Want Happier, More Productive Employees? Be a Coach, Not a Manager.

The following article was written by Tim Kelly, investor-in-residence at the Polsky Center, and originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business on November 20, 2023. Read the original article on Crain’s.

Tim Kelly

A dramatically changing workforce is rendering traditional management styles almost obsolete. Top-down styles — defining tasks, assigning deadlines and tracking performance — have been found to be less effective than newer, more bottom-up approaches in which managers act more as coaches than task-givers.

Instead of being told what to do, employees today want to feel understood. They want to be guided, supported and empowered, not commanded and then critiqued. According to a 2019 study, employees with managers who do these things have been found to be more productive, report feeling more engaged and valued, and are less likely to quit.

Transitioning to a coaching mentality, however, is not easy. Most people rise to the management level by developing some technical, functional or professional expertise and repeatedly proving their ability to deliver. Over time, they migrate that expertise to others. Rarely does climbing the corporate ladder impart the softer people skills needed to be coaches. Skills such as empathy, critical listening, praising accomplishments and delivering constructive feedback are foreign to many people without training, practice and intention.

Not surprisingly, studies show that most managers admit that coaching employees is their least favorite way to manage. It simply doesn’t come naturally.

For managers looking to be more effective as coaches rather than task-givers, there are two general styles they might look to pursue.

The mentor coach: This is viewed as perhaps the easiest transition a manager can make toward being a more effective coach. It reflects the ability to refrain from “telling” how a task should be undertaken, based on years of experience, to “sharing” such experience as a way of imparting wisdom. Today’s workforce is turned off by being told what to do and prefers instead to be taught how to do something. This style focuses on guiding employees to see how they might successfully undertake a task and avoid common mistakes that are often made without experience.

Mentoring coaches see value in providing advice-oriented feedback and taking a hands-on approach to directing employee development. Exceptional mentoring coaches even develop a comfort in talking employees through periods of stress, anxiety and personal difficulties, and display an encouraging and supportive manner in the way they communicate.

The passive coach: As the name implies, this style is admittedly more hands-off, but no less demanding than being a mentor coach. This style focuses on understanding an individual’s strengths and weaknesses and providing constant feedback to spur self-development and growth.

Passive coaches make themselves readily available for feedback, positive as well as constructive, yet leave employees largely in charge of their own development. Passive coaches are usually well aware of the scope of their own competencies and areas of expertise and are not shy about sending employees to others who might be better suited for particular developmental needs.

Achieving a coaching culture is itself a top-down endeavor requiring leadership buy-in. It must be championed and incorporated into the fabric of how your business operates.

The benefits are hard to overlook: a better-performing workforce, employees achieving their potential and teams that are more inclined to think critically, creatively and collaboratively — and stick around.


Tim Kelly is an investor-in-residence at Chicago Booth’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. He was a private-equity investor for 30 years before earning his doctorate in psychology.

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