Coaching is a powerful tool leaders can use to empower their employees to devise new ideas and creative solutions on their own. Many leaders think they’re already coaching their employees, but when they learn what coaching really looks like, they realize they are actually solving for their team members. 

A leader-coach is someone who uses coaching as their primary approach to engage their employees. A true leader-coach resists the temptation to immediately give answers and advice. Instead, they use a set of skills that includes deep listening and active curiosity. They ask thought-provoking questions and share astute observations that challenge employees to really think for themselves. When leaders give their people the freedom to come up with their own solutions and ideas, it signals to employees that their input matters and that they are making a positive impact on the company’s growth. This results in a more engaged workforce with team members who are committed to doing their very best work. 

I recently interviewed Dr. Carylynn Larson, E3 Trainer, certified leadership coach, facilitator, and organizational psychologist, about the role of leader-as-coach in the workplace. Below are some insights from our conversation to help managers use coaching to foster an engaged work team.

Don: What opportunities should leaders leverage to coach their teams?

Dr. Larson: Spotting opportunities to coach is half the battle. Really great leader-coaches don’t wait for employees to ask for coaching. They have to spot coaching opportunities in everyday work. For example, a great opportunity to coach is when a team member asks you for advice. Our tendency is to simply give them our advice. That’s what they’re asking for, right? But, a great leader-coach is going to invite the employee into a conversation instead. They could say, “Great question! Can we talk through it?” or “What are your options? What have you already considered?”

Don: According to a study by Bersin & Associates, organizations whose leaders frequently make an effort to coach their employees have 21% higher business results. Why is that?

Dr. Larson: Leaders in almost every business, across every industry, have an incredible amount of responsibility. Globalization, increased mobility in and out of companies, and the rapid change of technology exacerbate the complexity of leadership. To execute on their objectives and KPIs, leaders really have to empower every single one of their employees to work with minimal oversight and day-to-day support. Coaching unleashes this talent in a few weeks. First, coaching provides a tangible way for leaders to show they believe in the growth and success of their people, which builds trust. As we know, trust is a key accelerator of engagement and creative capacity. Coaching also keeps responsibility at the appropriate level. When a leader offers advice and people follow that advice, the leader is inadvertently assuming responsibility for the outcomes. When an idea doesn’t work, where does the team go? They go right back to the leader.

A great leader-coach is going to ask good questions and share insights without solving for the team member. The employee will walk away with a solution that they came up with and one that they feel really empowered to adjust or even scrap if they see it going sideways.

Coaching boosts business results by reducing turnover. Turnover is incredibly costly. We know people don’t leave companies nearly as much as they leave bad bosses. Employees don’t want to be managed or just given the answers – they want to be coached. Leader coaches have much less turnover among their staff. 

Don: How can a leader tell if it’s the right time in an employee’s career for them to be open to being coached?

Dr. Larson: You don’t ever want to try to coach someone who isn’t open to coaching. At the same time, I encourage leaders to think about the fact that everyone is actually coachable. Everyone is willing to have a coaching conversation around something that they want to engage in, so you have to be willing to find that entry point. Rather than assuming a person who has not responded positively in the past isn’t coachable, I encourage leaders to simply ask, “Hey, can we talk about this?”

The word coaching is loaded – everyone has different understandings of what a coach is. I don’t necessarily recommend asking employees if they want to be coached.

Don: What are three key components of learning how to be a good leader-coach?

Dr. Larson: The first is your value structure. You have to genuinely value seeing someone else think deeply to ultimately come up with an idea they’re excited about, more than just giving them the quick answer. 

The second is you have to understand a little bit about how a coaching conversation flows. 

Third, you have to hone the particular skill set for coaching. You really have to practice coaching and not just read about it. Once leaders practicing coaching, it’s very self-reinforcing. When a manager has been practicing and then coaches a team member, they find they get such different results from when they were just providing solutions for their employees. They see their staff becoming more engaged and motivated at work, which then encourages leaders to continue practicing and strengthening their coaching skills.

Don: Do you have any other advice for leaders who would like to practice coaching?

Dr. Larson: One of the biggest barriers to adopting a coaching approach is a myth that coaching takes too much time. That’s probably perpetuated by the professional coaching industry where we’ll steal an hour on our client’s calendar for a coaching conversation. But inside the workplace, coaching looks very different. As a leader-coach, you’re with your employees all the time, so you don’t need even an hour. You’re going to find five- and 10-minute coaching opportunities are effective. 

Stay tuned for our Thrive By Design: The Podcast episode with Dr. Larson where we take a deeper look at how managers can implement coaching on a daily basis to encourage their employees to do their best work.

Key Takeaways:

  • When you coach your employees, you ask powerful questions and make observations instead of just telling them the answer. This empowering technique challenges staff members to solve problems and drive the company forward.
  • A great leader-coach genuinely values seeing their employees think deeply about the solution to a problem or new idea more than simply giving them the quick answer. They also make it a priority to develop and practice coaching on a regular basis.
  • A big myth that a lot of managers have about coaching is that it takes a lot of time. However, this practice doesn’t have to be time-consuming – you can find that five- and 10-minute opportunities to engage in coaching with your employees make a significant impact on engagement.


4 Reasons Managers Should Spend More Time on Coaching, Joseph R. Weintraub & James M. Hunt, Harvard Business Review.

Most Managers Don’t Know How to Coach People. But They Can Learn, Julia & Trenton Milner, Harvard Business Review.