employee into her office and coach the employee: “There is a problem with your performance, and we need to have some sessions until ‘we’ coach you out of this problem.” 

By this point, there are probably some bad feelings. The manager might be thinking, “What is your problem?!” And the employee might think, “Gee, why didn’t you talk to me about this sooner?” Often the only next steps the manager can articulate amount to, “Don’t do this again.” This leaves both the manager and the employee wondering when the problem will recur. Don’t forget, if this is a recurring problem, that’s probably because the employee either doesn’t know what steps to follow to avoid the problem or else he has gotten into one or more bad habits that cause the problem to recur. 

By the time a problem is recurring, it is too late to start coaching. The time to coach an employee is in advance so you can set her up for success. For example, if you have an employee who chronically misses deadlines, don’t wait until she misses the deadline to coach her. Start coaching her when the deadline is first set. Help her establish intermediate benchmarks, such as deadlines along the way. Every step of the way, help the employee make a plan for completing those intermediate deadlines. And check in with the employee frequently. Talk through the accomplishment of each step in advance. Do that and 99% of the time that employee is going to start meeting her deadlines.

Stop coaching employees when problems develop; coach employees when they are doing great or doing just OK. Coach people every step of the way and help them develop good habits before they ever have a chance to develop bad ones.

Military-style coaching, might sound scary but…

Because I’ve had the tremendous honor of working with many leaders in the United States Armed Forces over the years, I often use the military as an example when I talk about coaching-style management: One of the stunning things about the military is its remarkable ability to teach huge numbers of young and relatively inexperienced people to be extremely effective leaders. Take the Marine Corps, for example. With a one-to-nine ratio of officers to enlisted people, the Marine Corps is forced to depend a great deal on enlisted leaders. At any given time, nearly one out of eight marines is a corporal in charge of a fire team of three Marines. The Marine Corps transforms ordinary nineteen-year-olds into effective leaders all day, every day. How do they do that?

New recruits are coached aggressively from day one. Every day, all day long, for thirteen weeks in boot camp, new Marines are told exactly what to do and how to do it; they are monitored, measured, and documented every step of the way. Problems are not tolerated, and even the least reward must be earned through hard work. After boot camp, Marines are still coached aggressively, thoroughly, and thoughtfully all day, every day.

When it comes to building new enlisted leaders, like everything else they do, the Marine Corps is painfully methodical. Marines are trained in the techniques of performance coaching before they ascend to the role of fire-team leader. They are taught to tune in to each individual Marine, give constant feedback on his performance, and provide step-by-step instruction to improve it. The new fire-team leader takes full responsibility for that team, knows exactly who is doing what, where, why, when, and how. He spells out expectations; monitors, measures, and documents his Marines’ performance; and addresses problems as they come up. The fire-team leader takes care of his Marines. As a result, the average Marine fire-team leader is a better manager at age nineteen than most senior executives with decades of experience.

“We have to get extraordinary performance out of ordinary people,” one Marine officer told me. “The only way to do that is to squeeze that out of every single person every single day through relentless in-your-face leadership all the way down to the lowest level.”

They call it relentless in-your-face leadership. I call it managing like a coach. Learn to talk like a coach and squeeze extraordinary performance out of every person.

Next steps 

Kineo has developed a new answer to new management training to bridge the learning-doing gap. At its heart it has managers coaching new managers, as well as an option to learn and be coached as part of a cohort. To find out more, visit our ManagementPlus website.

Find out about the full range we offer to support your managers and leaders.

About the author, Bruce Tulgan

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), , and It’s Okay to be the Boss ( Revised & Updated, 2014). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website




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