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Are you tired of lighting a fire beneath your team, or trying to, only to see mediocre results?

What if I told you there’s a better way—one that involves “building a fire within” to unleash the untapped potential of your employees, to get their best effort?

These words, spoken by Bob Nelson, resonate with the essence of coaching as a transformative managerial approach. In this article we’ll explore the game-changing power of coaching management, how it revolutionizes employee performance and engagement, and the steps managers can take to shift from traditional managing to impactful coaching.

Traditional management has generally been viewed as an approach of direct and control, often from “on high” but has this really been the case, or is it simply an excuse put forward by poor managers and leaders?

Jack Welch – who was often referred to as “Neutron Jack” – might epitomise leadership of the last half of the last Century. After all, he led General Electric to greatness from 1981 to 2001, and was named Manager of the Century in 1999. He’s probably best remembered for his no-nonsense approach, and his requirement that the company consistently improve its overall staffing, as he put it, by having his team replace ‘the bottom 10%’ of employees, year on year.

But was he the bad leader that so many people see him as today?

In a word, No.

Tellingly, in his 2015 book, The Real-Life MBA, he points to how important it is to create:

  • a culture where people can enjoy being at work,
  • that being generous with your employees with praise and rewards is essential,
  • and that communication is key so your employees can feel purposeful by understanding how their actions contribute to the company as a whole and ensure that barriers to them being able to perform optimally are removed.

Most surprisingly, to many, though, is his assertion that the best leaders act as coaches, inspiring and mentoring their team, while demonstrating genuine care and respect for them  

In his view, replacing ‘the bottom’ 10% each year was a kindness to them. As he put it in answer to a question, “What would happen if for years and years you don’t tell someone that they are underperforming, not giving them the chance to try to improve, check whether they can do something else in the company, or alternatively look for somewhere else? And then a recession comes, and you need to fire the person, older and unprepared, in a much tougher market?  Which is crueller?”

So, perhaps one should view him more kindly than many today do – after all, he truly believed in coaching people to help them deliver their best.

Looking forwards, Fortune published an article on June 5 entitled, “A company replaced all of its managers with coaches. Employees became 20% more productive–and much happier.”

This was written by Barnaby Lashbrooke, the CEO of the virtual assistant company Time Etc., where he explained that this was a response to declining levels of engagement among employee’s (Gallup’s most recent annual survey finding only a third of employees were actively engaged at work) and his subsequent poll of his staff finding that what they felt they needed from a manager – goal-setting, professional development, autonomy and ongoing feedback – sounded less like management and more like coaching.

By replacing the managers with coaches, whose sole job is to help employees be as productive as possible. Although they are still the first people to call when problems arise, the focus is on empowering employees and supporting them to find their way.

I’m not advocating for a moment that replacing managers with coaches is the best approach for all businesses, but it does underscore that top-down directed management (“lighting a fire beneath them”) is far less effective than “building the fire within” by giving them the power, tools and training to deliver their best – something, in fact, with which “Neutron Jack” would doubtless have agreed.

So, what are the advantages of providing coaching management?

  1. Empowerment and Development: By focusing on empowering employees and facilitating their professional development, these managers provide guidance, support, and resources for individuals to enhance their skills, confidence, and overall performance.
  2. Individualised Approach: Rather than a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to management, they tailor their guidance to each employee’s unique needs, strengths, and goals. This personalised approach leads to increased engagement, motivation, and productivity.
  3. Enhanced Problem-Solving and Creativity: A key aspect of this approach is to encourage employees to think critically, explore innovative solutions, and take ownership of their work. This fosters a culture of creativity, problem-solving, and so continuous improvement within the organization.
  4. Improved Communication and Collaboration: Emphasising effective communication and collaborative teamwork helps employees build strong relationships, resolve conflicts, and enhance overall communication skills, leading to better collaboration and synergy among team members.
  5. Focus on Long-Term Growth: Coaching managers will typically prioritise long-term growth and development rather than short-term performance metrics (although it is still important to hit the short-term goals). They help employees set meaningful goals, establish development plans, and support them in achieving their career aspirations.

Of course, an approach like this is not without its challenges. It typically requires more time of managers, which can be a challenge, particularly in large organisations, and the managers will generally need extensive training on coaching practices to be able to implement this approach, remembering Zig Ziglar’s words, “There is only one thing worse than training employees and losing them, and that’s not training them and keeping them.”

Some of the managers might find this doesn’t resonate with them and will need to be replaced, and performance measurement systems throughout the organisation will need to be changed to reflect the coaching approach, too.

But, if you can see a marked productivity improvement, along with a stronger culture and lower employee turnover, this will repay those efforts many times over.

As Peter Drucker said is his classic HBR article, How to Make People Decisions, ”Executives spend more time on managing people and making people decisions than on anything else — and they should. No other decisions are so long lasting in their consequences or so difficult to unmake.”

So, doesn’t it make sense that your managers manage their people in the best possible way to optimise productivity and engagement, and reduce staff turnover?

 As excellence in business leadership can be a strong competitive advantage, adopting a coaching mindset becomes ever more important. The power of coaching lies in its ability to ignite the fire within employees, inspiring them to achieve remarkable results, and by embracing coaching, managers create a culture of empowerment, collaboration, and continuous growth.

As Bob Nelson wisely stated, “You get the best effort from others not by lighting a fire beneath them, but by building a fire within.” Lead your business on this transformative journey of coaching and unlock the full potential of your teams, propelling your organisation to new heights of success.


Following a career spanning >50 years in the technology industry across three continents, with three decades in CxO roles leading significant, sustained growth in revenue and profitability, I now work with successful owner-led businesses to further enhance their growth, profitability and business value.

If you’d like to discuss your business culture, board, strategy, trends, goals, or anything else related to your business, book a free 30-minute call with me here.

I’d be delighted to talk with you.


And if you’d like to read further, these related posts might be of interest:

 You might also enjoy these articles from Harvard Business Review:

and from Fortune: A company replaced all of its managers with coaches. Employees became 20% more productive–and much happier


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