The manager as coach: practising situational coaching

By Elisabeth Goodman, 23rd November 2019

What is situational coaching and when to use it?

One of Sir John Whitmore‘s legacies was the GROW coaching model, an apparently simple yet highly effective tool to help managers and coaches: “unlock people’s potential to maximise their own performance.”

GROW coaching model
Illustration of GROW coaching model as used in RiverRhee’s courses for managers

[I’ve written about the GROW model elsewhere, see for example Coaching applied to Project Management.]

One of the common challenges for those involved in coaching is knowing when to provide the answers, as opposed to encouraging people to find the solutions for themselves.  Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular, in the November-December 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review, would seem to have the answer. (See “The leader as coach”, pages 111 – 119.)

Styles of coaching
Styles of coaching. Illustration from Ibarra and Scoular’s article “The leader as coach” in HBR Nov-Dec 2019, pp. 111-119

Ibarra and Scoular’s model describes different styles of coaching based in how much information or advice a manager or coach is sharing vs. the insights and solutions they elicit from the person they are coaching.

The directive approach may work best for more junior or less experienced people.

The ‘laissez-faire’ approach is best used when team members are best left alone because to interfere would be to hamper their productivity.

The non-directive approach is the one involving a manager’s or coach’s best questioning and listening skills to elicit the wisdom, knowledge and creativity of the people being coached.

The situational approach is where the manager or coach has mastered the art of judging and balancing when to impart knowledge vs. helping others to discover it themselves based on the situation involved.

Developing managers’ skills in situational coaching

The HBR authors give examples of  the value of the listening and questioning skills inherent to coaching, such as:

  • Enriching the quality of the “high-value” conversations that managers and leaders will have with people at various times in the year.  These conversations may relate to important issues or the exploration of new ideas.
  • Enhancing the skills of those interfacing with clients to arrive at solutions that the clients have helped to shape.

The authors suggest that the best way to develop skills in situational coaching is to first develop skills in non-directive coaching until it becomes second nature, and then balance it with “helpful” directive coaching.

Practising with the GROW model is an ideal way to start.  Here are a few extra tips from the article:

  • Goal.  Ask what they want to get out of the conversation for instance “What do you want when you walk out of the door that you don’t have now?”
  • Reality. Avoid asking ‘why’ as this may lead to non-productive streams of thought such as self-justification.  Focus instead on what, where, when and who to help them draw out all the factual elements of what is currently happening.
  • Options. If people are struggling to come up with options, and broaden their perspective, you could ask something like “If you had a magic wand what would you do?”
  • Will.  As well as asking people what they will do as a result of their reflection, you could ask them how likely they would be, “on a scale of one to 10” to act upon their decision. If their commitment is less than eight it might be worth going through the GROW model again.

Finally, the HRB authors give examples of how leaders can help build coaching capabilities and a culture of learning in organisations by:

  • Giving examples of the benefits of coaching (the “why”), as in the high-value examples cited above
  • Role modelling from the top, as the latest CEO at Microsoft, Satya Nadella has done by soliciting ideas from everyone in a supportive and non-judgemental way
  • Providing opportunities for the development of coaching skills (through workshops, learning programmes and tools)
  • Removing barriers to learning, such as organisational or individual reviews that instil fear rather than a climate of open exchange and reflection.


Sir John Whitmore and his colleagues at Performance Consultants International, suggest that adopting a coaching approach in organisations will give greater purpose and meaning to the people who work there. (See “Coaching for Performance.  The principles and practice of coaching and leadership” for more on this and on the GROW coaching model.)

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.) Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis. RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus.

RiverRhee delivers training, workshops and one-to-one coaching in range of management and team member skills

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals) and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

2 thoughts on “The manager as coach: practising situational coaching”

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