Manageable Articles

Thought-provoking perspectives on organisations.

Coachmania and Tulipmania

Over the past few years I've had the opportunity to speak to a large number of executives transitioning from corporate life to the gig economy. They were eager to pivot from being a leader or manager in an organisation to an external coach to organisations. They wanted to pick my brain and our discussions made me wonder about the parallel with Tulipmania.


Some of you will know about the 17th century tulip bubble. The price of tulip bulb contracts got to such levels that they exceeded the cost of luxurious Amsterdam houses! A lot of people got in on the act. They made a lot of money. Tulips went from being a Central Asian novelty to some of the most expensive things you could trade in the heart of Europe. And then the bulb bubble burst. They were suddenly worthless. People must have realised they were just plants and they had a lot of plants around that did similar things, you know, being green and flowery.

So, what's all this got to do with coaching? Well, I don't know about you, but doesn't it seem that there's a talent drain, whereby great leaders and managers are leaving to become coaches? Is this a good thing and is this Coachmania? Why aren't organisations keeping the managers and leaders who are keen on coaching, especially given the evidence that the best teams are led by managers who have a coaching style?

My hypothesis is that we've had a very long period of seeing managers in a limited and ultimately unhelpful way: individual contributors with a side hustle in team leadership, managers of processes (including performance management and personal development planning), order givers, controllers of order, transmitters of policy and procedure and so on.

This traditional view of managers has been shifting for a while of course and the pandemic really accelerated the shift. We already know from Gallup and others than the difference in engagement between teams is mostly down to the manager. And we know that a coaching style is the main driver of engagement. We also know that firms with top quartile engagement levels enjoy a 20% boost in profitability and a 40% reduction in absenteeism. We know from the likes of Google and Cisco that a coaching style materially boosts team performance and well-being.

Given all that we know, why is it more attractive to be a coach to managers than be a manager who leads people to achieve things from within organisations? What can companies do to stem the talent drain? After all, they've hired managers and leaders to do a lot of the job that external coaches are brought in to help with. Managers are the equivalent of the GP while the external coach is the specialist.

Great executive coaches can do great things with a privileged few. But do they impact the whole organisation? I don't think so, and I've been a long-time leader in a global organisation and a professional coach to CEOs. It's managers of teams who have the privilege of affecting the whole organisation for good or bad. And surely now is the time to rally around our managers and give them the skills to succeed with their teams as we emerge from the pandemic.

I'm convinced the answer is to act on the research evidence and upskill managers so they are practised coaches. It's not about knowing about coaching, but learning by doing in real-world social settings. It's about positive role models. It's also about data-driven intentional learning. Managers will do the bulk of the coaching workload. Specialists coaches will always be needed of course, and will remain highly valued.

If we can engineer a transformation of managers into front-line coaches to their teams, we can say that everyone has equitable access to coaching. This feels like a worthy DE&I initiative come to think of it: manager as coach. This is the way to democratise coaching.